Last weekend the British Guardian newspaper published a guide to meditation. Here are extracts, as well as links to the full articles…
1. How to meditate: An introduction
Rates of depression and anxiety are rising in the modern world. Andrew Oswald, a professor at Warwick University who studies wellbeing, recently told me that mental health indicators nearly always point down. “Things are not going completely well in western society,” he said. Proposed remedies are numerous. And one that is garnering growing attention is meditation, and mindfulness meditation in particular.
The aim is simple: to pay attention – be “mindful”. Typically, a teacher will ask you to sit upright, in an alert position. Then, they will encourage you to focus on something straightforward, like the in- and out-flow of breath. The aim is to nurture a curiosity about these sensations – not to explain them, but to know them. There are other techniques as well. Walking meditation is one, when you pay attention to the soles of your feet. That too carries a symbolic resonance: if breath is to do with life, feet are a focus for being grounded in reality.
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It’s a way of concentrating on the here and now, thereby becoming more aware of how the here and now is affecting you. It doesn’t aim directly at the dispersal of stresses and strains. In fact, it is very hard to develop the concentration necessary to follow your breath, even for a few seconds. What you see is your mind racing from this memory to that moment. But that’s the trick: to observe, and to learn to change the way you relate to the inner maelstrom. Therein lies the route to better mental health.
Mindfulness, then, is not about ecstatic states, as if the marks of success are oceanic experiences or yogic flying. It’s mostly pretty humdrum. Moreover, it is not a fast track to blissful happiness. It can, in fact, be quite unsettling, as works with painful experiences, to understand them better and thereby get to the root of problems.
Research into the benefits of mindfulness seems to support its claims. People prone to depression, say, are less likely to have depressive episodes if they practice meditation. Stress goes down. But it’s more like going on a journey than taking a pill. Though meditation techniques can be learned quickly, it’s no instant remedy and requires discipline. That said, many who attend lessons or go on retreats find immediate benefits – which is not so surprising, given that in a world of no stillness, even a little calm goes a long way.
Part of the appeal of mindfulness is that it doesn’t come loaded with theological assumptions. You can do it without being a Buddhist, though Buddhist assumptions do underpin it. The most obvious is the concept of dukkha – which can be translated as suffering, dissatisfaction or discontent. It’s meant in a very broad sense, everything from deep psychological wounding to the faintest perturbations that trouble daily life. The Buddha’s discovery, when he was enlightened, was that life is characterised by such suffering. But there is a path to follow, along which suffering will cease. Meditation is a key part of it. Mindfulness eases the habit of clinging to things, even big things like life itself. When the clinging ceases, the suffering ceases too.
Other traditions take a subtly different view. Christianity, for example, teaches that the fundamental characteristic of life is not suffering, but the quest for love. It’s what Saint Augustine had in mind when he diagnosed that to be human is to have a “restless heart”. He argued that the restlessness propels you to discover the source of life, which lies outside of yourself, in God.
A secular take on suffering might see things differently again – as a kind of alert system, telling you that something is wrong with the world. The way to respond is not to detach yourself, but to address the causes. It’s this notion of easing suffering that inspires everyone from doctors to political reformers.
Buddhism has strands that engage in social action too. As for seeking God, there are many non-Buddhist theists who practice mindfulness as a useful technique. This supports the case that you don’t have to be a Buddhist to engage in mindfulness, particularly when it is offered as a practice aimed at caring for yourself. Then, it’s about knowing yourself better, something recognised as a crucial part of living well across a wide range of traditions. It’s striking that today we often don’t take the time to do so. Hence, perhaps, many of the ills of the western world.
But mindfulness says: make the time to step back, and here’s a way to do it. It encourages you to be more aware of life, and promises that mindfulness is a source of insight and hope.
Mark Vernon is the author of The Good Life (Hodder); markvernon.com
2. How to meditate: Overcoming potential obstacles
Everyone who learns to meditate encounters obstacles. Here are some of the most common ones and a few tips on how to deal with them
Everyone gets bored meditating at some time or another – hardly surprising given our busy, adrenaline-filled lives. The main thing is to see boredom for what it is. If you get too caught up in it, it’s easy to lose interest in meditating. But if you use the meditation to explore the boredom and find out what’s really going on, things will start to get interesting again.
We’re all a bit tired on some level – no wonder it’s so easy to drift off when you meditate. That’s fine, but make sure you’ve got your timer set to wake you up! If it happens a lot, try a different time of day, or sit up a little straighter.
The mind can be a dark and scary place sometimes. Sitting down with difficult thoughts and feelings can sometimes feel too much to cope with. But as long as all that stuff remains unacknowledged, it just sits there in the background. Allowing it to come to the surface is the first part of letting go of it and moving on.
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“Is this technique working? Am I doing it right? Maybe I should just …” Doubt inevitably creeps in sometimes. What often happens though is that we buy into the doubt. We forget that no matter what the thoughts are, they are just thoughts. The point is to realise when you’ve been distracted – no matter what the content of the thoughts – and to gently return your attention to the object of meditation.
