Clearing the Mind

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The words mindfulness and meditation seem to be on everyone’s lips at the moment – no wonder, since the busier life gets, the more we crave calm. Yet most of the time, deep peacefulness is something elusive, a million miles away from us. Sitting crossed legs with our eyes closed a) feels like a waste of time and b) it seems pretty impossible to remain still for more than a few minutes. I felt the same way not so long ago, but now I’m beginning to realise that precious time spent in meditation more than pays off. Not only does it create the focus and head space I need to get things done, but it’s also surprisingly addictive. The more I practice, the more the calmness begins to have a positive effect on my life, and crucially, how well I feel.

It’s not just a feeling either. Science is increasingly showing us that far from being an esoteric practice, meditation can have positive effects on our biology – and fast. A study published by US medical journal PloS One* in 2013 found that just one relaxation session enhances the expression of genes involved in energy metabolism and insulin secretion and reduces those linked to inflammatory response and stress. In 2012, UCLA scientists published a study* which showed that 12 minutes of daily meditation for eight weeks increased telomerase (the ‘immortality enzyme’) activity by 43 percent, suggesting an improvement in stress-induced ageing.

However, for something seemingly so simple, it is not easy. In the beginning, it does feel like another thing on the ‘to do’ list and it takes discipline not only to get started, but also to keep it up (more on this later). But, the biggest stumbling block for me (and probably most of us) is actually our default mind set – we think that meditation is something we have to ‘achieve’, that we have to use willpower to stop the endless thoughts which go on in the brain. Now I realise not even a monk in the most remote ashram could ever do this, and that actually, it’s about letting go of thoughts. The chatter in our minds will always be there – meditation is effectively a way of training the mind and slowing thoughts down. Once I understood this, I could begin to relax into sitting still, to notice what was happening and that was when I began to experience little moments of a delicious deep calm amongst the seemingly endless re-churning of events and emotions.

Noticing what’s happening is crucial. Think about it. Most of us relax by diverting our attention through sensual pleasures – whether that’s having a glass of wine in front of the latest box set, and/or eating something we love. None of this is bad if we are doing it consciously, but because the ‘aaaah’ moment doesn’t last, soon we need another fix of whatever it is, and we can easily slip into bad habits. When we access deeper states of consciousness via relaxation or meditation techniques, it doesn’t depend on the senses. In fact, we are going beyond them to a perfectly natural state – an ‘inner peace’ that’s there all the time. It’s often why meditation can feel like going to a comfortable place like home, as if we’ve been there before.

So – how do we get started? Well, ‘talk through’ meditations either at a class or on a CD or app can help. For example, http://www.getsomeheadspace.com founded by an ex-Buddhist monk has a 10 minutes for 10 days trial to download to your phone. Or you could try the yogic relaxation technique Yoga Nidra – US Psychologist Richard Miller has some great resources at http://www.irest.us/products/irest

In the end though, an every day practice at home is what you should aim for. Start little and often, even 5 minutes at first, ideally morning and evening. Clear a space where you can sit without being interrupted. It is important to be comfortable, with your spine as straight as possible – on the floor, crossed legged is the classic posture, but that can be difficult, so you can sit on a chair or sit against a wall for support. Use cushions and blankets as props to be warm and comfortable. For me, having a lovely cashmere blanket and a beautifully embroidered cushions helps, as does lighting a candle.

Once you’re sitting, there are many, many techniques designed to help – mantras to chant, breath techniques, but in the end all keep the mind focused on one point. The simplest is to close your eyes and follow your breath, noticing how it’s cool on the inhale, warm on the exhale. After around 10 breaths your natural rhythm kicks in – don’t try to change it, just keep observing and every time the mind wanders, bring it back to the breath. Soon you’ll be aware of a natural pause at the top of the inhale, and the bottom of the exhale. Those are the points at which you’ll begin to experience deep peace. Believe me, the more you sense it, the more you’ll become addicted.

Study References

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