“I can’t find my mindfulness book”, I said.
“It mustn’t have been very good then” replied my 16 year son, not missing a beat.
Did the word meditation ever stop you from trying the practice of meditation? For me, I know it did, at least I thought it did, then I realised I’d been doing it, but I didn’t know I’d been doing it … confused, I’ll explain.
(By the way, I am using the words mindfulness and meditation interchangeably in this Blog)
The reason…. my image of meditation; meditation was a white robed, guru type (usually bearded grey haired male), seated in lotus position, beatific smile, ever so slightly levitating off the ground. Veiled under the auspices of ancient wisdom traditions. A seemingly unattainable state. A state only able to be achieved after years of silent contemplation alone in a cave in the mountains of Nepal. It was an exclusive club indeed, even if I wanted to I wouldn’t have any idea where or how to join. Meditation sounded nice, awaken your consciousness, open your mind to the infinite. Pity it’s out of my league.
The 60’s and 70’s saw meditation come to the West. Without even knowing it, as a child in a small alternate leaning community in New Zealand, I was shown a foundational technique that has helped me to this day, but I had no idea that there was any meditation going on.
Mindfulness: “The quality of consciousness or awareness that arises through intentionally attending to present moment experience in a non-judgmental and accepting way” Jon Kabat Zinn 1994
Picture this, a circle of kids and a teacher. The kids clad in an assortment of patch worked skirts and shirts, scratchy loom woven garments such as “jerkins” abounded, weaving and veggie co-ops being all the rage in the community at the time. Our warm and delightfully creative teacher clapped her hands gleefully and said, “Lets all be balloons”, and as you do when you are a kid we all said “yeeeeaaaaaahhhhhh” really loudly and enthusiastically, smiling at each other cheekily as we tried to out cheer each other. Because that sounded so totally AWESOME. We each had a balloon drawn on our tummy’s and then our exceedingly upbeat teacher explained we had to try to fill it up and then empty it, fill then empty, fill then empty. No fear, no doubts, great imaginations. We all did this for ages, we were great balloons.
To this day I still think this has been the best diaphragmatic breath technique ever shown to me. All I knew was it felt really good. Nobody used the word meditation, I had no idea of the foundational technique I had been shown, none of us did.
It’s a bit like the first time I went into labour, as the contractions started to gain momentum I thought “couldn’t someone just have said it’s like really, really intense period pain”. That would have been very helpful to know. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated the lengths our birth teacher went to to imitate the deafening guttural animal noises we would all be making involuntarily as the urge to push came upon us, but this period pain bit, that would have been good simple stuff to know.
Back to meditation. Once I finally did cotton on to this deep breath business, I was hooked. I loved it. I loved that anywhere, any time I could bust out the deep diaphragmatic breath and things would simply get calmer. Your breath is always just there.
“Our mind is analogous to a cup of muddy water. The longer you keep a cup of muddy water still, the more the mud settles down and the water will be seen clearly”, Bhante Gunaratana p. 45
I noticed over the years, the changing ages and stages, the things I needed to find that place of calm within changed dramatically. In childhood, being a balloon was easy. Adolescence, kilometres of laps of the pool worked better. Uni, well honestly not much healthy stuff happened then. Ok occasionally when I was really stressed and at Uni, yoga classes actually worked better than happy hour at the student bar.
Parenthood really slammed me back to earth. After having kids it wasn’t that simple. I’d try going for a swim but my head would be racing, sleep deprivation coupled with thoughts of all the things, things I needed to do, things I should do, things my kids should do, things others seemed to do easily, so many things. Finding peace became an extreme sport. I discovered that if I put myself in a 40 degree room for 90 minutes doing the same 26 postures several times a week, my mind could just stay totally present and not go anywhere else. That was exactly what I needed then.
“Meditation is a way not only to attend to my own needs but to develop an awareness of others so that I can participate in all that I do in a more positive and creative way. Becoming more aware of the broader meaning of my life and of my true nature leads to a deeper sense of joy, contentment and equanimity from which everyone around me benefits” Napthali pg 182
Finally, now I am older, I have been able to settle into the gentle simplicity of a regular meditation practice. Just me, myself and I, breath, seat. No frills. It is important to be honest here, because this is not how it has always been. It has taken me years to get here, and I feel like a beginner. Having said that, every time it is good, even when it is bad it is good.
“The benefits of meditation are being proven again and again by researchers around the world every day. Scientists have shown meditation can enhance your immune system, it can help you cope with chronic illness, and it can change your brain structure to help with anxiety, focus and attention.”
I am deeply wary of elitism in anything, especially spirituality and its practices. There are so many ways mindfulness or meditation practice can look, and accessibility is important. The ancient wisdom traditions had myriad variations over the centuries. Bringing it back to the 21st century it is something that anyone can do. Suggestions for simple mindfulness practices abound, they are easily accessible, and yes in many cases there’s an app for that. Walking slowly in nature, praying, washing dishes, gardening, knitting, puzzles, colouring in, jogging, if it helps to get you to that place of being present, it is beautiful. It’s all a practice. If it is helping people to de-stress, to cool their overheated nervous systems, to find some precious peace, then it is all good whatever the name.
Suzi Cutcliffe teaches Hatha Yoga at Mysan Yoga – The Sanctuary on Wednesdays at 7.30-8.45am. Join her for a mindful practice of meditation in motion – guaranteed to start your day in a balanced way! Click here to book a class!
Gu, Strauss, Bond and Cavanagh, How do mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction improve mental health and well being? A systematic review and meta-analysis of mediation studies. Clinical Psychology Review 37 1-12 Jan 2015
Gunaratana, Bhante, Mindfulness in Plain English, Wisdom Publications, 2015
Harvey, Shannon, “How to meditate-What type? How long? How often? The Connection, Mind Your Body, 26/3/2015
Napthali, S, Buddhism for Mothers, Allen and Unwin, Australia, 2003