“Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else”
– Leonardo da Vinci
The word meditation carries different meanings in different contexts to different people. As a child, I believed meditation to be some wishy-washy pseudo religious act akin to prayer, hijacked by hippies and people suffering from a midlife crisis. Truthfully, I had no idea what it involved, or why people did it.
My views on meditation began to change in my early 20’s, to explain why, you probably need some context. Aged 15, for the first time in my life, I was on the receiving end of some scary ‘unwanted’ attention. For about a year, I genuinely feared for my life. This came as a shock to an otherwise very happy and well-rounded teenager, so much so that I developed an eating disorder. How this happened, I’m still not sure, but in hindsight my levels of anxiety and worry were always incredibly high, often to the point of nausea and vomiting.
After several months of feeling sick and struggling to eat, I began to associate meal times with vomiting. Over time, this led to an expectation of vomiting, and before meal times, I would feel myself tense up, dreading the inevitable sickness to come. All through college and university I struggled, so much so that I was admitted to hospital on 4 occasions, once spending a week in hospital on a drip due to my inability to keep food down. I seemed forever locked in a downward spiral of negative thoughts and anxiety about food. This went on for 10 years, 9 years after the perceived threats to my life were gone.
I did not suffer in silence (an anxiety/eating disorder like this is very difficult to hide), and it’s fair to say I tried everything. After repeat visits to my local GP (who initially hoped this was just a passing phase and my problems would disappear on their own accord) I was refered to a consultant Gastroenterologist, who subsequently refered me to a child psychologist. She saw the problem for what it was (stress, anxiety, a phobia of food) and told me to work on my breathing, to no avail. To appease my worried mother I tried several rounds of hypnotism, homeopathy, aromatherapy, sat through hours of cognitive behavioural therapy, I tried beta-blockers, metoclopramide, fluoextine, citalopram, underwent more therapy.. this list goes on. I learned to manage my illness day-to-day through that time, but it became more severe when things were bad. Starting college, exams, learning to drive, starting university, going on dates, going out for meals, breakfast, lunch, dinner – all of these things were very stressful and difficult to manage, and frequently led to cyclical patterns of severe vomiting. I survived by smoking lots of cannabis, with a core diet of nutritional milkshakes, which I found easier to cope with than food.
On deciding to become a chemistry teacher, I realised that this couldn’t go on indefinitely (I’m not sure how teenagers would react to their teacher projectile vomiting in class). I was fortunate to find a very lovely, incredibly bright psychologist (Dr Lisa Wilson) who finally found a way to help me beat my illness – mindful meditation.
For me, (a sceptic, and hardline atheist), for any kind of meditation therapy it was important that there were no unfounded ideas about the nature of reality, or a requirement to develop a fondness for the superstition of one or another religion. To my surprise, mindfulness is a route to profound ‘spiritual’ inquiry without having to presuppose any bullshit. Mindfulness can be explained within any secular or scientific context without embarrassment.
“Mindfulness is simply a state of open, nonjudgmental, and nondiscursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant. That is all.”
Cultivating this quality of mind has been shown to modulate pain, mitigate anxiety and depression, improve cognitive function, and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness.
To quote Sam Harris, the practice of mindfulness is extraordinarily simple to describe, but it is in no sense easy. Here, as elsewhere in life, the “10,000 Hour Rule” often applies. And true mastery probably requires special talent and a lifetime of practice. I am a meditation amateur in every sense, but even so, in a very short time, mindfulness has managed to transform my life in a very positive way, rescuing my mind from a painful and destructive illness.
I started practising mindfulness by using a fantastic ‘guided meditation’ audiobook – Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world, which requires very little effort, you just lie there and listen to the instructions. That book is very good, but I’m sure there are plenty of others. Sam Harris provides a free guided audio meditation you can find here.
Generally, mindfulness goes something like this.
- Lie comfortably, on a bed, with your arms and legs moved slightly away from your body.
- Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel the points of contact between your body and the bed. Take a few minutes to really notice and pay attention to the sensations associated with lying there —feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc.
- Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to wherever you feel the breath most clearly—either at the nostrils, or in the rising and falling your abdomen, notice what it feels like to breathe.
- Allow your attention to rest in the mere sensation of breathing. (There is no need to control your breath. Just let it come and go naturally.)
- Every time your mind wanders in thought, gently return it to the sensation of breathing.
- As you focus on the breath, you will notice that other perceptions and sensations continue to appear: sounds, feelings in the body, emotions, etc. Simply notice these phenomena as they emerge in the field of awareness, and then return to the sensation of breathing.
- The moment you observe that you have been lost in thought, notice the present thought itself as an object of consciousness. Then return your attention to the breath—or to whatever sounds or sensations arise in the next moment.
- Continue in this way until you can merely witness all objects of consciousness—sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, and even thoughts themselves—as they arise and pass away.
- Don’t judge yourself. Just notice (with a compassionate curiosity).
- Scan your whole body, starting from the feet, working up, just noticing what exists, right there in the moment.
You might wonder how on earth I cured an eating disorder by following the above instructions. So do I.
The best explanation that I can give, is that mindfulness helped me understand something quite profound. Thoughts are only thoughts – they are not me, they do not define me. I do not have to believe them, or worry about them, it is possible just to observe them come and go, without judging myself or what they mean. Getting lost in my own stressful thoughts about what might happen, has happened, or should happen, quickly became a thing of the past.
I started to understand that the only thing that really matters is the moment. The past and future do not exist in any real sense, and if you can find peace and fulfilment in the present moment, nothing else really matters.
I began to understand that there is no distinction between myself, and the rest of the universe. I am as much a natural part of the universe as anything else – there is nothing special about me. There was something very comforting about that thought when it really took me, it allowed me be compassionate with myself, and forgive myself for any misgivings and shortcomings.
Overall, I just became a lot calmer, a lot more focussed, and much happier with who I was. That old mantra ‘learn to love yourself’ is pretty abstract, but very very true. If you stop getting caught up in thoughts, and just let yourself exist, in the present moment, you might be very pleased with what you find.