At the time of publication, I’m on my twelfth consecutive day of doing a guided meditation using the 10% Happier app.
On day one I couldn’t tell you how long it was since I’d last opened the app. Part of me wished that statistic was available, but I suspect the practitioners who contribute to 10% Happier would say that thinking about how long I haven’t been meditating is, ultimately, pointless.
When your mind wanders, you see, the only thing you need to do is accept it and begin again.
I hadn’t given up on meditation in that intervening period, but I’d become complacent. I thought I knew how to do it. I thought a few minutes of mindful breathing most days - often while also trying to listen to a podcast in the background - was enough to do the trick.
Then one morning a couple of weeks ago, I woke up with such a foggy head, with a brain overcome by thoughts and distractions and noise, that I knew something needed to change. So I accepted that I hadn’t done a ‘proper’ meditation in too long, and simply began again.
What I’d missed about guided meditation
Getting reacquainted with the voices of the meditation practitioners I was once so used to was a very reassuring experience. I’d forgotten so much; things that I hadn’t put into practice with my so-called mindful breathing.
Objects of meditation.
Sit, and know that you’re sitting.
Mental notes. The in and out of the breath.
The jokey comment at the end of one of my favourite sessions: Welcome to our meditation cult.
Because it is easy to make meditation sound like a cult-ish thing. I’m aware that this post could easily make for strange or even uncomfortable reading. The first few times I tried meditation, I couldn’t stop myself from laughing at times, just because of how weird the whole thing felt.
This time, it mostly felt reassuringly familiar, but for one or two moments of self-conscious awkwardness. But those moments passed and soon I was acknowledging thoughts again and remembering the sensation of spending a few minutes detached from the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life.
It’s easy to find advice that says meditation will make you happier, improve your attention span, or even make you cleverer. Whether you want to achieve any of those three things or not, it’s less easy to believe the promised benefit that might come from actually sitting down and trying to meditate.
So the best way I can think to explain it is this: like any good physical exercise, my favourite meditation sessions are the ones where they come to an end and I feel like I could do more. Because you do feel benefits from it.
Being present in the moment
One of the common things people say about my career as a self-employed writer is how good it is that I can work from anywhere. And I agree with them, because it is theoretically true.
But I also know my own brain, and I know that I get most done when I’m hiding away in my home office/back bedroom/storeroom for spare furniture/indoor greenhouse (there are quite a few plants among the furniture). Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing out by not being a digital nomad, traversing the world while earning a living, but I know it’s not my style.
Last week there wasn’t a single day where I spent more than an hour or two at my desk. I committed time to different people every day, which meant being in different places and taking my laptop to try and work as best I could at the same time.
Everything I chose to do last week was important to me and I would do it all again. Any dissatisfaction was simply a product of trying to achieve two things at the same time and doing neither of them very well.
I wanted to spend time with the family I visited, but I also needed to get some work done. In the end, I didn’t get very much work done, and nor did I feel present with the people whose company I was in. It was like trying to do mindful breathing while listening to a podcast: I didn’t get the benefit of the breathing exercise, and I didn’t properly enjoy the podcast.
(It’s why I don’t believe travelling and working at the same time would really be as good as it sounds!)
All of which meant that by the end of the week, my brain was frazzled again. How can this be? I’ve been meditating for well over a week. A whole week. WHERE’S MY SENSE OF CALM?
At that point, I re-learnt an important lesson: meditation isn’t a cure for your busy head. It’s a tool to help you deal with the busy. I needed to start taking responsibility for my wellbeing, rather than relying on some magic external force that doesn’t exist.
As well as the daily meditation, another habit I’ve tried to establish recently is that of the ‘morning pages’ exercise. Inspired by the story of a journalist who said it transformed the way she wrote, I wanted to see if it could free me of an awkwardness and stiltedness I often feel plagues my writing. There have been some interesting results, but those are for a future blog post.
One of last week’s most satisfying moments was the couple of hours spent in my favourite coffee shop. I got no work done, but I didn’t go with the intention of doing any. That meant I felt free to enjoy some great conversations about food for the body and food for the mind.
The talk meandered from ways of managing negative moods to dealing with the jumble of thoughts that often fill our heads. Journaling came up, as did the wellbeing cards that were produced as part of last year’s Man Up production.
The conversation reminded me of how those cards were created. Participants in the show were asked to offer ideas and advice that could be collated and shared on the cards. I remembered how I set out to only make a few suggestions, and ended up writing something that was more akin to a letter to myself.
As a writing exercise, it was a unique experience that hasn’t been replicated with morning pages. So I thought I would share the result here, a year or more after it was first written. Because if I can’t convince you to join the meditation cult, I can at least share something that might help you on a day where you feel distracted or overwhelmed.
Take a breath.
Take a deep breath.
Exercise. Be outdoors.
Eat healthily. Sleep.
Take a breath.
Change happens in small steps. Make changes slowly and form better habits.
Don't beat yourself up for little relapses.
Acknowledge and accept your vices (within reason!); indulge them in moderation.
Everything in moderation.
Take a breath.
Turn off notifications. Use social media less. Delete apps.
Put your phone down.
Be kind. Be grateful. Give of yourself to others.
Try something new.
Take a breath.
Notice things about yourself. What makes you happy, sad, frustrated, energised?
Keep things simple. Declutter - physically and emotionally.
At the end of the day, note down what you are grateful for.
Take a breath.
Seek alone time and seek company, in the balance you need. You might not know the balance now, but you'll learn.
Don't be afraid to ask. About anything.
Don't be afraid of expression, whatever form it takes.
All of this will be hard at first. It will get easier with repetition.
Remember that advice like this comes from people just as flawed as you. We do our best to practice what we preach and we don't always succeed. But we're better for having tried and knowing how good the benefits feel inspires us to keep going.