A few years ago I would probably have told you I wasn’t “the type” of person interested in meditation. I was under the impression that it was this intangible mess of wishy-washy yet elaborate set of practices I wouldn’t have the patience to do in the first place.
When I was younger I had spent many years practicing various traditional martial arts like Karate and Aikido. And in those there where always a few minutes of meditation at the start of the class, sitting in an uncomfortable position called “seiza” in Japaneze, with your legs folded underneath your thighs.
I remember all I could ever thing during these brief moments of stillness was “can we get going with the training already, my knees hurt!” (which indeed they did, I have long legs and can’t sit comfortably in this position to this day).
Many years later I was recommended to try out Yoga in order to improve both health and flexibility. I started a beginners course of Ashtanga Yoga at my local yoga center, that in their advertising insisted that this was indeed just the physical exercises of Yoga – without any of the explicitly spiritual pursuits that are tied to this art.
While that was mostly true they still started every practice with mumbling some completely incomprehensible harangue in Sanskrit. Phonetically speaking it sounded completely ridiculous to me and I could never bring myself to mumble along, in fact I had a hard time keeping a straight face.
Combined with the many prolonged static, stretching poses that I didn’t find particularly interesting or enjoyable my days as a yogi didn’t become many. I want to add that the instructor of the course was a very nice individual that I think did a good teaching job. Fully traditional yoga just wasn’t for me, that’s all.
But hold on Robert, wasn’t this a story of how you got started with meditation?
Yes indeed, I’m coming to that now…
There are times in your life when it becomes unambiguously clear that you need to make a change or take action on something.
In terms of when I understood that I needed something like meditation I can give you the exact moment this realization dawned on me:
It was about five years ago, I had been working intensely at a big project at work. On that Tuesday evening my wife and I where going to watch the latest episode of one of my favorite British crime series on television. I had really been looking forward to just relaxing in front of the TV.
However, for some reason my mind just seemed to wander elsewhere the entire time. I tried to bring my focus back to the television program, but constantly found myself thinking about what I was going to do in my big work project tomorrow, next week etc. Worrying and obsessing about things I in hindsight know where actually rather trivial.
Towards the end of the 1,5 hour show my wife, who had also been working hard lately, had dozed off. As the end credits rolled she asked me the obvious: “What happened? Who did it, who was the murderer?”
To my own horror I couldn’t answer that question. In fact, I could probably not have given a good recap of the basic plot of what I had just watched if my life had depended on it!
I felt awkward and ashamed. But more than anything I was angry with myself. I had definitely been awake the whole time, right in front of the show I really enjoy and had been looking forward to all week – yet I had for all intents and purposes missed the entire thing!
I promised myself this silly mishap would never happen again.
But it did – and with increasing frequency. To my own annoyance I found myself repeating this zombie like behavior often while watching TV. And much worse, it had started seeping into other areas of my life as well.
I listened to family and friends talking to me, going through the motions of saying “uh-huh” and nodding here and there but not actually paying attention to what they where saying.
At night I would sometimes mentally keep “working” on some mind-numbingly repetitive task four hours on end. In the morning I wasn’t always sure if I had actually slept or not.
I began to realize I needed help of some kind but was unsure of where to turn. I had always been reluctant to seek medical help unless it was really, really necessary.
Then fate intervened, or something…
By pure coincidence I read an article in a magazine produced by my local hospital district. It was about recent developments in psychotherapy and how things like ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) where being used as effective and drug free treatments for burnout, anxiety, depression and similar conditions.
The article also mentioned that these methods could prove useful even for people who have never sought professional help for these types of symptoms. It talked about how thoughts are only that, thoughts – they do not define who you are.
The article also described a simple exercise that anyone could try out. Basically it was only to sit down (comfortably this time!) for a while, observe and calm your breath for a few minutes and then observing any feelings and sensations that came up without trying to control or “judge” them in any way. If the thoughts really started to wander wildly the advice was to gently bring your attention beck to your breathing.
According to the doctor in the article this kind of exercise could be very beneficial to practice for a few minutes a day for all people, in order to increase awareness of what’s going on inside you.
That word, awareness, really struck a chord with me. It felt like exactly what I had been lacking during the last few weeks. Combined with the very simple approach and the fact that this apparently was a method used by modern psychiatric doctors I though: why not, I’ll give it a shot!
Still skeptical, I didn’t really expect that it would make much of a difference. But I really made an effort to do the exercise for about five to fifteen minutes a day. It was sort of awkward at first but after only a few days it was actually something I was looking forward to.
While I can’t say I felt any drastic change happening I somehow felt calm and more focused afterwards.
After about a week I started noticing my awareness of my own thoughts and everything around me had really improved. I didn’t tune out when watching television or talking to others anymore and I had the best night of sleep in a long, long time.
I was absolutely gobsmacked how something so simple could have such a profound effect on my general well-being! It felt like I had simply omitted doing something natural and mandatory like eating or sleeping.
So while I continued doing the simple exercise I had learned in that article almost daily, I started doing more research about the topic in my free time.
This modern approach to meditation, because I still think that is a good name for it, is deceptively simple, has nothing to do with gurus or obscure religious beliefs. It can be practiced almost anywhere and it is entirely free!
Over the years I have developed and refined the exercises I use to suit me and my lifestyle. I’ve very informally taught the basic principles to family and friends, who have all been thankful and (even if I say so myself) quite impressed.
I’ve never considered any of it to be “my” meditation though. I have no intentions of becoming a “guru” teaching any form of strictly ritualistic routine. I believe firmly in understanding the basic principles, giving some very basic (we’re talking the equivalent of counting sheep here folks!) exercises a go with an open mind and then progressively adapting it to what works best for you.
If you are interested in how I currently view this type of meditation, how and why it can be beneficial for virtually anyone as well as how to implement it seamlessly in the busiest of lifestyle, you can read more about it in my highly practical guide called Calm Your Mind.
What do you think of the above story? If you have had similar experiences or perhaps currently find yourself in the zombie-like state I describe I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.