Sunday, 19 January 2014

Meditation's Whatcha Need - Oh Yeah!

I've lost count of number of times I've read or been told of the virtues of meditation. Until recently, the only thing I like about it was singing the theme tune to the TV show, Record Breakers and exchanging the word, “dedication” for “meditation”. “Oooh ooh, meditation’s what you neeeeed!” (That’s specifically for Brits over 30!).

To be fair, when people explain the benefits of this ancient practice, it does seem like a good idea but whenever I’ve attempted to put this practice into practice, it has been far from the zen experience I was hoping for.

I've made several failed attempts to incorporate meditation into my life but, rather like a lot of things I think I should do, like learn a language, exercise and read more fiction, after about a month, it falls by the wayside along with vacuuming the car, keeping in touch with distant cousins and reading broadsheets.

For a long time, I wasn’t even sure what meditation was. Judging from what I’d seen, it looked like just sitting down. In which case, I’ve been meditating for a long time, largely in front of Eastenders but apparently there was more to it than that.

From the intel I gathered, it also seemed to involve some kind of special breathing that made your mind STFU. As someone with a rather vocal internal monologue, anything that could quieten that would be more than welcome.

One of my first guided attempts was at the London Buddhist Centre in Bethnal Green, East London.

The person leading the session took us, step-by-step through the process asking us first, to focus on our breathing, then we were asked to “wish loving thoughts upon ourselves” – umm… ok, then upon those close to us, then the whole world and then those we didn’t like so much. For a practice that was supposed to be about quietening the mind, there seemed to be an awful lot of thinking.

After, I found my friend Rob to debrief. Turns out, I’d enjoyed the session much more than he had. In my newly chilled demeanour, I cooed “I feel sooooo relaxed”. He looked at me grumpily. “I couldn’t concentrate” he said. “Didn’t you hear that bloke coughing? It was doing my head in”
“Oh really? I didn’t hear him” I cooed again as I vowed to definitely go back for another session next week.  I haven’t set foot in the place since.

Along the way, I’ve attempted to practice at home but not really knowing what the goal was or really how to meditate and not enjoying thinking about specific things like people I like or don’t like, meant that every attempt soon ended in defeat.

A few years ago, I found myself at the Mind,Body and Spirit Festival over in South West London. It’s like an Ideal Home Exhibition for the soul. Most people there are terribly earnest but you do still have to keep your wits about you and pick out the fakers and phoneys.  

There was one guy who had a little half-stall where he claimed he could identify and draw your spirit guide.

Out of curiosity, I passed him several times over the course of about an hour and the whole time, he was with the same girl, doing very little drawing and a large amount of stroking her hand and looking deep into her eyes.

The topless-but-for-a-leather-waistcoat look did very little to bolster his credibility.

I saw a guy who was leading a meditation session where you lie down and he talks you into a deep relaxation state. I thought, I’ll give that a go. I hopped onto the bed and the next thing I remember is, him gently patting my shoulder. “Andi?”. “Andi?”. “Andi” He nudged me a little more firmly. “Wake up”.

I sat up abruptly. checking for  mouth drool that might have escaped my gaping gob. I know it’s considered a skill to be able to talk a woman into bed, but talking her to sleep, kudos, dude! I thanked him and scurried off.

But by far, my most interesting meditation experience was, when I went to Hereford for a 10 day silent meditation retreat. Yes, you read that right. 10 as in the number, and silent as in the absence of noise. For someone who, by that time, was already talking for a living, this was going to be a very interesting experience.

It was a very regimented programme, starting at 4.00am. We only ate twice a day. We’d meditate from 4 until 6, eat at 7, meditate until lunch time then for an evening meal, we’d be served fruit (which I do not consider eating). And in the evening, we’d watch a video that talked about human consciousness and this particular meditation practice, Vipassana (pro: Vee-pash-an-ah).

As the days went by, I longed for the evenings and these videos, a respite from what felt like, hours and hours of sitting and doing fuck all.

No talking was permitted and the men and women were separated throughout the whole ten days. No communicating was allowed at all. Eye contact was to be kept to a minimum even with your room mate. I actually loved that. I hate sharing rooms as it is and I’ve lived alone for a long time so I was delighted to not have to trouble myself with small talk. Bring it on.

In the main meditation room there were about 50 cushions on either side of the room, and each meditator went to the same cushion throughout the programme. One side for women and one side for men and each group also had their own entrance into the hall.

They told us that over the course of the10 days, days 3 and 7 would be the toughest. I don’t know if it was self-fulfilling prophecy but they were right.

