Never Tried Meditation? Start Here…

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If you’d like to bring more mindfulness to your life then beginning to meditate is one of the best ways to start. Meditation is a ‘practice’, we are practicing not to be brilliant meditators but to show up more fully to the moments of our life as they arise. Neuroscience shows us that through meditation we can train the brain to be more focused on the present and spend less time mind-wandering. So taking some time out to meditate may mean you spend less time procrastinating, worrying and ruminating leaving you more time to feel alive.

Meditation is for everyone, it’s a return to our natural state of being. Learning to meditate is actually more an unlearning of all that we’ve placed on top of our ability to simply be present.

So, lets get started; the best place to start is exactly where you are. If you can find a space in a quiet room then that is helpful, however really we can meditate anywhere. It is worth bearing in mind that there are rarely the ‘right’ conditions for meditation and it is part of the practice to see if we can allow and accept things as they are. All you really need is already here – your body and your breath, you can’t breathe in the past or the future, only now, so this is always our access point to the present.

How should I position myself?

It is good to get comfortable with an upright aligned spine and a grounded triangular base, so if you are sitting on a chair try to have your feet on the floor, hip-width apart, feeling into the sitting bones. To avoid back ache the knees should be positioned below the hips. Alternatively sit cross-legged if this is comfortable for you; some people find it helpful to place something under the knees to prop them up if there is any straining across the groin area. With any seated position it is worth having a little sway from side to side, backwards and forwards to feel into your mid-point, so the head is resting aligned on the neck and neither the head or pelvis are tilted too far one way or another. A further option is to lay down. I advise clients to lay in a semi supine position, on their back, head slightly propped up with a book or small pillow and knees raised, again hip width apart, feet on floor. Laying in semi-supine is great for realigning the spine, plus if we begin to fall asleep our knees usually start to wobble and this wakes us up!

What should I be doing?

Relaxed awareness is what we are after, so there’s no need to try too hard, rather than our awareness being on our thoughts we are gently tuning into being present for this moment in time. If we approach it as ‘being in meditation’ rather than ‘doing a meditation’ this tends to bring a lightness of touch that allows us to let go, be less judgemental and move into sensing mode.

What about thoughts?

Mindfulness meditation is not about ‘clearing the mind’ or pushing away thought. If you’ve ever lain in bed at night trying to stop thinking you’ll know how this tends to make thoughts come thicker and faster.  Instead we are recognising and changing our relationship to thoughts. We do this by being completely open and allowing of thought, just choosing to let thoughts come and go whilst gently bringing our attention back to the present.

I’ve developed a meditation technique called the ‘sitting at the station of our thoughts’ approach. Rather than jumping on every train of thought that comes along we gently attempt to stay where we are in the meditation, allowing trains of thought to come and go without getting on board. Thought only becomes thinking when we engage with it. When we notice a thought and our compulsion to get on board we simply redirect our attention back into the breath or the body and in doing so allow that particular train to continue it’s journey without taking us along for the ride. At first we may find that some of our thoughts have a sticky quality that draws our attention, whisking us off into the worlds of past and future thinking. However, as we practice just noticing this, without beating ourselves up but gently coming back to the station, we retrain the brain to let go and return to the now. The impact of this is felt not only in our meditation but in our day-to-day lives as we get better at letting go and beginning again, right where we are.

Let’s meditate!

When we start meditating it is useful for us to use a fixed ‘anchor’ such as the body or breath so that we have something to focus on, this type of meditation is called ‘Bompu Zen’ or concentration meditation. As we build up our ability to be less distracted through practice we are able use less of an anchor and move into the realms of ‘Satori Zen’ or insight meditation.

So, let’s start with the anchor of the breath…

You may want to read the below through and get into a meditation position that’s comfortable for you before giving this a go:

Firstly, noticing the breath just as it is, tuning in to the natural rise and fall of the breath that can be felt down in the tummy…

Then very simply we begin counting our breaths 1–10…

In-breath is 1

Out-breath is 2

In-breath is 3

All the way up to 10

And then we begin again at 1.

You may find it helpful to close your eyes while you do this.