You’ll be relieved to know pretty much everyone feels restless at first. Usually this is because there’s a bit too much effort going into trying to be still. If you need to adjust your posture or have a scratch, feel free, but try not to move around too much, as it’s hard for the mind to settle.
The idea of meditation is to settle into a deep, fundamental sense of “okayness”. But you’re not doing something wrong if you’re not jumping out of your skin with glee. Sadness is a natural human emotion and it is not uncommon to shed a tear while meditating. In fact there is almost something pleasant about it – perhaps a feeling of letting go of something.
This constant distraction of “stuff to do” often stops us seeing how we really feel. When you stop and meditate – even for just a short while – it can come to the surface. A feeling of loneliness is one of the most common, even when we’re not alone. Just give it the space it needs and observe it: where do you feel it, what is the sensation?
Call it impatience, frustration, irritation or even rage, it’s all the same thing really – just at different intensities. Anger isn’t a very positive emotion, so it tends to get suppressed – but the more firmly we push it down, the more insistently it springs back up. So, as much as possible, allow anger to be present. Give it the space and time it needs to unravel and dissipate.
Much like anger, desire comes in many different forms. It can be anything from that quiet nagging voice in the back of your mind, to a screaming “I must have it now” mentality, for anything, or, for that matter, anyone. Remember that desire is the mind attempting to flee the here and now. But as long as we are on the run from that, we’ll never have any peace. So, just let desire have its moment in the sun, but without acting on it.
3. How to meditate: The three parts of meditation
There are three traditional aspects to meditation: approach, practice and integration. Andy Puddicombe of Headspace breaks it down…
Approach is about how you view both the contents of your mind and the technique. Get this right and your meditation will fly; get it wrong and it could seem like an endless struggle.
It’s difficult not to expect the perfect result first time around – that’s just how we seem to be programmed these days. But the reality is that meditation takes a little practice – like learning any new skill.
First, accept that your mind isn’t going to stop whirring just because you want it to – and that’s not the point, anyway. The point is to develop a new relationship with your thoughts and feelings that allows positive feelings to simply unfold.
It’s easy to be sceptical too – “of course it won’t work for me”. When it’s done in the right way, meditation works for everyone. If you’re cynical, fine – but do try it anyway. Wouldn’t it be nice to be wrong about this?
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Aside from unrealistic expectations, the biggest obstacle for most people is trying too hard. This is one place in your life where you truly don’t have to strive. In fact, applying loads of effort is counterproductive. You’re free to just see what happens – isn’t that a relief?
Practice is the bit you probably already think of as meditation, the part where you sit down and concentrate on a technique. You will find our practical, proven technique on the following pages.
Integration is where you incorporate the calm and clarity you develop during your meditation with the rest of your life. So, what does it mean to be present and in the moment? If you can do it sitting on a chair, then why not when eating your food, or drinking a cup of tea, or even walking down the street?
It doesn’t mean walking down the street with your eyes closed. It simply means bringing the same feeling of being present, focused and aware of the act of walking down the road.
So, rather than daydreaming about the holiday you’d love or the new health regime you’re about to start, be present and aware, noticing the physical sensations, the sounds, the smells and the sights around you.
When you have a moment during your day, stop to check in with how you’re feeling, physically, emotionally, and mentally. It’s like drawing a dot-to-dot picture. By filling your day with these small points of awareness, you effortlessly create a joined-up (in this case, calmer, more peaceful, and more focused) bigger picture.
4. Meditation centres around the UK
Amaravati Buddhist Monastery
A fully functioning Thai-style monastic community in Cheshire. A good choice if you want an authentic Buddhist experience with a genuine temple.
A campaign run by the Mental Health Foundation to allow people to experience the health benefits of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Courses nationwide. Completely secular and science-based.
Dhamma Dipa Vipassana Meditation Centre
Rigorous 10-day meditation courses in Hereford, based on Burmese Buddhism. Courses are run on a donation-only basis.
01989 730234; dipa.dhamma.org
This converted farm in the Scottish Highlands offers a range of activities including meditation, yoga, hill walking, alternative health and arts. Buddhist but open to all.
01877 384213; dhanakosa.com
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Gaia House A range of courses and long–term retreats in Newton Abbot, Devon. Simple, Buddhist but not religious.
Headspace Runs one-day introductory events on meditation worldwide, with extensive online support.
020-7744 5232; getsomeheadspace.com
London Insight Meditation
Mini retreats held at various locations in London for people with busy lives.
Teaches mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy (MCBT) which combines CBT with meditation. Courses held in Camden Town.
020-7424 9027; london-meditation.co.uk
Maenllwyld Retreat Centre
Silent retreats at this Chinese Zen centre in rural Wales. Facilities are basic, but tasty, organic, vegetarian food is provided.
Evidence-based, secular system endorsed by the Department of Health. Main centre in Wales, with courses nationwide.
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction
This clinically tested, completely secular system was founded by a psychiatrist. Courses in Covent Garden, London.
A magnificent “Little Tibet” in rural Scotland. All are welcome for a range of classes. Expect chanting and robes.
01387 373232; samyeling.org
A Devon-based centre devoted to Buddhist meditation, the arts and natural living.
01803 732542; sharphamtrust.org