Some of us suffer from 'hurry sickness' - forever rushing from one task to the next, always thinking about everything that still needs to get done somehow, never giving our full attention to what we're doing right now. For others among us, time weighs heavily. The minutes and hours crawl by slowly, dragging on forever. In both cases, we experience 'time stress' as a result.
So is there anything we can do about it? (It might not surprise you to learn that I'm going to say 'yes', and that meditation can help...)
Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the term 'Flow' to describe a powerful experience that he'd observed across many different people in many different situations. The 'Flow' state comes about when someone is engaged in a challenging activity which provides immediate feedback and is toward the upper limit of the skill of the practitioner, but not out of reach. (Think of a skilled acrobat performing a dangerous and challenging routine, or a concert pianist performing a very difficult piece.)
Some of the characteristics of the Flow state:
Interestingly, there's quite a bit of overlap between Flow and meditation. Csikszentmihályi even said that meditation is like a carefully planned Flow activity. It's also true that regular meditators seem to be more likely to experience Flow states and stay in them for longer, perhaps because the skills trained in meditation are so similar to the conditions of Flow.
One interesting point here is that this suggests a way to escape from time pressure. Flow activities are in part absorbing and enjoyable because they distort our sense of time - in Flow there's no room for worrying about the future or obsessing over the past, because we're purely focused on the present moment. Likewise, meditation trains us to come back to the present moment again and again, allowing us to step out of time pressure and into the 'timeless now'.
For people prone to 'hurry sickness', meditation can sometimes feel like just another thing that needs to be done. And some meditation techniques can even reinforce this - some techniques involve quite a bit of setup, a lot of 'doing' during the meditation period, and so on. But if we're looking to tap into a sense of timelessness, we need to emphasise being rather than doing, and it can be helpful to employ a meditation technique which really focuses on 'just being'.
In the Zen tradition, one very popular way of practising is an open awareness approach variously called 'just sitting', shikantaza or silent illumination. The practice is very simple, but can seem initially bewildering to people used to more structured practices. In the open awareness practice we don't use any particular 'anchor' or object of focus. We simply sit, and allow our experience to show itself to us. In a sense, there's nothing at all to 'do' here, but that can be a bit misleading because we very quickly find that the mind likes to wander and get tangled up in thoughts, sights or sounds. A better way to think of the practice might be as 'resting in awareness' - allowing our awareness to be broad and open, allowing absolutely anything and everything to come and go within our experience, while we 'do nothing', simply sitting there as it all unfolds.
Open awareness is a beautiful practice, but one with a couple of subtle pitfalls.
Sometimes people wonder if they're 'doing it right', because it's so hard to tell when there's 'nothing to do'. But as soon as you become aware that you're wondering if you're doing it right, you're already back in the open awareness, aware of the thoughts about whether you're meditating properly. So we can trust completely in awareness to do its thing without any interference from us, and let go deeply into the practice.
The other challenge is what's sometimes called the 'near enemy' of open awareness practice, which is a state of dullness. This is a kind of 'sinking' or 'drifting', a vague, hazy state in which the mind is subtly turned away from what's going on. It can feel vaguely pleasant, but it isn't particularly helpful. In true open awareness practice, the mind should be clear and bright, your attention turned toward your experience in all its fullness.
If you'd like to try stepping into the 'timeless now', you can find two guided open awareness practices in the Audio section of this website, one ten minutes long, the other twenty-five. Give it a try!
One of the most fundamental skills developed in meditation is the ability to focus. This is usually referred to as 'concentration', but for some people this word can conjure up ideas of striving, gut-busting effort and so on, so it might be more helpful to think of focus in terms of mental stillness, stable attention, or even simply the ability to stay with something without getting distracted. With enough practice you might even come to think of it as 'resting the mind' on an object or task, but for most beginners the experience of learning to focus doesn't feel particularly restful!
It turns out that the mind likes to be still, quiet and stable, at least once it's had some time to get used to the idea. We tend to go through life constantly absorbing new information and experiences, hyper-stimulated by adverts, music, television and the general busyness of modern society. This leaves our minds in a constant whirl of novelty, never able to rest for a minute, and so the mind habitually jumps from one thing to the next, never settling anywhere. When the mind is allowed to come to rest, however, we find that the resulting experience of peace and stillness is deeply enjoyable and profoundly nourishing. Over time and with practice, this comes to be experienced as a source of inner well-being - a place inside ourselves that we can go to experience joy and contentment, rather than always having to look outside ourselves.
