I remember the first time I ever heard about meditation. I was in elementary school and at my friend’s house, peeking into his parents’ room. The room had a little area with cushions on the floor that my friend explained was where his dad “meditated”. It sounded intense.
That was back in the late 90s. Today, with meditation now well and truly mainstream, “intense” is hardly the word I’d use to describe it.
Countless studies have shown its incredible benefits, which include improved self-awareness and self-esteem and better focus and concentration, to name a few. It’s even been found to permanently change the brain for the better. It’s no wonder some of the world’s biggest names, including Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Seinfeld and Katy Perry, are advocates of the practice.
Naturally, I wanted in. Who wouldn’t?
But no matter how hard I tried, I could never manage to ‘get it’. I’d try during savasana at the end of yoga classes. I’d try lying on my bed, listening to a recording. And I’d try sitting out on my balcony, also with an audio recording. But my mind would always wander. I’d end every session — if I even got to the end and didn’t just give up after a couple minutes — feeling frustrated. Far from the Zen-like person or voice I’d been listening to.
Now I know, of course, that there is no ‘getting it’ with meditation. There is no ‘you either get it or you don’t’. Simply stopping and recognising the thoughts swarming through your brain is enough to create some distance between you and them.
That said, I did eventually find a style of meditation that did make me feel calmer and more present. I’d been particularly anxious about a life situation one day when one of my housemates asked if I wanted to go for a coastal walk. On the walk, she asked me to name five things I could see. We went back and forth naming things. Then four things we could touch. Then three we could hear, two we could smell and one we could taste. I felt immediately calmer.
We’d been doing the 5-4-3-2-1 Coping Technique, an exercise psychologists teach to patients to help them deal with anxiety.
I started to see meditation in a whole new way. And while I rarely adopted the full 5-4-3-2-1 technique, whenever I’d be on a walk or even in the shower with thoughts racing through my mind, I’d recognise that fact — and stop.
I’d then start to really observe what was around me and slow down my movements. On a walk, I’d make each step deliberate, noticing my foot hitting the pavement. In the shower, I’d really try to feel the water on my head and shoulders. And I’d feel so much calmer for it.
Janet Yockers, yoga teacher at BodyMindLife Online, calls this technique mindfulness. “It’s simply developing moment-to-moment awareness,” she says. “I like to think of meditation as a heightened state of awareness, and there are many ways to get there — mindfulness is just one of those ways.”
So, apart from the obvious fact that I’m giving my thoughts less weight and thereby freeing myself from them, what else does continually cultivating mindfulness do?
“Ultimately, you are rewiring the patterns in your brain,” says Yockers. “For most of us, when our brains are on auto-pilot, we can be very terrified and consumed by our thoughts. A meditation or mindfulness practice starts to unravel and loosen those patterns we have had for so long.
“Immediately we can feel lighter and less attached to whatever we were focusing on previously. Long term, we start to really live and make decisions from a place of deep awareness. We become the driver and ultimately learn that we have the power to direct the course of our lives.”
A quick Google search will also tell you that Oprah is also a big fan of this type of meditation. In 2016, she wrote, “If […] you still feel that you can’t make the time to try [meditation] yourself, my advice is to start small.”
“When you’re in the shower or tub, simply be with the water. Appreciate the fragrance of soap. The other day, I had a moment of transcendence just fully taking in the scent of my shower gel. The pleasure of the warm water and the privilege of cleanliness filled me to the point of tears.”
Again, however, as Yockers explains, mindfulness is only one of the many ways we can meditate. And while it works for me, it may not work for others (I actually wrote a whole article about how to work out which meditation style is right for you here).
“We will all be drawn to a different method, and I think it’s important for a student to experiment with different styles until they find something that resonates,” she says.
“My personal favourite is singing. Using a mantra or spiritual song can be really accessible and uplifting. Singing makes most people feel good. Again, what we are doing is replacing our normal thought patterns with something different and more positive.”
“A few moments of freedom from the normal happenings of our mind allow us to break the pattern and momentum of some of our negative thought patterns and put us back into a place of presence and joy.”