People make meditation part of their lives for many different reasons. They are as varied as the different types of meditation styles available.
For many people meditation might be part of a spiritual practice such as prayer or contemplation. It might be an aspect of their movement practice such as Yoga or Tai Chi. Meditation may be a coping strategy for stress or help with focus at work. For others meditation may be a tool prescribed to deal with anxiety, fear, anger and other difficult emotions.
We are lucky in the age we live in now to have so much access to meditation teachers and programs and to now have scientific research into the benefits of meditation (particularly mindfulness) on a number of health and wellbeing indicators.
I could spend this whole article going into the fascinating science (which is usefully catching up with what ancient traditions have known for millennia) but others have done that really well already here and here, and this is an article about my story….
My first memories of meditation
I grew up with parents that were open to Eastern philosophies and who practiced Tai Chi regularly. I was surrounded by books on wisdom tradtions and the energetic body from a young age. As a kid I was fairly chilled out but as I grew up and went to school it became clear that I suffered from stress and anxiety particularly in the context of certain noises.
I absolutely hated the sounds of people eating noisily and more than anything else sniffling. It wasn’t just a normal ‘that noise is a bit annoying’ feeling but a full body stress response that often ended with me leaving the room or acting out aggression to the perpetrator of this most terrible noise!! Never physically but certainly emotionally and energetically. Often my Dad, who seemed to have the coincidental habit of sniffling, tapping and noisily chewing on regular occasions.
At the time this ‘condition’ I had was just a little bit strange. Not many people seemed to really take it seriously and most thought I was just a bit uptight. Now it seems that there is a term for this ‘brain dysfunction that causes common sounds to produce an intense emotional response – such as anger, panic, fear or distress’* – Misophonia. If you are interested you can read more about other people’s journey with Misophonia here and here.
I learnt to manage this sometimes debilitating condition by wearing ear plugs and head phones much of the time (in exams, on bus/train/plane journeys and even at home reading). I think it helped that I have a deep love of music and I surrounded myself with my favourite albums as a security blanket.
But it wasn’t enough. When I got to GCSE and A Levels at school I needed a better way of coping with the stress of exams on top of the hatred of tapping and sniffling in the exam room. My mum sent me to have a series of sessions with a well-known practitioner who utilised ‘semi-hypnosis’, which I now understand is really a deep guided meditation technique, to work with phobias and anxiety. I was guided into deep trance like states (but with full awareness) and given affirmations to attempt to change the way my brain responded to certain sounds. I was given tapes (yes, we are way back in the 90s here!) to practice at home.
To be honest it didn’t work at the time. I probably didn’t do enough of the self practice and there was deep resistance in me from the years of negative conditioning my body-mind had undergone.
But, what I did get from those sessions was an insight into a deep, deep sense of relaxation and peace that is available to us if we take the time to uncover it.
Then I found Yoga
What this meant was when I discovered yoga in my first year of university I recognised the deep state of relaxation that I was able to access in Savasana. I already had good body awareness and flexibility as a former dancer but yoga offered me an opportunity to really feel my body from the inside out without needing to contort myself into positions purely for aesthetics.
I still suffered with my Misophonia and coped with my music but I now also had a burgeoning interest in these other tools that made me feel a sense of peace (even if just for that 10 minute Savasana). I became interested in meditation, which at the time was no where near as mainstream, and started to teach myself some Buddhist practices inspired by reading ‘The Art of Happiness’ by the Dalai Lama.
My yoga practice was sporadic through uni and travel but I was certainly becoming more connected with my energetic body and beginning to make connections between my thoughts and the way they made me feel. I certainly didn’t have a regular meditation practice at this stage though.
It was a few years into moving to Australia, during a stressful period that took it’s toll on me, that I decided it was time to take a deep dive into the practice. I had visited the dentist with tooth pain when I was told that it was actually TMJ, a tension in the jaw often caused by stress. This was the turning point that highlighted to me that things were out of balance. I committed to making yoga a regular and important part of my life and in 2014 decided to take the next step and completed my 200 hour teacher training. At that stage I didn’t think I would end up teaching but I knew this was a perfect way to delve deeper into this ancient and powerful technique.
What convinced me even more to take the training was the focus on mindfulness meditation. I was lucky enough to be part of the first Grass Roots Yoga Teacher Training incorporating an 8 week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course with Cool Karma Collected and this changed my life. Having a ‘real-life’ meditation teacher (both Marike Knight and Shannon Barry), a structured practice and to be able to discuss our experiences and difficulties as a group was incredibly beneficial.
The tools I learnt in that training, in the supportive community that was created, have been powerful and profound. In that course we systematically, in an accessible way, learnt how to navigate our emotions and thoughts, through the sensations of the body. I finally now understood why yoga made me feel so good and actually started to see how I might be able to access that peace AT ANY TIME?!?!
I was truly hooked on the simple practice of mindfulness meditation and pulled together the pieces of my initial Buddhist practices and this new quite scientific approach and settled into practicing regularly in the Insight tradition, which I have been doing now for the past 5 years.
Mindfulness is the intention to pay attention to each moment without judgement. It most commonly taught through breath awareness where we learn to focus our attention on the sensation of breathing, in the present moment in a curious way. Insight Meditation (or Vipassana) has mindfulness at its core but also builds awareness into the true nature of reality through reflection, contemplation and cultivation of positive mind states.