Focus isn't just for sitting meditation, either. It's very helpful to cultivate a sense of being grounded - in the here and now, in our physical body and in the present moment. Many of us live most of our lives fretting about the future, regretting the past or caught up in abstract ideas about how things ought to be now. Learning to come into the present moment and stay here, without becoming distracted and wandering away into the past or the future again, is enormously helpful as we try to navigate life's ups and downs. Compared to the horrors of the past and the future's veiled threats, the present moment is usually not so bad!
Sitting meditation is one way to develop focus, but we can also use movement to explore focus and grounding together. In an informal way, it can be helpful simply to walk a little bit slower and tune in to the physical sensations of the walking - your feet on the ground, the air moving past your skin. It's important to be aware of your surroundings and notice the sights and sounds around you, of course, but learning to do that whilst remaining in touch with what's going on in your body, rather than being 'pulled out' into those external stimuli all the time, is the key to staying grounded. More formally, you can set aside a period of time for walking meditation, just as you might with sitting meditation. In walking meditation we generally choose a predetermined path - either round in a circle or back and forth in a straight line - and then walk slowly and mindfully, paying attention to the physical details of our experience (perhaps the soles of the feet on the ground, or alternatively the breath as it flows in and out of the body), for a set period of time.
A third, related, skill is what we might call embodiment. Embodiment is about how we are in the world; how we act, how we express our deepest intentions and truths, how we live in the most authentic way possible. It takes a lot to be fully embodied. We need a significant degree of grounding to provide the foundation. We also need a great deal of inner clarity (which we can reach through insight practices such as self-inquiry), and the integrity to be honest with ourselves about what we want to say and do and how we want to go about it. Finally, it takes courage to be fully embodied. Expressing that which is deepest within us can feel risky and vulnerable. But it's also hugely rewarding, and over time you'll develop a profound sense of confidence which others will instinctively recognise and respect.
Concentration is intrinsic to all meditation techniques, so it will develop simply through having a daily practice. However, it can also be useful and even fun to cultivate it more directly with a specific concentration practice. First, pick an object to focus on. Any object will do; the breath is a good one (it's very portable!), but you might also like to experiment with using a candle flame or any other visual object that you find appealing. Set a timer, bring your attention to the object, and any time you notice your attention has wandered, relax and come back to the object. And do nothing else! In concentration practice you aren't really interested in where the mind goes when it gets distracted; you're simply inclining toward the object, coming back to it again and again whenever the mind drifts away, allowing the mind to calm down and settle itself on the object of focus.
Guided concentration practice is a bit of a contradiction in terms, because the instructions tend to take the mind away from the object of focus. Nonetheless, I've recorded a ten-minute guided concentration practice with some sparse instructions scattered throughout. The main value of the instructions here is to serve as a gentle nudge if your attention has wandered far away from the object and you've become lost in distraction. You can find the guided meditation on the Audio page, but please feel free to practise without the audio as soon as you've gotten the hang of the technique.
Meditation helps us in many ways. Practising mindfulness meditation regularly helps to develop mental stability and reduce habits of reactivity which get us into trouble, and it can give us a vehicle for working with difficult emotions. Heart-opening practices such as metta and compassion help us to cultivate beautiful qualities of the heart-mind and extend those to others.
Another way meditation can help is to provide insight into our lives, by shining a light on processes which normally take place under the radar, in the unconscious or subconscious mind. For example, through regular meditation practice you might start to notice patterns that you've never consciously identified before.
Looking a little deeper, we start to see major trends in our behaviour. We start to notice that we play many different roles in our lives. Using myself as an example, depending on the situation at the time, I might be in any of these roles:
Each of these roles places different demands on me and comes with the expectation of a different set of behaviours, and in some cases even different ways of dressing and speaking. As I go through a typical week, I have to shift from one role to another many times.
Roles are not inherently good or bad by themselves; they're useful vehicles to help us relate to one another. But sometimes our relationship to our roles can be a problem. Sometimes a role demands something of us that we can't give at that moment. Sometimes we find ourselves stuck in roles that have outlived their usefulness, unable to move on. Learning to understand that roles are just roles, nothing more or less, and to be mindful of the process of inhabiting these roles in our own lives, can bring about a great loosening of tension and sense of openness, lightness and freedom.
(You might like to think about which roles you find yourself playing as you go through life. Which ones do you find particularly stressful, and why?)