By day 3, there were several empty cushions and as the week progressed, more and more people bailed. The level of self-discipline required and the level of boredom or hunger to endure proved too much for many, myself included - almost. I was the most miserable I’ve been in a long while. I don’t know about accessing internal peace, I was definitely accessing an intense dislike of sitting with my legs crossed.

But as the week went on, I learned to push through the pain. I started to wake before the 4.30 morning gong that would summon us to our cushions to begin our morning practice.

I cried a little, I laughed a little as I heard all of us desperately trying to suppress farts and grumbling tummies in the stillness of the hall. I hated the hunger but I resisted the temptation to nibble on the fruit bars I’d brought with me.

I figured, in for a penny, in for a profound experience, right?

The premise of this meditation was different from the one I’d learned at the Buddhist centre. Basically, you just had to take your attention very methodically around your whole body experiencing every sensation in the moment. In doing so, you anchored yourself in the present.

It’s true, if you’re truly present to an itch in your nose or a tingle on the back of your knee, you can’t also think about paying your electricity bill.

I made it to the end of the week. It was a very sunny day, in many ways. The best thing was, the guys and girls could mix again and we could speak! Hurrah!

Beyond the anticipation of finally having a conversation, I actually I didn’t have a lot to say as I was feeling pretty blissed out. I saw a friend of mine who happened to be there and she said she notice there was a softness to me that hadn’t been present before. Some of the other women on the programme said that when I’d arrived, I seemed quite pained (perhaps I was suppressing a fart) and that my face looked much clearer now
To this day, I’m not sure specifically what the effect of that programme was on me but it was definitely good.

However, just like my attempts to teach myself Italian, learn capoeira, and paint a mural of Mark King on my bedroom wall (don’t ask), all too soon, I lost interest and stopped moving forward.

I’ve tried chanting too. Again, after a month, I’d stopped. It always happens the same way. I start with an insane amount of enthusiasm then after a couple of weeks, I start to skip the odd day, then, I go two days without meditating, then before I know it, I’ve stopped completely – again.

About a year ago, once again, someone suggested I bring mediation into my life. Here we go… but then I thought, I really want to do this. How can I make it so it doesn’t feel like a chore?

I started to ponder on what meditation actually is.

From what I can gather, it seems to be a way of accessing your higher self, being in the present and being disciplined about it. More often than not it’s a daily commitment.

Then it hit me, I’ve been going about this entirely the wrong way. As someone with a very noisy brain, trying to force myself to following the practices I’d previously tried was never going to work. My brain was too athletic for that. It was like asking a kangaroo to walk for a change. I needed something that suited who I am. It was clear, as a writer, of course my meditation should be writing.

I already sporadically kept a journal and whenever I wrote in it, I was entirely present. I also had thoughts that were beyond the mundanities of normal life and helped me get in touch with my higher self (or at least that self that was more elevated than the one who watches X Factor).

The only thing that was missing was making a daily ritual.

Since then, I’ve written in my journal every day, without exception, knowing this is my commitment every day.

When you consider medication to be as I’ve described, it makes it much more accessible as it means it doesn’t have to be about sitting cross-legged in the lotus position with your knees aching. It can look any way you want it to. As long as you contact your higher self, you’re present and you do it daily, you are meditating in my book. It could be singing, yoga, painting, drawing, gardening, martial arting (real word) or a multitude of other pursuits.

Modern living means we are constantly bombarded with imagery, messages and stimuli which takes us out of the present. Coming back to the moment you’re in and incorporating meditation is like a spring clean for the soul and something we all need, if anything, just to help keep us sane. Meditation is, indeed, whatcha need. J

The theme tune to Record Breakers - sing along!


  1. Thanks for sharing that Andi. I can really relate to the should do/not doing things. I also find writing in the journal to be a good way of brain dumping. Can also stimulate more ideas. But with the 'true' meditation, I find concentrating on a candle's flame can help getting into the meditative state.


    PS - nice piccie in the post as well :)

    1. Thanks and yes, I've tried the candle method too. It is good. I think it's just finding what works and the goal is quietening the mind so if fixing a car or studying a flame works, it's all good :)

  2. I looked into the ideas of meditation when I was young and came to the conclusion that it was a way people with nothing worthwhile to think about and incredibly lazy minds to justify their mental indolence. I keep my mind as busy as possible. As for keeping things in the present I only ever live in the present as throughout my life it has always been now, never yesterday or tomorrow.. Time is but an illusion and a way of putting events in so kind of contextual order.

    1. I've never meditated myself (or wanted to) but surely its s bit harsh to say people who do meditate are either lazy minded or empty headed?


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