In an mindfulness course a group are taken from being potentially complete beginner meditators to having a regular meditation practice and uncovering deep insight into the nature their own mind. And that goes for everyone that completes the course, even if they thought there was no way they could ever meditate. For most people the tools they learn through mindfulness help to deal with stress, sleep better, embrace change and discover more joy in the small things in life. For some it provides life changing ways to deal with chronic pain and illness recovery.
Following the initial teacher training and MBSR I went on to complete a number of other mindfulness courses, studying with different teachers and deepening my own practice including on a 10 day silent Goenke style Vipassana retreat. My main teachers are Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield who I am now training with to teach this style of meditation to others through classes and courses.
So how did mindfulness meditation help me?
Firstly, the most important learning I gained from the practice was the way that emotion and thought feels as sensation in the body. When we are able to continually ground ourselves in the body it helps us to be present and to be aware of the way sensation shifts and changes. For example, in around week 4 of the MBSR course we started to journal about experiences that were positive or negative in our lives. Not only did we write about how we felt emotionally and what we thought, but what sensation we felt in our bodies. This, I feel is the most powerful insight we can gain about the nature of reality. What comes out of that is the subsequent insight that if we just watch the emotion/thought/sensation, whether it is a desire or an aversion (or somewhere along this spectrum), it changes and eventually moves through and disappears. It’s our grasping, thinking mind that holds on.
This insight is all very well being read, but you can’t truly understand it unless you practice. While physical yoga postures can be mindful, and can help us to gain these insights, I believe a committed, seated mindfulness meditation practice is where you find the most benefit. It doesn’t have to be for long, you can start with 5 minutes, and if you find your mind is really busy – great! -all the more thoughts to work with! It’s not necessarily easy but I promise if you stick to it, it will change your life. And we all could do with a little more peace and a little stress response.
The unexpected consequences of my practice (and this happened over time not straight away like flicking a switch) is that I would no longer say that I have Misophonia. It wasn’t even a thing when I had it and once I found out that it finally had a label, I no longer identified with it! Over time I came to realise that I still noticed the sounds I had aversion to, and had a reaction in my body, but I was able to become conscious of it and to let it move through really quickly. And I would even say that there are many moments now when I barely even notice the sounds that used to throw me into a stressful frenzy. And if you’ve felt the sense of tightening and constriction that comes with this condition you’ll understand the freedom that I now feel. I am truly, truly grateful.
Interestingly, I’ve also found that I’m no longer completely terrified of spiders, which was an phobia for me until a few years ago. I can now curiously investigate the spider and ascertain whether it is deadly or not (very important in this dangerous Aussie land!). I can then consciously hold the fear (which is definitely still there) in my awareness, feeling it in my body, while my mind assures me there is no danger to my life. Using this powerful mind control I can place a jar over ugly black spiders and take them out to a life of freedom in the garden (or just let them be if they aren’t causing us any inconvenience). This is still a work in progress and I draw the line on picking up a Huntsman just yet!
But more than any of these daily benefits – the stress reduction, the ability to control the mind and emotions in difficult situations, the increased compassion for those around me, the ability to see my own limiting mindsets – is the connection (or really the re-connection) I have experienced to something greater. It sounds cliched but I mean it from the deepest part of me.
When we are able to still our monkey mind from the chatter, the constant pull of desire and push of aversion, from the busyness that we clutter ourselves with in this modern world, we can actually be awake to the experience of each moment and that is where true happiness lies. Often in workshops when I guide people to reflect on when they are most alive, awake and happy, the answers are so simple and I know this is true for me too.
- The colours of a sunset…
- The way the light catches in the trees…
- A smile…
- A hug…
- A twinkle in someone’s eyes…
- A piece of music…
- Singing a song…
- The majestic flight of an eagle…
- The glitter of snow on a mountain…
- The feeling of freedom floating in a lake…
We don’t need much to experience the joy available in these experiences except awareness. We might think we need the conditions to be exactly right but it’s just not true. How many of us miss the opportunity to just be present because we are caught up in thoughts or lost in an experience that is all in our minds.
This doesn’t mean that my life is all rainbows, sunshine and roses!! I feel stress, fear, anger, pain, sadness as we all do as part of this human existence. This is real life and we can’t stop the difficult situations from happening. But I do remember to access presence more regularly and more quickly and I savour the joyful moments without being attached to them.
When we are able to cultivate a spacious sense of presence we might get a sense of being in flow, in the moment and aligned with a force that encompasses more than our self. Artists, athletes, musicians will feel this as being in the zone but we don’t need to paint, run or play to access it. It is this life force that run through all of us, through all of nature and the cosmos and which connects us all. It’s not magical, maybe a little bit mysterious (science is struggling to quantify it), but completely accessible to every human on this planet. And I believe it is this connection that has the ability to create massive positive change in the world, through the way we relate to each other and to the earth.
I’d love to teach everyone to meditate as I believe the benefits are wide ranging and powerful beyond measure, just as each one of us is a powerful conductor of this life force.
Thanks for reading my story and if this article spoke to you and you are called to share your own journey or inspired to learn to meditate please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.
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