Some weeks ago, I read an article on Bella Caledonia about the explosion of mindful milennials. More and more people are exploring the benefits of tuning in to their own mind, and the Mind, Body, Spirit sections of High Street bookshops in Scotland are bursting at the seams with guides and programs designed to help them take voyages of internal self discovery. They are selling well. People are finding peace from the demands, frustrations and indignities of 21st century living through ‘meditation for the masses’.
In her piece, Vonny Moyes neatly describes a problem I can relate well to – amongst juggling all her various commitments and duties, devoting a period of time to tuning into her senses, thoughts and feelings is difficult. Mindfulness becomes ‘just another thing to fail at’.
I can relate to this, because I’ve gone through it. Perhaps I engaged with an earlier iteration of the the mindfulness bubble than she – a guided meditation had popped up on my Facebook feed (of all the mindless, empty places to find such a thing), and I clicked through to an eight minute breath and body meditation. The meditation was led by Mark Williams, co-author with Danny Penman of 2011s big mindfulness hit – “Mindfulness – a practical guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World”.
At the time, I was juggling a long hours, low security corporate position with little children, Scottish winter and an increasingly in the past based writing practice. I was in a frantic world. In those eight minutes, I’d found peace. I wanted more. I wrote to santa, directing him to where the book and accompanying CD could be acquired by mere mortals, and low and behold he and his elves made the thing appear on Christmas Day, or frantic central as it was for me.
I devoured the first few chapters of the book, religiously finding an extra twenty minutes out of the top and tail of each day. I followed the tips and guidelines in the book to shaking up my perspective on the world, making it flow, preventing it from being stale. I was enjoying the practice, and feeling the benefits.
Then came a wind I couldn’t sail into or out of. I developed chest pains, reminiscent of an inflammatory condition which had put me out of action for half a year, and had an overnight stay in the Western Infirmary for my troubles. The discomfort I was experiencing was attributable to a chest infection, which was successfully treated with a course of antibiotics. With no sick pay, recovery had to be ASAP. Within the week I was back on the hamster wheel, but Williams’ softly spoken Oxbridge tones didn’t find their way back into my consciousness, and joined the small army of Williamson stoor gaitherers.
And there it remained. Life didn’t become any less frantic, and I coped, seeking out little kindnesses for myself where I could find them. My hours grew. Contract after contract was extended as restructures, departures and politics buffeted my bows. I battened down the hatches, held on tight, survived, thrived in a way but had little me left by the end of each day. It was all I could do to make sure I ate, drank and slept – never mind connect with my inner self.
And then the sand on which I had built this little shack of personal viability shifted from under me. A combination of the waves of global capitalism, growing stress and my own administrative carelessness blew my boat onto the rocks. After two and a half years of proving myself, I was out on my ear with a weeks notice to show for it
The first few days and weeks after that were bliss – each day I would awake with the mantra – ‘If I was still in that place I’d be…’, and compare my situation, always favourably. I had more time for reading, for writing, for sending poems out, for promoting my first collection which had appeared in the intervening mindlessness. And then it hit me, hard, in the belly. I couldn’t write, had little interest in reading much, spent the days in an irritable dwam and the nights tossing, turning and staring into my half impending, half already impended doom. I was no longer stressed. I was deeply depressed.
The Williams Penman book is grounded in mindfulness based cognitive therapy – a treatment for depression, which has been shown to be as effective as SSRIs in treating depression. I knew I had a lot of climbing to do, but at least I had a rope. After listlessly searching a while, I found the book. The CD was sitting where I’d left it, over a year before, on the magic tray in front of the sound system.
The book recommends a twice daily practice of the short meditations on the CD. In acknowledgement of a (perhaps widely) perceived natural lackadaisicalness, I decided I would aim for once a day, and make the eight week course into a sixteen week one. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this approach – more is more really, and twice a day is certainly better than once. But once a day is a huge improvement on hee-haw.
I was quite startled with what I found on re-entering my inner consciousness. The ‘buzz’ I had found so readily from the Mark Williams sample meditation all that time ago eluded me. And the water in that brain of mine was muddy enough to launch a successful blues recording career. Thoughts randomly and obscurely flashed across my mind. I had restarted this practice to find clarity, and all I could see was confusion.
Like Vonny, I was failing. And failing quite spectacularly. But failing at something doesn’t mean you can’t try again, any more than succeeding at something necessarily means you can. And while I screwed my eyes up, breathed into my toes and out from my toes, things began to clear. More importantly though, however polluted my thinking was as I focussed on it, I began to see benefits accrue when I wasn’t contemplating my navel.
I had more energy. I sorted my allotment out (kind of, by its very nature it will always be a work in progress). I began applying for jobs. I was writing, reading, expressing myself, getting in touch with people, valuing myself and those around me and our combined wellbeing in ways which had seemed impossible during the slough of despond.
My journey with meditation hasn’t ended. I’ve begun experimenting with other types of meditation. I haven’t stopped failing. Now, when I am meditating and I find it difficult to focus, find myself distracted and drawn into thoughts and worries, I’m no longer sad and frustrated by this failure to be a sorted, clean brained, model student at the foot of a mountain of doubt. I am glad. I am grateful, that I have the capacity and the opportunity to pursue and develop my practice.
They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. Noticing how frequently our brains are swirling with problems, fear, pain and even hope is a sign that the mind is being strengthened, just as when our thighs, flexors and biceps are screaming in pain at the latest intense fitness fad, we just need to feel the burn, dig deep and think of Malaga.
I don’t doubt that there is a mindfulness bandwagon. I don’t doubt that in a few marketing cycles something else will be in its place. But I hope that enough people develop the habit of connecting with themselves. And that they keep the habit when the wind has changed and we are being sold the next great white hope. Because there is no smoke without fire. Because we all do have peace and great strength inside ourselves. Because it has nothing to lose but its chains.