Move as deeply as you can into the experience of the breath you are in and allow the next breath to arrive all by itself. Don’t rush to get to the next breath or the next number, just be focused on where you are. Thoughts will pop into your head, this is perfectly OK, but as soon as you realise that you have got on board one of those trains simply return to counting the breath.

Well done! You’ve chosen to make a start. Exploring our inner space is one of life’s greatest adventures, I wish you the happiest of journeys.

Frances Trussell, Mindfulness Mediation Teacher and Author of You Are Not Your Thoughts; The Secret Magic of Mindfulness” out now.

This article was first published in Planet Mindful January 2019

 

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Mind the Gap; the brilliant technique for being less stressed!

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Stress used to rule my life, expressing itself in many guises. Highly emotional and easily upset, despite the pretence of a hard exterior even the slightest of criticisms pierced my very thin skin. Often the red mist would descend, amid flashes of anger I’d suddenly become a shouty, stompy (occasionally throwing things) version of myself. Back then I might have described myself as passionate and fiery, in denial about how destructive my outbursts were to my relationships with others and with myself. Huge waves of self-loathing and hot tears would usually follow one of these fits. I’d replay the fight or incident, rerunning and reimagining the dialogues, struggling between the need to be right and the potential I might not be. Writing this raises many uncomfortable and embarrassing memories. But it also raises a little smile in me, because I can say, hand-on-heart, things do not push my buttons in the same way anymore. I cultivated a technique I call ‘Mind the Gap’ which worked so effectively for me it changed my behaviour and reduced stress across all areas of my life. I’ve gone on to teach this to many hundreds of my clients since.

It came from recognising that the stress, anger and upset in my life wasn’t coming from outside forces, it was coming from inside me. When we take ownership of our stress we have an opportunity to respond to where we find ourselves rather than be stuck in the cycle of unconscious autopilot reactions.

It was the most minor of mundane events, the alarm clock went off – the sound was enough for me to want to throw the alarm clock out of the window, to wish I could throw myself out of the window. Anger and anxiety shot through me, a precursor to the cycles of worry that I knew would shortly kick in. Then a realisation; the alarm clock was just a machine with sound coming out of it, the stress didn’t come from there. The day, just a day of my life, the stress didn’t come from there either. The stress came from me, how I was reacting to a sound and my thoughts around this. In this split second of awareness I was able to see myself almost like having an out-of-body-experience. I could witness my behaviour, feel my physical reactions and see the thoughts that were feeding this. I was able to step back and see that this pattern that had been appearing in all areas of my life. Usually an event, situation, comment or even thought served as a trigger for my stress reaction, I’d then fly off the handle, disappearing into a series of stories of my head rather than the reality of the situation. I’d got well practiced in living in the worst-case scenario world of my thoughts, constantly acting from defence mode as if at threat from some immediate attack. I’d been reacting not to what was in front of me but to the tale I’d created around that and at the very route of that reaction whether expressed as anger or tears was always fear. I’d been living in hyperarousal, so often it only took the slightest thing to tip me into fight or flight. In becoming aware of this something shifted in me, I’d created a really small space in which I could witness myself and how things really were. From this space I could see that I had some choice about how the next moments played out – I could either continue to react or choose instead to respond. For me, and so many people I’ve worked with, this moment of recognition is transformative. Like switching from autopilot to manual, a claiming back of power.

Here’s how the ‘Mind the Gap’ technique works and how you can implement it into your life. Firstly it’s helpful to recognise that stressors are external pressures and stress is your reaction (or response) to those pressures. Therefore, stress doesn’t come from ‘out there’ it comes from inside you. Usually what feeds our stress is not the situation but our thoughts around it.

When we are operating on autopilot we automatically react to stressors;

Stressor > Reaction.

When we bring our awareness to what is going on for us, we give ourselves the opportunity to notice when we are in a potentially stressful situation, be aware of our thoughts, feelings and what is going on in the body. By switching from autopilot to manual we create space in which we can choose to respond rather than react:

Stressor > Gap > Response

With our mindful awareness we get to ‘Mind the Gap’ between an event and our reaction, hopefully choosing to respond rather than react.

