I like to consider myself scientific. The idea of meditation was pretty much the embodiment of everything I hated. One time during my second year at University, my seminar leader instructed the class to sit on the ground, shut our eyes and indulge in some shared meditation. I was furious. My friend (of course he was Californian) loved it. Looking back on it now, he was right.
The thing is, I didn’t know how to let go. When I sat on the floor and shut my eyes, my brain kicked into overdrive. Why was I paying to sit on my ass? Why were a group of so-called intellectuals indulging in mysticism? I couldn’t separate meditation from my pre-conceived notions of all it entailed; spirituality, togas and shaved heads (I had a shaved head at the time, but still).
And so life continued, my mind buzzing, until almost a year and a half later. I went to a party, took way too many drugs, and came as close to a mental breakdown as I ever want to. In the weeks following, I looked for something, anything, to help me grab the steering wheel of my own consciousness. Mindfulness was the answer.
To clarify; mindfulness is pretty much just a western word for meditation – and while meditation is more an act and mindfulness more a state of being, they’re ‘pretty much’ interchangeable.
I downloaded ‘Calm’ from the App Store, put in my headphones, sat down and closed my eyes. A voice calmly told me to breathe (as if I wasn’t already?) to let go (oh yeah, because it’s that easy) and to let thoughts pass by (I’ve got so much stuff I need to be doing right now). But I persisted. At least once a day, I sat down. Sometimes in the dark, sometimes in the light. Sometimes I sat on a chair, others the floor. Slowly, the silent spaces between thoughts grew.
But the real turning moment came for me on the London Underground. One of the meditations included in Calm is specifically for commuting. Against all of my instincts, I sat with my eyes closed on the tube home from work, breathing deeply. Slowly I was told to move my focus from my breathing to the sounds around me – but, and here’s the key part, I had to observe the sounds without narrative. The screech of the wheels, the clamour of passengers, everything stopped being about how I related to it, but how it just..was. Independent of me. I opened my eyes as the sun set beyond the tube window. For the first time in far too long, I was alive and present. Not in the past or the future, here. It was a revelation.
I’ve been practicing mindfulness for about 4 months now. I mostly use ‘Calm’ and ‘Headspace’, but these are simply supplements to all I need – 10 minutes, somewhere to sit, and a willingness to be. Not to improve, not to better myself, but to be. Meditation is all about starting over. Breathing in and out, catching thoughts trailing away, and refocusing.
In, out, in..what’s for dinner?..out, in, out..I looked like an idiot earlier..in, out..for ten minutes.
Sometimes it’s hell, my mind screaming and yelling, desperate to indulge in panic or worry or anxiety – other times it’s bliss. I’ll catch myself on the cusp of sleep from relaxation. Neither of these is the better or desired outcome, both simply are.
Mindfulness has taught me to be less critical of myself and others, to judge myself and others less, to help deflate the importance of the self in my personal narrative, to overcome OCD behaviours and confront triggers (although these two have been paired with CBT – cognitive behaviour therapy), to be more present and happy and alive.
I cannot stress enough that meditation isn’t a magic bullet. It won’t change you as a person unless you make the change yourself. It won’t fix bad relationships, but it can give you the power to change your own reactions to all that happens around and to you.
Mindfulness is simple, secular, scientific. It isn’t a fad. It isn’t wishy-washy nonsense. It is simply tuning into your own frequency, and learning to be aware of your own thoughts, as you have them. I wish everyone practiced daily – but knowing how easily I would have swept this away as hogwash a year ago, I know how ridiculous this sounds to others.
I’d like to close with a simple practice to anyone reading this – if you have ten minutes to spare, you can do this. Sit comfortably, stick on some ocean waves or whale song if it helps, close your eyes and breathe. That’s it. Breathe. Focus on the breath as it enters and leaves your body. Feel the physical sensation of your lungs expanding, feel the weight of yourself on the chair – and whenever your mind runs away to tomorrow, work, money – just breathe.
In, out, in, out. You are alive and present. Ten minutes a day will change your life.
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