So, a couple of years ago, almost on a whim, my husband Roy and I took an intensive eight week course in Mindfulness at the Oxford Department of Psychiatry! (and at the famous local psychiatric hospital, the Warneford!!)
I didn’t really know what Mindfulness was, but I “knew,” we should do it. You can imagine how annoyed Roy felt!!
As it turned out, it was an amazing course, filled with many new ways of thinking and being. We learned and practiced different meditations such as the body scan, walking meditation, meditations when experiencing difficult things, and mindful movement (i.e. yoga, “yoga is meditation.”) While, unsurprisingly, not many stuck, those that did were life-changing!
I am learning the art of stopping and taking a breath, though the three step breathing space, a four minute meditation. It sometimes feels as if I am too busy, too stressed, too behind, running too late, to stop and take a few minutes to just breathe for heaven’s sake… but doing that settles my mind and then I am so much more effective. In fact, it is a cure for the racing mind, the busy heart, and the slumbering spirit…stop, breathe, calm the mind.
“Sitting meditation” is what I practice most often. Forty minutes, the optimal meditation session, takes you, your mind, body, and spirit to another, generally peaceful and joyful state, and I aim to spend forty minutes a day on meditation, though I do it according to need—sometimes two sets of twenty minutes which some teachers say yields maximum benefits, sometimes four sets of ten minutes which calms me and gives focus before I work, or deal with difficult tasks, thoughts, and emotions.
I found learning meditation so helpful that Roy and I are currently doing a 12 week advanced course in Mindfulness at the Warneford, led by Willem Kuyken, Oxford Professor of Mindfulness; it’s a mind-changing and joyful experience.
So here are some personal benefits I have experienced over the last two years of regular meditation, some of them accidental and unexpected!
1 Better Sleep
I often listen to a guided meditation by Mark Williams or Jon Kabat-Zinn to calm my mind, which usually has a hundred thoughts, questions, and things to resolve. I am calm and sleepy by the end of it and drift off to sleep easily. Meditation for me is a gateway into sleep.
2 Focus and Creativity
I frequently meditate, just for ten minutes, before beginning to write, and it helps focus my mind. It is a brilliant investment of time. I was interested to read that Juval Noah Harari who condensed the history of humanity into Sapiens, 464 bestselling pages meditates for two hours a day, and says he would not have been able to focus on the important themes and events in the morass of world history without the practice of meditation.
If my mind is scattered and distracted, meditating before I settle down to write helps me focus, an essential skill for creative work in this culture in which the internet, with its invitations to distraction, its gratification of idle curiosity, and its addictive dopamine surges make focus more difficult.
3 Weight Loss
This is possibly an accidental benefit, a synergistic, serendipitous connection… though perhaps not. But since I started meditation in May 2017, I have lost 30 pounds, over two stone.
One day, I realised that my Fitbit showed that my weight had dropped for each week I had been meditating, and hypothesized a connection. Then I worked with a health coach, who suggested meditating twice a day for 20 minutes (to lower cortisol, the stress hormone which prevents weight loss) and texting her after each session.
I have now pretty much broken the habit of emotional eating and snacking, and though I have more weight to lose, I am hopeful because your trajectory is more important than where you currently are. And I am trying to eat more mindfully, actually savouring food.
4 Relief of chronic pain
I had crippling, life-affecting pain from sciatica for over a year (and, amazingly, was healed from chronic pain after an Oxford Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery PRAYED for me in church!!!).
I worked with a health coach and got Sports Massages, but then she tried removing the pain without placing her hands on me, but simply by meditating with me… and, lo and behold, it worked.
So I used meditation when pain gripped me. It calmed the mind, it relaxed the body, and, astonishingly, pain left while I focused on my breath. The benefits of meditation for chronic pain have been well-documented by Jon Kabat-Zinn, and in this Atlantic article, for instance.
5 A Pathway into Prayer
For me, meditation is a pathway into prayer. Sometimes, my mind is racing, and my emotions feel turbulent, and I know it would take a long time to settle down to prayer. So I do a ten or twenty minute guided meditation until I am calm enough to enter the presence of Jesus.
I used to calm myself and resolve things through prayer, but prayer for me can be work; it’s conversation; it takes energy, and, at night, it uses the mind which I want to simmer down. Meditation, especially the two practices I use most often, Sitting Meditation, and Lying Down Meditation, calms the mind and body, and creates the necessary conditions for fruitful prayer, which for me happens when I actually “see” the face of Jesus, and am in his presence.
I love the “Sitting with Difficulties Meditation.” You get super-calm through breathing, and then face the difficulty…an emotion, task, person or situation. It is a half an hour meditation, and during the course of it, I usually know exactly what I should do about the difficulty, and what the next steps should be. If it is an inter-personal hassle, sometimes I have a better understanding of the person’s behaviour, and more compassion, and forgiveness comes more easily. Sometimes, I just take the difficulty and leave it in God’s hands to do what he wants with it. It functions as a Serenity Prayer, accepting the things I cannot change, and changing the things I can. And it cuts problems down to size. Some annoying situations and random people one can just blow off.
7 Emotional and Mental Health
Meditation helps me calm my emotions, and achieve a (sometimes temporary) serenity from which productivity flows. It gives me space to confront my thoughts and the emotional niggles and dissatisfactions which otherwise would be shoved underground to emerge in a perhaps harmful form. When under stress, a 20 minute guided meditation is a way of checking out, like taking a small boat out to sea, and when I return, I am so much calmer.
Emotional health is not something I have focused on… In my teens and twenties, I focused on my intellectual life, reading, reading, reading; in my thirties and forties, I began to focus on my interior and spiritual life. A health breakdown, almost five years ago, made me begin to take my physical health seriously. And now, I am also trying to be more cognisant of my emotional life, not just interrogating what I think about people, situations, projects, commitments, holiday destinations, but also what I feel about them, for emotions, the iceberg beneath the surface, control more of our actions and behaviour than we realise. Our intuition and emotions carry a lot of wisdom, for perhaps the heart, the gut, the unconscious is smarter than our thinking mind.
8 Connecting with the Body
Meditation is teaching me to reconnect with the body, and its wisdom and signals. Hey, Anita, your stomach is tightening, your breath is constricting, be careful of this person, this situation, this commitment, this demand. Hey Anita, your heart is beating faster, your mind is racing. Stop. Meditate. Slow down. Slow down.
Thoughts create actual molecules in our bodies, raising levels of stress hormones like cortisol or adrenaline, bonding hormones like oxytocin, or “happy chemicals” like the neurotransmitters serotonin or dopamine. Just as bodily tension or pain stresses the mind, the mind causes psychosomatic physical pain and tension. Meditation calms both mind and body, increasing both physical and mental health and productivity through the power of the mind.
9 Learning to be Present
This is something I am beginning to learn, but the practice of paying attention, though practices like the body scan teaches me to come into my body and just be present… for instance, when I am physically uncomfortable or bored in Yoga class, or in social or group situations. It is so rare in our distracted age to either listen or be listened to with full attention that increasingly people pay therapists big bucks to do just that. The practice of meditation is helping me learn to be really present, and really listen to people with my full attention, and, of course, when you do that you learn far more than what they saying, for, unless you are dealing with a practised con-person, the eyes, face, and body speak their own language.
How can you learn to meditate?
I went to classes. However, if you need to learn promptly or haven’t the time or finance right now, I’d suggest
Mark Williams’ wonderful book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World which has a meditation CD included, on Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.