So, next time you find yourself in a stressful situation remember that stressors will be stressors but it’s your stress and notice how awareness of this helps to dissipate your feelings around it. For example, in a traffic jam we have a couple of options:

Option 1: Be incredibly annoyed/upset/angry about the traffic jam, worry about the knock of effect of your lateness, catastrophise about possible outcomes, allow damaging stress hormones to rush around your body.

Option 2: Be in the traffic jam.

Either way the traffic moves no faster. The force of your upset has no impact on the traffic, the only person it has an impact upon is you. Stress in small bursts can be useful but living in a constantly stressed out state we become distressed, our immunity to disease is weakened with both the quality, and possibly quantity, of our lives reduced. The more we practice minding the gap the more we develop a ‘not-minding so much’ attitude to life. After all we are not in the traffic, we are the traffic – whether we choose to be stuck in it is down to us. Wherever I’ve encountered a similar stuck feeling this insight has helped me enormously. I won’t claim to always get this right but I’ve learned to let go more, of the need to be right and of the struggle with what is. Ultimately as we raise our level of consciousness we come to recognise that resisting where we are or fighting with the past is a huge waste of our energy. We can instead channel this energy, the most precious of resources, more wisely. How we respond to where we find ourselves is our greatest power in life, stepping into this our most empowering choice. Mind the gap and witness how this gap grows, becoming space and lightness. This space has allowed for more compassion, humour and creativity than the former stress-head me would ever have dreamed possible.

This piece, written by Frances Trussell was first published by Psychologies Magazine 15th August 2018: Link to original article on Lifelabs here.

You can now order a copy of Frances’ new book: You Are Not Your Thoughts: The Secret Magic of Mindfulness 

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10 Top tips for establishing a daily meditation practice

Meditation has been shown to make us happier, healthier and less stressed, the only problem is that to feel those benefits we actually need to do it!  Here are my top tips…

  1. Prioritise it. Take responsibility for your own happiness.
  2. Schedule an appointment with yourself (and stick to it).
  3. Ask for help. You being the best, less stressed version of yourself benefits everyone around you. Ask those close to you to help you make time to meditate.
  4. Do it first. We are very good at doing deals with our self like ‘when the house or my desk is tidy, then I will meditate’. We are far more likely to get the tidying done quicker, be less distracted and enjoy it more if we’ve meditated first. Meditate first, it doesn’t matter if there is mess because when you meditate you have your eyes closed!
  5. Bring the right attitude. If you approach meditation as ‘just another thing to tick off the list’ you make it into a chore, not a pleasure.
  6. Make it work for you. Most people find that meditating first thing in the morning sets them up for the day, however there are no hard and fast rules, making an appointment you can keep is the most important thing.
  7. Be flexible. It would be wonderful if we all had a little candle-lit meditation room in our house where knew we wouldn’t be disturbed. Realistically you might need to meditate on your train commute or in your bathroom with the loo seat down and the door locked. Don’t wait for the perfect conditions, there are no perfect conditions – dogs will bark, planes will fly overhead, the world will go on turning and this is all part of the practice.
  8. Start small. It is better to follow your breath for a minute than to not meditate at all. If all you can manage is a minute today then start there. Perhaps tomorrow you will manage five minutes, next week ten. If you honestly cannot find a single minute in which to follow your breath you probably really need to reassess your life.
  9. Just do it. Even if we are feeling ill or have had the manic day from hell (especially then) we can still lie down, close our eyes and breathe.
  10. Take it one day at a time. If anyone told us we’d have to do anything every day for the rest of our lives that would be too overwhelming to cope with. Life isn’t like that; we only ever have to deal with life one moment at a time, one day at a time. You cannot change what happened yesterday but how you choose to respond to where you find yourself today will shape your life.

Finding the time is usually the main concern of those first setting out on their voyage of meditation. For me, really taking a look at what else I was spending my time doing was a revealing exercise – how much time do we spend checking Facebook, watching TV or procrastinating about life? We have to decide whether we are prepared to use some of that time for meditating instead.

Meditating every day is not always easy, you might not always want to do it, but once you have made it a habit and felt the enormous benefits you won’t want to go without it either.

Ultimately the thing which is usually standing in your way of your practice is you. Meditation is the process of recognising resistance and letting go – this takes place not only in the bit where we sit there and close our eyes but on the way there too, and throughout our lives.

The hardest journey is often the one to our seat.