If I have only time for one practice in a day, it would always be meditation. Although singing comes high up on my list of things I love and need to do for myself, meditation is the core for me. It is food for my soul, nourishment. It is a place where I come home and connect with what so often gets trampled on and forgotten in the rush to live life. The awareness, the beingness, stillness, the indescribable. Without it I quickly become lost in being a parent, a wife, a friend, a teacher, a singer. With it I drop out of all those identities and, at least for that time, come home. So I wanted to take the time to write a little bit about it to perhaps inspire you to meditate if you do not already.
Meditation did not come easily to me, but it was the first thing that I really committed to in my quest for healing, that began when I was in my early twenties. In 2001 I travelled extensively around the world. I knew I was looking for something, although not what, as I did not know what it was that I was missing. I had heard of yoga and there were classes on offer in many of the backpacker spots I visited, but a voice in my head said ‘you will practice, but not yet, you are not ready’. So I paid attention to that and found myself signing up to a 10 day course in Thailand on Tai Chi instead. It was hell for me! Outside of the classes, we spent a lot of time in solitude when I was desperate for company. Being with myself was agonising. The practice itself was beautiful, but again required a stillness that I was simply not prepared for. It was starting to become clear to me that something in me needed to shift. I had no peace. I was a permanent boiling pot of self hatred, depression and anxiety. This course was the first time I had really seen that so clearly. When I got home, I decided I wanted to learn to meditate. So I bought myself a book on Buddhist mediation and gave it a go. I was extremely unsuccessful. My mind was so busy I could not sit for more than a few minutes. I experienced anger, rage, agitation, a restlessness that was deeply uncomfortable. I definitely had no experience of meditation.
I quickly realised that I was not going to learn much from a book. I needed direct guidance. By this time I had started to practice yoga. I found myself going to the Sivananda Centre in Putney, London and enrolled on their meditation course. It was nearly as agonising as the Tai Chi course. One of the hardest things was the fact that I had to sit on a cushion for the best part of two hours, twice a week for 4 weeks, while I listened to the teacher and tried to follow her guidance. My hips were in agony, my mind was in more.
The practice I was taught was based on mantra. In this practice you use one mantra that ideally you are initiated into, and you repeat it throughout your meditation. I took to this practice with a thirst I had not experienced for anything else. A few months later I got initiated into my mantra and my practice continued from there. Initiation is said to be essential for mantra mediation as an ignition, to light the flame of the mantra so it can burn in you. Ideally done by someone who has fully realised and embodied the mantra. Sadly they are rather hard to find, and my initiation was not that powerful for me, but I loved the mantra all the same and found huge benefit from repeating it. The practice certainly started to work its magic, along with the yoga and chanting I was also doing. Things in my life began very slowly to shift. My mantra became my lifeline whenever my mind was winding itself up into a hysteria of thoughts. I would repeat it and focus on it and my mind would calm. It was also the focus of all my meditation practice. I practiced in this way for years. Despite the massive benefit of helping to calm my nervous system and get a handle on my excessively busy mind, meditation itself largely eluded me. Occasionally I would find myself dropping out of my head and sinking deep into my body, feeling a sense of silence, stillness and deep connection, but it would never last longer than a few minutes at best and would be followed by months more of battling with a busy head. I found myself grasping desperately to experience that moment of stillness more often, creating another inner battle within myself to add to all the others already there. Over the following 12 years I kept largely to this practice. I did explore different techniques occasionally, to see if I had more success, but I never did. I tried focusing on the breath instead of a mantra for instance. I tried loving kindness techniques. I did a course in teaching meditation where the focus was actually more on visualisation. All of this I found beautiful and valuable, but I still did not find I was experiencing actual meditation.
My life started to move away from the Sivananda Yoga and I became initiated into the lineage of Ananda Mayi Ma while I was in India. I was given a new set of mantras to work with three times a day, but still nothing changed.
In 2015, nearly 12 years after first starting to meditate, I went on retreat with Adyashanti. His teachings invite you to meditate with no techniques at all. He calls it True Meditation. I was initially really resistant. I had been taught that if I repeated my mantra enough, eventually I would be liberated. I did not want to waste all this time not using it. Fortunately, something in me surrendered and I sat for five silent days, with three hundred people in a theatre hall meditating and listening to teachings. The effect on me was profound. For the first time I experienced actual meditation for extended periods of time. Every time I took my seat I felt myself drop deep inside to a stillness I had never experienced before. Not to say that my mind stopped chatting, but simply that I did not feel I had to give it the attention I always had. I could just allow it to chatter in the background and allow my awareness to fall below all this activity, into what I can only describe, borrowed from another of my teachers - Kim Rosen, as the vastness of being.
