Meditation teaches you how to relax, how to calm your nervous system, and with practice, how to generate states of mind characterised by clarity and contentment. It works best, however, in conjunction with healthy mental habits.
Unfortunately there’s no guarantee that you’ll commence meditating with such habits. Most of us grow up in environments where psychological health is left to chance; and if you are easily stressed, or prone to excessive rumination or unproductive worry, anxiety or depression, it’s likely that you hold beliefs and attitudes that might benefit from some gentle tweaking.
Here then, are five principles that will help you maintain a meditation practice that will support your mental health.
1. Thoughts are not facts
Do you believe what you think? The self-criticism? The commentary? The earnest problem solving, processing and analysis?
By default, we tend to believe everything our minds tells us. But thoughts are not facts. Most of the stories we tell ourselves — and the conclusions we come to — are questionable at best.
For a healthier mind, treat your thoughts with healthy skepticism. If a thought is demeaning or unhelpful, remember that it’s not a truth, it’s just a mental event; a brief electrical impulse that has no more intrinsic meaning than a passing itch.
2. Emotions are essential
Our culture has a tendency to disregard emotion in favour of intellect. In fact, emotions are often considered irrational, the cause of distorted thinking and poor decision making.
But recent research suggests that without emotion it’s not possible to make decisions at all.
Our concern here, however, is with our attitudes towards emotion. It’s common for those who suffer from anxiety or depression to harbour a strong antipathy towards such feelings. They often hope meditation will make their discomforting emotions go away. But this is not possible, nor desirable.
Just as those who suffer from analgesia (the inability to feel pain), are at constant risk of harming themselves, those of us who continually and fervently try to banish our anxiety or sadness are inadvertently creating the conditions in which such feelings are perpetuated.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the best way to manage your emotions is to befriend them. Instead of pushing them away, welcome them. Let them be a part of your meditation practice, and a part of your life. Don’t try to get rid of them, or even change them. Just let them hang around, with as much tolerance as you can. This is the kind of attitude under which emotions gradually lose their power to distort your thinking, to upset your nervous system, and to generally make your life hell.
And remember the twin mantras for all intense emotions: “The only way out is through” and “This too shall pass.”
3. Acceptance and Resistance
The world is a big place, and if you look hard enough, you’ll likely find a whole lot wrong with it: from poverty and injustice through to traffic congestion and petty office politics. It’s a lot to worry about. It’s a lot to try and change.
It’s a hell of a lot to try and control.
But that’s what many of us try to do. We try to arrange the world to our liking, hoping that our hoping will somehow influence everyone to treat us right, and for good stuff to land in our laps.
It should be obvious that we have little hope of controlling other people. The weather, the traffic and the stock market are also maddeningly unresponsive to our demands. The past, of course, is beyond the control of anyone. And the future too, seems a little out of reach. Who, or what, then, can we expect to control?
Surely we can control ourselves?
If you’ve ever sat and meditated, or reflected even for a few minutes, you’ve probably discovered that there’s much that we can’t control even within the boundaries of our own body and mind.
- Can you control your thoughts?
- Can you choose what emotion to feel and when?
- Can you make a headache disappear or adjust the degree to which you feel some kind of pain?
- Can you tell your body how much to sweat, or how much dopamine to release, or to fall asleep at precisely 11.07pm on a Tuesday night?
So there’s a lot we can’t control. Does this stop you from trying? Do you shake your fist at the traffic? How many shoulds go through your mind a day?
- People should be courteous.
- The boss should give me a raise.
- My partner should be more loving?
Any time you say should you are struggling against the uncontrollable; you are wishing that you control something that you don’t.
The solution to this dilemma is simple. Stop trying to control the world. Stop resisting the experience you are having.
A little bit of acceptance has the capacity to undermine the power of a whole host of negative emotions.
4. As Within, So Without
Meditation is often touted as a place to escape the stresses of daily life. Here, so they say, you’ll find peace, calm and quiet.
That’s true, but you’ll also find boredom, frustration, annoyance, worry, confusion, sadness, anger, and every other thought and feeling you’re likely to have at any other time.
Far from being an escape from stress, meditation may also simply be a reflection of the stress you experience in daily life. This is only a problem if you intend to use meditation as a pain-killer or sedative, instead of as a way to become more familiar, more tolerant and more accepting of you, as you are.
Along with the idea that meditation should be a place free from the usual stresses and upset, is the idea that meditation will somehow magically make the stresses of life go away. There is a grain of truth at work here: a calmer person is generally less stressed. However, stresses will remain, particularly if you’re stuck with a narcissistic boss, or dysfunctional friends and family!
What’s needed here may not be more acceptance. Here courage may be required. Action may be required. In the words of Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
5. The Border and the Bunker
When you fly overseas, or cross a border between nations, you have to go through customs and immigration — where stern looking folks in uniforms determine what can and can’t enter (or leave) a country.
It’s useful to develop a custom and immigration service for your psyche too.
When you are under attack, or whenever someone tries to enter your space, you have the right to defend yourself. You have a right to defend your ideas and beliefs, your plans, your self-esteem, your well-being and your choices.
For example, you can say yes to support, useful ideas, encouragement, concern and other helpful psychological resources. And you can say no to abuse, unreasonable demands, and psychological attacks designed to undermine your confidence or self-esteem.
You can also create a bunker for your mind; a safe spot, a sanctuary where you can retreat when you feel attacked. Unlike a border, the walls of a bunker are impregnable. They don’t let anything in or out. You can house your most valuable resources here; your inner self. This is a place where you are protected from outside forces, from scrutiny, and from anything that might harm you. This is a place where you know you are safe. As a result, you can move through fear and anger more easily, and you can put your anxieties in the proper perspective, knowing that you don’t have to continually duck and dodge snipers, or bombers, or whatever threatens you.
You can take your customs and immigration service with you wherever you go, and you can use your bunker whenever you want, including whilst you meditate.