Going further still, some of the deepest insights available to us in meditation practice concern more fundamental aspects of who we are and how our sense of self is constructed from moment to moment. These insights have the power to change our relationship to our own experience in fundamental ways, leading to significantly greater freedom and well-being. (This is the process sometimes called 'awakening' or 'enlightenment' in spiritual circles. In Zen we talk about 'kensho', or 'seeing one's true nature'.)
Many meditation techniques can result in insight - the key is to have a sense of investigation, inquiry, looking to see what's going on. We aren't trying to think our way to insight, to analyse ourselves and come up with a clever way of understanding what's happening; rather, we simply observe our minds, and allow the insights to come to us in an intuitive, experiential way. So insight meditation practices typically involve a technique which sets up a good environment in which insight can arise and encourages us to pay attention to see what happens next.
One very effective way to generate insight into the self is to work with the question 'Who am I?' If you'd like to try this, you can find a 10-minute 'Who am I?' meditation in the Audio section of this website. Give it a try and see what comes up for you!
In meditation circles we talk a lot about mindfulness, non-judgemental awareness, and letting things be as they are. This is a beautiful practice that can bring about a great deal of freedom and joy. For some people, though, it can be more helpful to cultivate beautiful qualities of the heart and mind directly. Fortunately, there are meditation practices which do just this.
For millennia, meditation practitioners have worked to cultivate four beneficial attributes in particular, sometimes called the 'four immeasurables' because of their priceless value. Since these practices have a long tradition behind them, you'll sometimes find them called by their Pali names. (Pali is an ancient language related to Sanskrit, and is the language of the teachings of early Buddhism.)
There are various ways to cultivate these qualities in meditation. One approach is to repeat certain phrases silently to ourselves in meditation: 'may this person be happy, may this person be free from suffering'. People who are more visual tend to prefer visualisations, such as imagining a golden light shining in your heart and radiating out to touch other people. Some people simply tap into a physical sense of these qualities in the body and stay with that feeling, allowing it to grow and develop over time like a carefully tended garden.
It's worth saying that, for some people, these practices can be surprisingly difficult. For some people it can feel cheesy or inauthentic to try to cultivate kindness towards someone if they don't already feel it. If this is you, that's absolutely fine - it doesn't make you a bad person! You might try giving it another go in six months (or six years!) to see if anything has shifted, but in the meantime you're much better served finding a different practice that works better for you personally. Meditation is one of the most personal activities you will ever undertake, so it's important to be honest with yourself about what you get on with rather than forcing yourself to do something you don't like because you think you 'should' do it.
One more note of caution: many people in our society already give a tremendous amount of their time, energy and love in the service of others. Occasionally, these practices can end up as a guilt trip - 'Oh, I need to give even more compassion to other people instead of taking a holiday and looking after myself!' If you're one of these people, I strongly suggest you start with loving kindness and compassion for yourself. To put it another way, put on your own oxygen mask first!
If you'd like to try out these practices, you'll find some guided meditations in the Audio section of this website. There are two each for loving kindness and compassion: one for people who are primarily auditory, using the phrases, and one for people who are primarily visual, using a golden light visualisation. If you are primarily kinesthetic, and prefer to work simply with a physical feeling of love or compassion, I suggest using the guided audio with phrases, and treat the phrases as reminders to keep checking in with that felt sense of kindness or compassion.
In my last post I talked a little bit about mindfulness, how it can help us in our busy lives, and how we can start to develop it.
Today I'd like to say something about how mindfulness can help with emotional pain, something that is all too prevalent in the modern world. Many people suffer greatly from anxiety, grief, regret, anger, worry, lack of self-esteem - the list goes on.
The mindful approach to working with difficult emotions is simple yet powerful. The key is to bring awareness and acceptance to our experience - in other words, to be mindful of what's going on for us. We are often very unwilling to look directly at our experience and see it for what it is; we have strong habits of avoidance, turning away from it, trying to distract ourselves or put on a brave face and pretend everything is fine when it isn't. Unfortunately, in the process we can end up compounding the problem - we become afraid of our fear, angry with ourselves for becoming angry, and so on.
It's important to realise that there are two aspects to any situation: the situation itself, and our relationship to that situation. If I stub my toe, my foot will hurt - that's the situation. But how do I react to it? Do I curse myself for being so clumsy, or wish that my foot didn't hurt despite all evidence to the contrary? Or can I find a way to recognise and accept the situation for what it is? In the first case, my relationship to the pain is adding negative mental activity on top of the physical experience. In the second case, there's just the pain itself - the extra burden of suffering has vanished, so the whole experience feels lighter and less difficult.
