Week 4

Making Meditation Stick

You’re half way through the course. You now know what meditation is, how it works and how to do it. We’ve covered all the essential principles, and they can be summed up in just a few phrases.

In Lesson One we learnt that meditation can be thought of as:

  • relaxing the body, and
  • calming the mind

In Lesson Two we learnt that we do this by:

  • engaging more fully with the sensory world in order to trigger relaxation,
  • whilst allowing our thoughts to be a part of the process.

And in Lesson Three we learnt that meditation is a three step process in which we repeatedly:

  1. focus
  2. lose focus
  3. re-focus

In other words:

  • we choose something to focus upon
  • but allow — even welcome — the so-called ‘distractions’, recognising that step 2, contrary to popular opinion, is the most important and interesting of the three steps.
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Relaxation and the body

This week, we delve more deeply into relaxation. Funnily enough, many of us don’t really know what it feels like to be relaxed. We may have been tense for so long that it [relaxation] feels strange or uncomfortable — and there may be aspects of relaxation that don’t line up with how we expect to feel.

Paradoxically, the fastest way to relax is to notice how tense you are. In this way awareness acts as a biofeedback mechanism telling you where you’re tense and what to do about it. If you are not conscious of tension it can disrupt health and hamper performance — and if you actively avoid feeling the various aches, pains and discomforts that arise as you meditate, then you’ll never learn how to relax deeply.

As you continue to meditate you may experience a range of unexpected sensations. Some of them may trigger surprise, nausea or even fear. However, if you explore these sensations with gentle curiosity, they’ll usually resolve into deeper states of relaxation. See if you can notice any of the following:

Physical Indicators

  • Your respiration may become very subtle or shallow-seeming.
  • You may find that there are long pauses between one breath and the next.
  • You may find yourself spontaneously yawning, sighing or taking a big, deep breath.
  • Aches, pains and muscular tension may intensify before beginning to fade.
  • You might experience some degree of nausea or vertigo.
  • You may discover that you have a headache, or stomach ache, or a very tight neck or shoulders.
  • Your body may feel heavy, light, numb or still, or as though you are floating or sinking.
  • You may lose contact with the hands or other parts of your body.
  • You may become suddenly hot, or cold.
  • Your skin may feel very warm, sensitive or itchy and parts of the body might seem to tingle or vibrate.
  • Your heartbeat or pulse may become much more obvious than normal.
  • You may find yourself salivating or needing to swallow.
  • Your stomach may grumble and gurgle.

If you are alert you can notice all this happening. Also:

  • Changing hormone levels
  • Improved immune system function
  • Altered metabolic activity etc.

Mental Indicators

  • Initially, you may find that your mind feels especially busy or distracted
  • The first part of a meditation may be filled with thoughts of the last 24 – 48 hours
  • Thoughts will then usually begin to seem less bothersome
  • You may find that you drift into a kind of reverie or daydream
  • Thoughts may become random and fragmented
  • Old or random memories may surface
  • You might ‘see’ shapes, colours or images
  • Emotional release or flow
  • Sense of peace or stillness
  • Mind seems empty, blank or dark
  • Feeling hyper-alert, very present
  • Time distorts, collapses
  • Serene detachment
  • Heightened awareness
  • You feel like a spectator or observer rather than participant

Mantra & Affirmations

All the practices we’ve covered so far on course are simple, practical and down-to-earth. They’re easy to understand, based on good science and psychology and free of religious and superstitious overtones. In contrast, the idea of a mantra might sound a little kooky. Mantra-based meditation practices, however, are widely used, perhaps due to the success of the Transcendental Meditation movement, which introduced to the Western world, via The Beatles, a mantra-based technique which remains popular with celebrities even today. Some people (often those with very busy minds), find mantras to be particularly effective.

What is a mantra?

A mantra is simply a word or phrase that you repeat over and over, often in time with the breath or heartbeat. They can be chanted out loud or said silently in your own head.

Mantra is a term which comes to us from Sanskrit and means ‘mental tool’. The most well-known mantra of all (Aum, Om) is from this liturgical language, used in Buddhism and Hinduism, along with other South-East Asian religions.

A mantra may or may not have meaning. Some of them work like music and help generate some kind of feeling or emotional response. They’re often chanted aloud, particularly in religious or spiritual contexts, though this may not be a useful way to relax whilst you’re on the train to work or in the midst of a business meeting! It’s quite sufficient to say them silently to yourself.

Some people believe mantras have special psychological or spiritual effects but essentially they’re just another thing to focus upon, like the breath, body or regular words and sounds.

Typical Buddhist and Hindu mantras include Aum, Om mani padme hum, Om Namah Shivaya and Hamsa/Soham. A mantra need not be a Sanskrit, nor even an Eastern term. You could just as easily use a Christian phrase, such as Halleluljah or Amen, or any word in the language of your choice. You may like to try some simple words or phrases such as ‘let go’, ‘slow down’, ‘focus’, or ‘peace of mind’ (which are sometimes differentiated by mantras and called affirmations instead).

You can also use mantras in conjunction with other techniques. For example, while scanning the body, you may like to repeat the word soften, encouraging each part of the body to relax and let go. Or, you could simply say in, and out, as you breathe, as a way of staying focused.

For those of you who particularly enjoyed my in-class rendition of Om mani padme hum you can search for and find plenty of versions on youtube. Here’s one I quite like.

Homework Hints

This week pay attention to opportunities to meditate during your commute to and from work. Can you meditate on the train, tram or bus? Try leaving for work 10 minutes earlier than usual so you can do a quick Bodyscan Meditation when you arrive at your destination.

You can find a variety of guided bodyscans on my CDs. (Also available to download as mp3s). Check out Mind Massage or Mind & Body Spa.

Alternatively, find a pleasant place to park your car on the way home (a quiet backstreet off the bustling highways, or even your garage) and meditate for 10 to 20 minutes so that you can arrive home safe and refreshed.

And for those of you who don’t have to commute to and from work. Apply these principles to any journey you take — even if it’s just a walk to the corner store.

You could also use environmental triggers:

  • pick a colour of the day (something striking like orange or purple) — and each time you see someone wearing that colour let that be a reminder to relax
  • watch out for the Golden Arches, and let that big M be an M for Mindfulness
  • If you get a craving for sugar, or coffee, or chocolate — let that be a sign that your body would appreciate some nourishment, which you can provide simply by attending to the breath and by consciously relaxing.

If you haven’t found time to do a few longer sessions yet try that this week too. If you’re struggling to find time to meditate then try giving yourself permission to sit on the toilet at work for a full 10 minutes. Remember, meditation is just like taking a mental dump! Americans have the right idea calling public toilets “restrooms”. They’re a great place for a break. Rest those weary feet and legs. Rest that weary mind. And when you flush, let all those stressful thoughts float away.