Meditation (experiences, progress, promise and books)
I’ve been meditating in one form or another for 40 years, I first discovered it as a kid through yoga and I didn’t think of it as meditation then, just conscious breathing. Fifteen years ago this occasional anonymous practice became more systematic and got a name, Vipassana Meditation, now a few years on I prefer to just call it meditation. I don’t want my meditation practice to have any hint of religious affiliation. Even though I think religions have much to teach us as codes for living, they have even more to avoid (religious people by contrast are generally great).
For me Meditation is both easy to describe (focus on the breath, watch thoughts arise and return to the breath) and practice (sit still and breathe), but fiendishly difficult to sustain. Sitting for 30 minutes a day seems hard to justify at first, there seems to be little progress, what progress there is appears to be invisible and all those bubbling thoughts that keep drawing my attention away from the breath are frustrating! Fast forward a decade and I now see significant progress though, my autistic brain is more empathic, I find it much easier to calmly see situations from other people’s perspective, I can relax myself with a breath or two.
Most important of all though meditation has allowed me to separate ‘me’ from my physical pain, to experience the pain but not react to it, to be an impartial observer. This separation allows me to do physical activities that hurt a lot, to the point at which natural endorphins (pain killers) kick in and give me temporary peace. These natural endorphins are important because I can only do this separation ‘trick’ when I’m single tasking, I’m not yet able to separate myself when I’m trying to read, watch TV, focus on work, or sleep, so I need chemical help.
In the last ten years science has embraced the study of meditation and studies abound with evidence of benefits:
Meditation improves immune function, lowers blood pressure, and cortisol levels; it reduces anxiety, depression, neuroticism, and emotional reactivity. It also leads to greater behavioural regulation and has shown promise in the treatment of addiction and eating disorders. Unsurprisingly, the practice is associated with increased subjective well-being. Training in compassion meditation increases empathy, as measured by the ability to accurately judge the emotions of others, as well as positive affect in the presence of suffering.
Pretty impressive. Gradually as I’ve practiced meditation I’ve become more interested in understanding my mind and the minds of others, in finding a kind of secular spirituality. I’ve been reading more books on religion and trying to understand the religious perspective which for decades has mystified me. I’ve been following the work of Sam Harris (brave guy) the author and campaigner who’s challenging the worst of religion and digging deep into the secular nature of humanity, to find the best of ourselves.
I’ve been progressing from one session of meditation a day to two sessions, one 20 minute session of Yoga Nidra focussed on relaxation and the mind/body connection and 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation focussed on compassion and understanding the nature of self. I’ve been loving it and seeing progress (the great motivator) I’m planning some DIY meditation retreats next year.
I’m now at the point where I can unreservedly recommend meditation, but I’ve struggled to find a book to recommend. Most of the books are written from the perspective of a master meditator, providing vague advice to a struggling pupil. Last week though I discovered a book that really captured my reality of meditation, the ups and downs, the promise and the challenge. It’s written with a mix of humour and respect (and a little swearing). I chose to listen to the audiobook, read by the author, it was fantastic. I highly recommend 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works.
Here’s a video by Dan Harris summarising the experiences he delves into deeply in his book, which is worth a watch, even if you’re not interested in reading the book or even meditating.
If you want more intellectual rigour and don’t mind religious ideas being challenged then Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion by Sam Harris is also excellent.
I wrote this post sitting in Caffe Nero, I’m mid flare at the moment suffering from pain, fatigue and fever but I dragged myself out of bed and to my favourite writing spot for ice cold coke and a slice of chocolate. I’m looking forward to meditating when I get home and ‘bathing’ in the pain. I chose a picture of the path to Witch Wood in Lytham, one of my favourite local walking routes.