Paradoxically, bringing the non-judgemental awareness of mindfulness to our difficult emotions - looking at them without trying to change the experience at all - starts to shift our relationship to those emotions, and, over time, brings about a powerful transformation.
Working with emotions is a delicate process, and one that requires great care, patience and self-compassion. It can be helpful to think of the way you might approach a frightened animal - trying to be forceful will only make the situation worse. Being quietly, calmly present and allowing the animal to come to you in its own time is far more helpful. In the same way, we can't resolve our difficult emotions forcefully or instantaneously - we must work patiently and gently with them each time they arise, allowing them to change at their own pace.
Emotions can be powerful forces, and if we work with them on the level of the mind it's easy to get swept away. Instead, you may find it helps to work with the body. Each emotion is felt in the body as well as the mind - butterflies in the stomach, tightness in the chest, and so on. When difficult emotions arise, we can look at what's going on in the body. This allows us to turn towards the experience more easily, with less risk of getting caught up in the emotion.
Many people are not used to working with their bodies in this way. Some people even find that they aren't particularly aware of their bodies and can't feel much going on at all. The good news is that the awareness does develop over time, with practice.
A well-known meditation practice which helps to develop greater body awareness and sensitivity is the body scan. This involves moving the attention around the body from place to place, usually following a specific sequence. There are two body scan meditations - one 10 minutes long, the other 25 minutes - in the Audio section of my website. Give them a try!
Starting on Friday January 11th, I'll be starting a new six-week beginners' course in meditation - see the Classes page for details. We'll explore the wide world of meditation, seeing where it can take us and how it fits into our busy lives.
In the first week of the course, we'll start by taking a look at mindfulness. Mindfulness has enjoyed an explosion of popularity in recent years, with a large and growing body of scientific evidence supporting its benefits, and even a wide-ranging cast of celebrity endorsements. But what is it, how do we practise it, and why would we want to?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who pioneered modern mindfulness while working at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the late 1970s, defines mindfulness as: 'the awareness that arises when paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally'.
Paying attention to something, on purpose, is a fundamental skill in all meditation practice, and it's pretty important in the rest of our lives too! It's hard to get anything done if we can't stay on task without getting distracted. Through meditation and other mindfulness practices we learn to strengthen our powers of attention, so that we remain calm, focused and stable in the middle of whatever life throws at us.
The present moment is another key aspect of mindfulness. Many of us spend much of our lives worrying about the future or dredging up the past again and again. Being mindful doesn't mean that we have to live from moment to moment, never making plans, but it encourages us to be present in the midst of our lives as much as possible. Over time, we can find a powerful sense of freedom, openness and richness right here and now, even in tough times.
The final piece of the puzzle is developing a sense of non-judgmental acceptance. We don't become fatalistic or passive, but rather we learn to let go of our reactivity, so that we can choose our actions wisely rather than being pushed around by forces outside our control. The non-judgmental attitude of mindfulness helps us to suspend our inner critic and deal with whatever's in front of us calmly.
Mindfulness is a powerful way to live. It helps us deal with the tough times, and encourages us to be fully present to enjoy the good times too. Any activity at all can be performed mindfully, and becomes richer and more rewarding as a result - even something as mundane as brushing your teeth or washing the dishes. So what are you waiting for?
If you'd like to give mindfulness a try, you can find a 10-minute introductory meditation, plus some guidance on setting up a sitting posture, on the Audio page.
In January, I'll be starting a new six-week beginners' course in meditation - see the Classes page for details. We'll explore the wide world of meditation, seeing where it can take us and how it fits into our busy lives.
Sometimes people think that 'meditation' is just one thing - perhaps one particular way of sitting and paying attention to the breath. Sometimes people try meditation for a bit but don't get on with it - they find that they get distracted too easily, or don't see the point.
Fortunately, meditation is much more than just trying to pay attention to the breath and getting frustrated with the wandering mind! And depending on what you find interesting, appealing and helpful, depending on which approaches and ways of practising resonate most with you, it can take you to many different places:
There are many ways of approaching meditation and mindfulness practice, and many rich, helpful and even beautiful avenues of exploration which open up for us as we do so. If you've tried meditation before and didn't get on with it, don't worry - there are plenty of other ways of practising which might resonate much better with you. Let's explore them together!