I once asked my inspirational yoga teacher Judith Lasater what would be her best advice for surviving the challenges of parenthood. Without missing a beat, she answered: “meditate”. Now, after nearly three years of trying – and mainly failing – to put this advice into practice, I’m going to share what (fingers crossed) may now have cracked it for me.
Why would parents need meditation? Well, all the good things meditation brings about (positive mood, good concentration and decision-making, the ability to override impulses, reduced stress and increased creativity) are things parents need at some time – often in my case, it seems.
There is lots of research demonstrating the benefits of meditation for mood, relationships and mental health (some is listed here). A study I particularly like came out last year from Oxford University looking at how meditation and yoga is helping prisoners. If it’s good for guys addressing anger and addiction problems in prison, it’s got to help me with the mundane challenges of family mealtimes, arguments over the X-box and lost PE kits, right?
So, for more than three years I’ve been trying to establish a daily meditation practice. And I have to report that it’s both easy and hard. It’s easy because it requires no complicated techniques – all you have to do is sit down and do nothing. But I’ve found it’s also very hard to sit down and do nothing.
Perhaps you start to feel uncomfortable and fidget; or your mind starts making to-do lists; or you feel sleepy and a kind of brain-fog descends; or you feel hungry and long for breakfast; the obstacles to meditation wear many different guises.
Until a few months ago I was managing to sit maybe three or four times a week, but usually for not more than about 10 minutes. However, even this gave me glimpses of how good meditation could be. Whenever I sat, for the rest of the day I seemed less likely to over-react to things and more likely to feel I could cope with difficulties.
But it only feels like a more fundamental change in perspective has happened since really committing to a daily practice.
Now I’m around two months in to meditating almost every day for at least 25 minutes and the kids say they’ve noticed a difference: apparently I’m better at listening and don’t yell as much. My capacity to be calm and cope when things are challenging is becoming a more consistent frame of mind. (I’m crossing fingers, toes, everything in the hope that by writing this down I’m not inviting along the mother-of-all shouting matches…)
The thing is, the more regularly you do it, the greater the benefits. Physical discomfort may still arise sometimes and the mind chatter certainly doesn’t go away. But by just sitting with those thoughts and sensations – whatever they are – eventually you view them differently and what emerges beyond and past those thoughts has a different quality: it feels like clarity or insight or, perhaps, reality.
I’ve reached a point where, if I don’t get up and meditate at the start of the day, I miss it. I feel wrong – like I haven’t brushed my teeth, but instead it’s my mind that’s getting gunked up with yuk. So here are five things that have helped me start to become a daily meditator:
1. Keeping it simple
There are all sorts of meditation, but most focus on the breath. It’s free, it’s always with you and you can do it anywhere. The simplest sort that works for me is just to count the breath. I count each out-breath, as it comes, from 1 to 10, then start again. That’s it.
Perhaps start with five days doing five minutes; ten days doing ten minutes, 20 days doing 20 minutes, building up to 25 or 30 minutes a day. Use a timer, so you’re not constantly checking your watch. And you don’t have to sit on the floor – sitting upright on a chair (not slumping) is great.
2. Setting my alarm clock
I had great trouble getting up to meditate in the morning, mainly because I didn’t go to bed early enough. As my children’s bedtimes got later I was still hanging onto the idea of having some “me-time” at the end of the day, so my bedtimes were getting later too – usually frittering away an hour with mindless TV.
So I decided to put the alarm clock on. After a few consecutive mornings of making myself get up an hour earlier than usual, there was no way I could stay up late: I was ready for bed. And I don’t miss my me-time: I have it first thing in the morning and it sets me up for the rest of the day.
3. Lowering my expectations
For a while I got cross with the busy-ness of my mind. I thought all the mental chatter was a sign I wasn’t doing it properly. But meditation isn’t about forcing your mind to clear. It’s about being with whatever arises – including the mental chatter – noticing it, acknowledging it and then returning the attention to the breath.
Then, for a while I was waiting for something amazing to happen – and being disappointed when it didn’t. But meditation isn’t transcendence. It’s not an escape from reality. It’s just being fully present with whatever arises – within and without. When I stopped expecting to experience an amazing head-trip, something better started to happen.
4. Going on retreat
In June I did a week-long training in teaching yoga in prisons. It included two hours of silent meditation and yoga each morning, and further silence and meditation each evening. It transformed my meditation practice.
Although I was away from my everyday responsibilities and distractions, my practice began with the usual mental chatter. However by the end of five days the to-do lists were diminishing and I was gaining some valuable insights into my own hang-ups and beliefs.
Someone described the mind as being like a jar of muddy water: the more you shake it the harder it is to see through; but let it sit quietly and still and gradually the muck settles and the water becomes clear.
5. Feeling part of a community
The other support a retreat gives you is the feeling of solidarity with your fellow meditators. Sitting in a group seems to be a more powerful practice than sitting alone: the combined energy of everyone focusing on their breath in the same space and time seems to create a strong and safe container for each individual. I’ll be sharing this in the two retreats I’m running in the UK in September and November.