In times of uncertainty, we often are so caught up in the practical nature of life we neglect other aspects of us that are paramount to our wellbeing and existence. Indeed, it is with such ease during health crises, job loss and the stresses of every day life that we disregard our own mental state, or take any steps to limit the effect events have on our consciousness. A good analogy is that of a cake – with a good base, the cake can be stacked much higher than that of one which is unstable and not resilient, as any additional ‘stress’ on the upper layers will cause a collapse. It is in this analogy we find a good metaphor for our mental health, and how our outlook on life is directly proportional to how much we can deal with at any given time. So much emphasis is placed in our western society on productivity, consumption and demand that we have lost touch with the more spiritual, emotional maintenance we require on daily basis, yet only acknowledge when a significant distress has arisen.
It’s easy to assume issues such as anxiety, low mood and even depression won’t happen to you, particularly if it’s something you haven’t identified with or been made aware of the symptoms. In fact, everyone will have negative thoughts, persisting moods and ‘bad’ times throughout their life, but may be more resilient than others, or have good coping mechanisms in place to prevent a chronic problem. In the United Kingdom, much of the syllabus in primary and secondary schools are towards academic exploits, and less about personal protection, health outlets for stress and how-to self-heal following distressing events. In the eastern cultures however, such as Thailand, meditation, mindfulness and other methods of emotional centring such as exercise and physical activity are taught widely, and exist in part of a greater culture of vast antiquity. These practices originally stemmed from religion and ancient practice of spirituality and awakening, but have also stood up to rigorous scientific testing in our culture around the efficacy of use for a range of mental health issues. However, the idea of taking up and keeping a practice such as meditation in the longer term can seem daunting – even 10 minutes a day – yet, how much time a day do we spend ruminating on negative thoughts and memories?
The concept of mindfulness is to become more aware of the surroundings, the senses and most practices use the breath as an ‘anchor’ by which to focus ones attention. Again, a common misconception is that meditation and mindfulness exist to ‘stop’ negative thoughts, situations and ruminations. In reality, however, the practice is used and works as a process of observing the mind in an unbiased way, gaining perspective for the meditator to see thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories and even physical sensations as temporary or fleeting. This incredibly subtle but profound practice does not seek to change the experience an individual has, but rather to change the perspective of ones experience by gaining clarity and a tool to discern useful and un-useful thoughts. The process of gradual relaxation by deep breathing, shutting the eyes, checking in with the body and finally focusing on the breath is a challenge at first, as the mind inevitably wonders down alleyways, tangents and to the menial tasks in life (doing the washing, driving). It is in this moment however, that one notices the distraction, notes it, and returns to that ‘anchor’ – the breath.
When applied to everyday life and situations currently unfolding in the world at the moment, the only truly constant thing in our lifetime is our own breath and our own consciousness. It is in the focus on these unchanging enigmas that we begin to view negative emotions, personal situations and even global crises as nevertheless scary and unpleasant, but by their very definition finite in nature. Meditation has become a very well supported adjunct to normal cognitive therapy, but can and should be taken up by almost everyone as an incredibly subtle and profound tool to be used to maintain a level head. The level of awareness and insight that is gained from regular meditative practice allows a more transparent view of oneself and anchors individuals to the current moment in time, not dwelling on old events or uncertain futures. This may seem obvious, but it is alarming how much of our time we can spend almost purely in our own head, ruminating and engaging in unending self-chatter. The process of gaining clarity and awareness is something which public speaker and meditation advocate Sam Harris describes as ‘waking up’ – in that one can begin to engage and be more present in their own life and experiences, experiencing a much richer and full experience.
Meditative practice can also occur in other settings, for example with sporting practice and artistic creation, but the full, unabridged version of this technique is most beneficial when done in isolation, in a quiet room and in a neutral posture to allow for best focus. One can take 5 minutes as a starting duration to count their breaths with eyes closed, noticing when oneself is distracted, and return to the breath. For those who are unsure or feel guidance is necessary, particularly at the beginning of learning this quite unfamiliar practice, there are brilliant apps like Calm, Headspace and Waking Up by Sam Harris. Indeed, many people find this practice to be somewhat of challenged, as in the same way as sleep, the harder you try to control or fall asleep, the more difficult it becomes. It is in letting go and remaining focused but relaxed one can begin to deeply experience the tranquillity and simplicity that is listening to one’s constant, rhythmic breathing.