I remember as a child about a good twelve years ago, I would be awaken by the sounds of my mother unwrapping a huge piece of velcro to reveal the yoga mat. We would have breakfast and head to the community park for yoga lessons.
I wasn’t particularly fond of that. The constant stretching, balancing on my clumsy feet and distraction by the swarm of morning cyclists and chatter certainly did not amuse me.
However, my favourite part of it all was the meditation session at the end of each lesson. They always boost me up at the beginning of the day with energy and a refreshing mind and somehow, magically, able to steer me away from external noise.
Battling with ongoing anxiety throughout adolescence and after getting tired of flipping through self help articles online, I came across an old CD my mother had in one of the drawers under the TV.
I remembered it very clearly. Twelve years ago on the last day of the class before he leaves for India, the yoga master gave it to my mom and told her to always remember and practise mindful meditation on her own.
Of course, my mother and everyone else neglected it as everyone was living amid the material comforts of city living and the demanding pressures of academic and career pursuits.
As the years go by and in the final year of college, I was immensely beaten up by stress, depression and raging anxiety. Internship was difficult and each day was a struggle to pull through. It was also the period I first noticed and realised the gentle and profound teachings of the Buddha.
At that time, along with my unhealthy emotional wellbeing, a natural curiosity about the nature of the mind had awakened in me a healthy appetite for intellectual and mental nourishment.
It is therefore not surprising that I was immediately attracted to the philosophical and psychological genius of the Buddha and attempted to reconnect with my faith. What I at that time accepted intellectually of Buddhism led me, in due course, to the practice of meditation, which is the central axis of Buddhist spiritual life.
Starting Something Is Never Easy!
I began meditating with fifteen minutes of mindfulness of breathing each day. I didn’t and couldn’t get the hang of it for the first three months. During the first few weeks of practice, I was overwhelmed by the barrage of thoughts, images, emotions, and even sounds or voices, that were constantly “swimming” in my mind.
This was not evident to me until I had to make repeated attempts to focus attention on a single object (breathing). I started to become aware of how unaware I had always been of these ubiquitous mental states and contents. The constant flow of images and inner sounds would so often occupy the entire field of consciousness that it was extremely difficult to pay concentrated attention to breathing.
Each day, following my mindfulness of breathing, I would proceed to the practice of loving-kindness meditation. This involved extending loving thoughts and feelings to myself and others without undue thinking and emotional involvement.
My initial attempts brought the feeling that the whole procedure was rather contrived and artificial. I had felt, at the time, that the practice was not very different from the psychological technique of auto-suggestion and therefore was suspect. Nevertheless, I decided to temporarily suspend my skepticism and critical appraisal of the practice so as to give it a fair trial.
Another difficulty I encountered in the course of this practice was constant emotional involvement in the images I had evoked, whether of a loved one or of a disliked one, often resulting in a whole train of discursive thinking connected with the images. At such times I would forget the aim of the practice and become completely immersed in my personal mental melodramas. It usually took me some time to notice that I had wandered. This recognition had the effect of automatically re-establishing the practice.
By the end of the first two months, I was feeling increasingly doubtful about the value of this practice. The sense of its artificiality came to me with greater intensity than before. I persisted nevertheless. By the fourth month of practice, I found myself more able to stay with the practice without being sidetracked.
As time went on, I started to get better at meditating. I noticed in month three and month four that I felt less rushed than I normally do. Initial difficulty during practice is especially normal, but never give up! I had just as much to do each day, of course, but I felt less anxiety about the time I needed, and my ability to accomplish all the tasks I needed to get done.
It’s as if I had more confidence and greater compassion for the life around me and developed a more clear direction throughout my mental headspace, greatly benefiting the daily tasks I do and taking care of my needs.
What happens without meditation is that there’s a section of our brains that’s sometimes called the Me Center (it’s technically the medial prefrontal cortex). This is the part that processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences. Normally, the neural pathways from the bodily sensation and fear centers of the brain to the Me Center are really strong. When you experience a scary or upsetting sensation, it triggers a strong reaction in your Me Center, making you feel scared and under attack.
When we meditate, we weaken this neural connection. This means that we don’t react as strongly to sensations that might have once lit up our Me Centers. As we weaken this connection, we simultaneously strengthen the connection between what’s known as our Assessment Center (the part of our brains known for reasoning) and our bodily sensation and fear centers. So when we experience scary or upsetting sensations, we can more easily look at them rationally.
One of the obvious benefits of meditation is relaxation. And I’m sure science would agree that the more relaxed you are, the easier it is to fall asleep. I think your body understands that you have made an attempt to lower your rhythm and decrease your stress and so better (and easier) sleep may be your body’s way of rewarding you which is greatly helpful in cutting down my caffeine and recurring sleep delay due to stress and anxiety.
But Meditation Is A ‘Buddhist’ Thing To Do! I am not Buddhist and definitely not becoming one!
A misconception is that you have to be Buddhist to try meditation. That’s not true! Even though I was born and raised Buddhist, anyone can try meditation and it does not have to be along the sounds of Buddhist chants. You could play any form of relaxing music ( I love the sounds of nature and rain!) and there are loads of them on Youtube. Psychologists worldwide(and supported by American Pyschological Association) often suggest meditation as part of therapy and strongly recommend it over medication as a healthier alternative.
Diligent and sustained practice of mindfulness of breathing and loving-kindness meditation is a fruitful and spiritually fulfilling endeavour that results in an enhanced state of awareness and a transformation of unwholesome mental patterns in one’s daily life.
Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better, it’s about befriending who we are. – Ani Pema Chodron
A Fun Way To Get Started
One of the best (free!) apps I’ve come across to help you get started with meditation is called Headspace. Invented by former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe, this is meditation geared towards busy people like you and me. It is a cute and beautifully designed app that guides you through 10 minutes of simple meditation every day. You don’t have to do anything—just sit down and turn on the app and let Andy’s calm voice (his voice is truly amazing–the app is worth trying just for that!) explain how to approach meditation. I strongly suggest everyone to try it!
Keep calm and stay well.