Since that time I have never looked back and my meditation has become central to my life. Life as a mother to a toddler means that sitting daily for formal meditation is not always possible. I create space for it whenever I can. On days when it is just not possible, I still try and find time to just drop back and pause into myself, even if only for a moment, and everything else can then move from there. So whether you already meditate, but find that you never really settle, or if you are wanting to start for the first time, here are a few tips that I have found really important in the process of discovering meditation. For me these ideas are how I begin, then once I settle I let myself drop everything and let my awareness hold whatever is there. They are not techniques to hold on to, but pointers to help find your way. I am not a meditation teacher, but find the power of meditation so profound that I simply want to share what I have discovered.
One of the main barriers we have to sitting is a very busy mind. So preparing yourself, setting the stage and ensuring that you are comfortable can really help. There is no benefit to sitting crossed legged perfectly on the floor, if the whole time you are doing so, pain in your back is shouting at you and this is where all your attention goes. So be comfortable. I often sit on my sofa with lots of cushions supporting me to be upright. I have found that if I put my body in the same position each time I meditate (for me sitting crossed legged and supported), there is a settling that happens inside me and my system starts to understand that I am creating space for meditation. Lying down is often given as an option, and for some people really works, but for many of us we just fall asleep. I find in deep meditation particularly, there is only a hair’s breadth between staying in full awareness and, if I am tired, falling into sleep. So being upright for me really helps.
Many schools of meditation teach a harsh discipline. This may come in the form of not being allowed to adjust your position to avoid pain, or sitting on the floor only, or setting up a war with your mind or ego, teaching that the aim is to annihilate it. Or setting up false ideas of awakening. Ideas that you will only live a life of bliss and love and everything else is not awakened or pure. Thereby making everything that is not perfect unacceptable and subsequently bypassing all that it is to be human. I personally find all these counterproductive. It serves no purpose to add to our distractions by not listening to our own needs and intuition about what supports us. Nor is it any benefit to deny what is and who we are in any given moment. So instead let this be a welcoming place, an accepting place. A place where your thoughts are not fought with. A place where all your feelings are acknowledged and felt. A quiet time to connect to the fullness of who you are. A place which is about welcoming everything that exists within us.
Once you have found the right place to sit. It is worth taking a few minutes to settle. In this time I find there are a few things that help me arrive:
You can breath into your belly, allowing your awareness to melt down from your head into your body and particularly to your pelvic bowl.
Once the you have arrived in yourself a little, take the awareness to the back of the heart and let yourself breath there for a while. Then allow your awareness to become wider, letting go of focus and expanding just beyond your physical body. Then relax.
Thoughts come and go. If we create a battle with them, trying to stop them, then that is where our focus will be. I personally have the sense that if I allow myself to drop below my thoughts, I come into contact with an awareness that is still, silent and can allow all my thoughts, sensations and feelings to come and go.
If your mind takes you away into thoughts, when you become aware, rather than berating yourself for getting caught, be grateful that you have returned and can drop back into yourself again.
When starting out you can get a sudden impulse to stop and get up off the cushion or chair. One of the first valuable tips to meditation I learnt from that first Buddhist book, was to wait for the third impulse. So you do not just get up the first time, you acknowledge the resistance or the pull to avoid being still, you don’t get up the second time either, but by the third you let yourself get up. I found this really supported me to allow myself to sit and really become present to the depth of inner turmoil and anguish I experienced. It allowed me to stay there anyway, not hiding from it. Gradually this experience changed and the impulse to avoid myself reduced.
I find that time has a great impact on my meditation. Sometimes it can take me ten or fifteen minutes just to settle. So if I sit for thirty to forty minutes, I find that I can experience a much deeper meditation than in a shorter time. HOWEVER, I also know that life (mine included), does not always allow us to sit everyday for a long time and that getting caught in the belief that meditation can only exist if we sit for thirty minutes a day (for example) can become another hindrance. So, on busy days, stopping, breathing, pausing for a shorter time, five to ten minutes, can be a very powerful practice. I often find my days as a mother to a young toddler, mean that long meditation is not a possibility. Those few minutes, maybe once, maybe several times a day are hugely valuable. For me the point of meditation is to bring what I discover there into my daily life. To let that depth of awareness penetrate more and more into my whole experience. Meditation is something I do because I am nourished by it. I discover there the wholeness of my being. So pausing, coming home and connecting briefly can be an immensely powerful thing to do.
I want to finish with part of a poem I recently wrote:
When I create the space, and settle for a moment or an hour
My mind can be running wild or softly pulsating in the background,
yet I drop, falling into myself
Deep below the seductive wanderings of my mind,
into an indescribable void, that is full of all that is missing
Everything living together in this place, alongside the other
If i let myself, I could rest here for hours, and sometimes do
My mind bubbling up and falling away again
Permitted, acknowledged, grateful
And I become full. Still. Whole
This is my food, my nourishment, my essence
without it I get carried away by the chaos of the world
with it I am true, complete.