The times when I most resist meditation are when I need it most. For example, when I’m going through a period of high stress.
It can also be difficult to sit with physical pain, when the pain is getting the upper hand.
I few things come to mind.
Firstly, in such stressful times, there are peaks and troughs in the intensity of agitation. Mindfulness practice can help us be aware of these changes. I can choose to meditate when I need it least, so that I have more access to the practice when I need it most.
Secondly, related to the first, we should use all healthy solutions to reduce the original suffering. Let’s not get into a bravery contest and colour our meditation practice with suffering. Make it as easy as possible, then work on the rest.
Thirdly, by practicing with our attention, we can gain some awareness and control of our level of deliberate engagement. Although we might be told to approach and accept suffering, we should use our mindfulness training skilfully to control how closely we approach it. We can choose when to back off from being mindful.
Fourthly, mindfulness skills allow us to titrate our engagement. We can choose how much of the experience we will consciously accept.
This isn’t to claim we have total control over how much pain or stress we let in. Sometimes experience is stronger than our current level of mindfulness. If we are going to use mindfulness, we should measure our practice by whether it does actually reduce suffering. It must always feel like an act of kindness.
This is the self-help book that I used to get started in meditation.
In 2012, I first heard of mindfulness and it sounded like exactly what I needed. I looked up a psychotherapist with mindfulness in their profile and booked an appointment. He did a couple of sessions of guided meditations and then handed me this book.
The first sentence is “Depression hurts”. I’ve read a few books about depression and many of them start with chapters of information describing the damage depression does to society, with lots of statistics and lamentations. But, if you’re depressed, this is hard work. It’s a form of rumination written on the pages. So, when Mark Williams starts with a paragraph that describes the experience of what it’s like to be depressed, then we can start to hope that we’re finally in the right place.
Depression hurts. It is the black dog of the night that robs you of joy, the unquiet mind that keeps you awake. It’s the noonday demon that only you see, the darkness visible only to you.
Following this, there are some chapters that explain very clearly how depression works. This is already helpful because we can see that depression is an understandable process. It can creep up on anyone very stealthily and can be hard to recognise on first experience.
The 8 week program itself is fantastic. The guided meditations that accompany the book are by Jon Kabat-Zinn➹. These are the gold standard in my opinion and I still use them ten years into my meditation practice.
I learned to meditate through the self-help book The Mindful Way Through Depression➹. This describes the 8 week MBCT program which I recommend to everyone who asks how to get started in meditation.
A few weeks into the program, I was doing mindfulness of the breath in the morning and the body scan in the evening. It was working very well for me and I decided to stay at this level for a bit longer. I never got back to reading the rest of the book. So I continued with the same two guided meditations for over a year.
In that first year of meditation, mindfulness really took hold as a quality of mind. There was no point at which I thought I had enough and didn’t want more. The mental freedom of having the quality of mindfulness available kept growing week after week.
The scope of situations when I could be mindful expanded to cover more patterns of thinking and ever more intense emotions. It also included more types of activities including walking, doing chores and talking to people.
Even when the mind felt stable and positive, I could see that the mindfulness didn’t remain static. It was in its nature to look further and learn more. Each level of improvement was a platform for further gains.
In that first year I was excited by the new experiences. I know now that sometimes a practice can plateau and get a bit stale. We can prevent this by choosing to remain curious about our experience, while also being patient about the pace at which change sometimes comes.
At the start of a guided meditation, the teacher usually gives some instruction about posture. The goal is usually to get the student into a position where they can sit still and comfortably, while also remaining alert.
To achieve this, the legs and hips are arranged as a stable base for the body. Then the torso and spine are upright, with the arms and shoulders relaxed, and then the head is held in a position of balance.
If we looks at these qualities of posture, they are also the qualities of mind that we want in meditation: stable, alert, relaxed and balanced.
Throughout the session of meditation, the mind sometimes notices the body. If these qualities are present they act as prompts and reminders for the mind. Specially so if we have set them up deliberately.
First, when we are setting up the posture, the mind is engaged. Then, with that posture established, the mind notices the qualities in the body and, to some degree, is influenced by them.
The posture of the body acts as a background anchor to all of our sitting meditations.
People come to meditation for a wide variety of reasons. Some might be struggling with stress and want the medicinal benefit of secular meditation to reduce it. At the other extreme, there are those looking for a deep tradition to add to their spiritual journey.
All of these interests are matched by the wide range of meditation traditions. At the secular end are the amazing programs of MBCT and MBSR, with their evidence-based scientific approaches. Then there are the temples where nuns and monks can immerse themselves in the Buddhist traditions. And there’s everything in-between.
