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YOUR VOICE: Discovering meditation

CALM Volunteer, Tom Cook, on meditation, mindfulness and how it has helped him…

If you have problems with anxiety, stress or worry, I really recommend meditation. I’ve practised mindfulness meditation on and off for about three years, and it’s something which has really had a positive effect on me. And it’s not just me. This month, Google have brought in 87-year-old Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh to run a full day meditation training session to increase worker happiness.

The health benefits are well documented. According to the National Institute of Health, it works by “reducing activity in the sympathetic nervous system and increasing activity in the parasympathetic nervous system”, elements of our nervous system which, respectively, arouses the body for vigorous activity and regulates heart rate and breathing. I’d certainly say I find meditation calming, it makes me feel more centred and in touch with myself. Actually, to be honest it doesn’t always calm me. Sometimes it’ll result in me getting worked up over something I didn’t even know I was worried about. But that’s the beauty of the practice. It allows the thoughts and emotions which simmer everyday beneath the surface of our consciousness, come to the fore. It exposes our darkest fears and helps us realise they’re not so scary; just thoughts and feelings which are entirely transient, will come and will eventually go, and we learn not to become too attached to them.

I do 10 minutes everyday before I go to sleep, which is the recommended time for a beginner. If you’ve never practised before, I’d recommend you go to a meditation centre (there’s loads in London, I go to the Shambhala Centre in Clapham, but you can find loads of centres local to you on the internet) where you can get training on the correct procedures and talk to an experienced teacher. It’s a really simple practise – you simply sit cross-legged with your back straight, and try to focus your awareness on your breath. Thoughts will come and go, and it’s important that you shouldn’t try to stop them; simply allow their passage and be aware of them, but always bring your focus back to your breath. After a while you’ll feel your heart-rate drop, your muscles loosen, and you’ll start breathing a bit deeper. It’s important though, even when relaxed, that you remain fully focused on the breath and aware of your mind.

There are variations on the practise you can do to spice things up. Using incense helps you relax, and meditation is definitely best done when relaxed. Some people use calming music, others have a special room with candles and maybe a small Buddha to help them get into the right state of being for the exercise. The most famous meditation practise, at least in the Western world, is probably Zen buddhist meditation. During this, the beginner will practise focusing on the breath until they experience ‘Samadhi’ or ‘one-pointedness of the mind’. Once they’ve done so they can move on to focusing on a ‘koan’ during practise; this is a story, dialogue, question or statement. One such koan is; “Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?” Rather than finding an intellectual solution to the question, the student is encouraged to meditate on it and gain insight of how it relates to the self.

However, I’d stick to simply focusing on the breath to begin with. Trust me, it’s not easy. In a way, it’s kind of like going to the gym, but for your brain. It’s like you’re working out the parts of the brain which enforce positive emotion. As such, don’t expect immediate results. It may be a struggle at first, indeed it’s still a struggle for me now sometimes, three years in, but the rewards are there. Sometimes after I’ve finished a session I have a moment of insight and suddenly I can see myself and the world in a clearer light. All from simply sitting still and doing nothing. Can’t say that about watching TV can you?

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