Wherever your goals lie on this spectrum, they will be best supported by establishing a solid base in mindfulness. Without it, I’ve seen people flailing about with poor teachings and unstable practices.
The 8-week MBCT/MBSR programs have been designed for the highest likelihood of success. Even though the programs might seem psychological and un-spiritual, they are the best chance to experience real mindfulness. The course designers know what works; they know how to teach it; and they know how to train the trainers.
What we build on top of this evidence-based foundation is up to us.
‘Discipline’ sounds like making ourselves do something we’re not going to like. If we liked it, we wouldn’t need discipline. It’s a word that has some should in it. With related tones of harshness and negative consequences.
‘Precision’ achieves the same effect as discipline.
For example, if I’m trying to meditate for a total of an hour per day, precision gets me there just as well as discipline.
Precision can feel artistic or sophisticated. It requires attention. It can be the result of flow. Sometimes precision comes from stillness rather than impulse. Using just the right amount and kind of power, not just pushing harder.
Precision has many mental qualities in common with mindfulness. Precision can be kind without compromise.
This has happened countless times. Even when I’ve been really into my meditation practice. I’ve started a sitting, I recall the first minute, then the next thing I know: my timer has gone off to signal the end of the session.
Even worse, this can happen with a guided meditation. I can be so distracted that the sounds become lost in another world while my mind is drifting or is caught up in some imaginary scenario.
Even worse than that, this pattern has sometimes repeated for days.
At such times, it can seem like the meditation isn’t doing anything at all. It can become a question: is there any point in continuing to sit if all I’m going to do is drift for half an hour?
And yet, if I look at the difference between un-mindful meditation and no meditation, it’s clear that these apparently worthless sittings are doing something. The feeling of steadiness continues to be supported.
The answer, in all cases, is to check our experience. Is this leading in the direction of less suffering, in my life, in general? Does it do no harm?
And keep learning. From books, courses, teachers, even websites.
I’ve avoided the phrase ‘bad’ meditation, because there are some things you can do that are unhelpful and can make you feel worse if you don’t figure them out. An example is spending the whole time in negative judgement about failing to be mindful. I have enough experience not to do that, even in the cases I’m describing in this post.
Our meditation teachers might ask us to ‘anchor’ our attention on the breath.
We do this by setting this behaviour as an intention for the meditation session. We start very deliberately, with some determination that the mind should rest on the breath. Then, each time we notice that the mind has become distracted, we gently return the attention back to the breath. We do this as many times as we forget and remember.
Every time we catch our mind drifting, and return it to our chosen anchor, our mindfulness capacity increases. We strengthen our ability to pay attention, attend for longer durations, bring the attention back more often and bring the attention back more quickly.
The mind is a virtual space, in which almost anything can happen. Since it’s not limited to what’s actually happening in the senses, it can drift in any direction and go to any place. The mind slipping off to somewhere else is very subtle. Having a pre-decided anchor is a way for us to notice that the mind has drifted.
Knowing beforehand where we will return the attention to also means that we are not distracted by having to decide where to put it each time.
Any activity that requires our attention will be supercharged by this capacity for mindfulness.
The purpose of our meditation might be simply to reduce distraction and rumination, so we can function with less mental agitation. Stability itself can be soothing, giving us the sensation of being centred rather than scattered.
If our meditation session has some additional purpose, such as the body scan, then we can spend more time benefiting from the body scan. We acquire more information, and apply any guidance more diligently.
Even after years of practice, I needed to be reminded of this.
I was on a course and a teacher was doing a guided meditation. My meditation felt heavy and oppressive. I was noticing my ongoing symptoms of brain fog, and feeling quite frustrated that it was there again, changing how my practice felt. I started pushing against the experience rather than settling into the meditation.
Then the teacher reminded us that the intention is to notice what’s happening.
This non-fixing is what Mark Williams calls the being mode, as opposed to the doing mode. We can notice when we are getting caught up, trying to make things different.
Doing mode is one in which we try to close the gap between the way things are and the way we think they should be. We respond to what we hear as a call to action – and it can make us feel worse.
“Another mode of mind is required when it comes to dealing with unhappiness. Evolution has bequeathed us with an alternative to critical thinking. … It is called awareness.”
Mindfulness needs to be deliberately filled with the quality of goodwill.
As well as making a healthy static meditation practice, kindness can also be used to give a sense of direction to the practice. It’s the first signpost that we are moving along in the direction of less suffering.
Mindfulness without kindness is like standing on one leg. It won’t get us very far along the path.