Many of us have returned from our summer break by now and are back into the swing of our working lives. My partner and I just got home from attending our usual annual retreat in Lerab Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist centre near Montpellier in the South of France. We have a tiny cottage in the forest where we stay during our retreat time. It is our opportunity to enjoy some quiet time in nature, while receiving meditation instruction to nourish us throughout the year.
We drive there from Amsterdam and our arrival is always a sensitive time. We are tired from the preparations to leave and the long journey. We know we have a lot to do to set up the cottage for our stay and, as it is remote, we have no idea what we will find when we open the door.
Not how you want to begin a holiday
This year was a shock. When we went to the room where we sleep we saw that the skylight had leaked through and damaged the area around the window. To make matters worse, this has been an on-going problem, which we thought it was all fixed and done with. When you are on retreat in another country in August and you need to arrange work to be done it can be a big hassle. My heart fell and I felt pretty fed up. Thoughts like, ‘I don’t need this’ and ‘Why can’t things just go smoothly for a change?’ chased each other through my mind. I felt pretty sorry for myself.
This is where meditation kicks in for me and I really see how much it matters in my life. Negative emotions can still come but they do not bite like they used to. They don’t get a hold on me and define my behaviour. Even while I am feeling miserable there is a part of me that knows that it won’t last, that I am not going to feel this way for ever. There is a fundamental part of me that accepts that life has its ups and downs and difficult things will certainly happen, so I am not as surprised as I used to be when things don’t go as I want.
We can think that as meditators we should be able to manage our emotions perfectly but that can just be another way of putting ourselves down. Of course, the more skilfully we can manage our emotions the better but meditation is not an instant cure-all and we can celebrate the steps we take as we go along. Developing a sense of perspective and learning—however slowly—not to take things too personally are two of these important steps. It helps build confidence in meditation to be able to see that although your mind can still get pretty intense, some things are a little easier.
The sky and the clouds
One of the most helpful images I know of to help build confidence in meditation is the example of the sky and the clouds. The sky represents our natural state of openness, spaciousness and wellbeing—our natural mind if you like. The clouds are the thoughts and emotions that pass across our minds. Thoughts do not spoil the mind, or leave any lasting impression—they simply come and go, like clouds. As we become more familiar with meditation we can begin to experience that for ourselves and get a different take on how to handle things going wrong. It becomes more possible to accept things as they are, rather than wishing them to be different and even to develop a certain sense of humour about the craziness of it all.
We are talking about building mental resilience—the ability to overcome obstacles and recover from hard times. It means having a place of inner peace that is always available to us and that helps us to work with how we see things. It enables us to face change and difficulties as opportunities for growth, rather than simply to view them as threats. Not surprisingly, Richard Davidson places resilience as one of the four skills of wellbeing. We know from neuroplasticity that the brain can change according to experience. The experience of meditation will help to develop activity in the pre-frontal cortex, which in turn helps to calm the fight-or-flight response of the amygdala when facing stress.
Meditation when it matters
Sure enough, as I struggled to connect with a sense of inner peace while surveying the damaged skylight, I could look through the rain-stained and murky window to see the clear blue sky beyond. The perspective was there for me to see—however challenging things are in the moment, that moment will pass.
If you would like to know more about meditation and resilience, watch this short video where Richard Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn explore this further.
How to start meditation in a way that will last
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How to Start Meditation in a Way that Will Last An online course that helps you get going with meditation Are you interested in having a meditation practice that is stable, reliable and rock-solid? Maybe you have tried to start with meditation already,...
It is a great pleasure to share this guest post from Ian Gawler. We have attended many retreats together over the years and it is wonderful to have a blog from him on my site.
How busy are you? Most people I speak with feel that their lives are becoming busier and busier. So, imagine this – maybe with a little help, it is possible to slow down, relax, and actually achieve more!
How might this be possible? Speaking personally, I came home from a great meeting last week. A lot had been achieved, good ideas developed, new possibilities explored; all in a great atmosphere. Keen to tell my wife Ruth about it, first we went to do what we do each evening, and that is to meditate together.
Paying attention to our body
As I settled into my posture, I noticed this buzz in my body. A fine trembling, tingling sort of a buzz. It occurred to me that this excited energy, left over from the meeting was a good thing, but how it might lead some people on into drinking too much or some other excess.
Also, it seemed to be in stark contrast with what it would be like to come home from a tough day – feeling depleted, despondent, even exhausted. Such a state, left unnoticed or unmanaged, could lead to other unhelpful activities, not the least of which may be engaging with the family or our partner in a poor state of mind.
The promise of meditation
Meditation offers this wonderful promise of being able to let go of our busyness and regain our balance. Whether we are excited or depleted, up or down, balance is better. With our body and mind in balance, we think more clearly, we react more appropriately, we are in a better state to relate well with others. We are likely to be fresh, vital and at ease.
In such a state, there will be no compulsion to talk, but an ease with doing so. We will have no compulsion to be spoken to, but an ease with listening. We will be free to relax in a healthy way or energised to take up something new when the time is right.
Four keys to meditation
In my experience, there are 4 keys to meditating in a way that reliably brings these benefits. Preparation, Relaxation, Mindfulness and Stillness. These are the essence of what I call Mindfulness-Based Stillness Meditation.
Put very simply, having prepared well, we relax. Relaxing deeply, we become more mindful. As our mindfulness develops, an inner stillness is revealed; naturally and without effort. We rest in open, undistracted awareness. This is Mindfulness-Based Stillness Meditation.
Oh yes, and at the great meeting last week, we began by sitting together and meditating. Two of those who gathered had never done such a thing before. They were guided very simply to aim to let go of whatever they had been doing earlier and to bring their attention to what was going on right now.
To assist this, there was the suggestion to be mindful of the sounds around about us, then the breath and that natural feeling of relaxing with the out breath. Then we simply rested quietly for a few minutes. Finally, we reminded ourselves of our motivation, to help as many people as possible through what we were addressing at the meeting.
How this can help
Having done this, the atmosphere in the room was transformed. Peaceful, calm, clear. After this short exercise, one of the group could not help speaking out. He said that on arrival, he had been really preoccupied with the busyness of what had been happening before this meeting and he felt his mind was all over the place. In fact, he had actually been concerned that he was in a poor state of mind to give the presentation he was required to do, but that, after that short quiet time; he now felt clear and ready.
Just having a conversation like that seemed to me that we began our meeting on a very real and open level. It rapidly developed into a meeting everyone went away from feeling where we had achieved a lot, deepened friendships and left felt energized. Not a bad return for around 3 minutes of quiet time…
So maybe it is possible. Slow down and accomplish more.
Dr Ian Gawler has played a role in pioneering and popularizing meditation and other mind-body techniques in the Western world. Since 1981 Ian has led many meditation groups, and with his wife Ruth, a GP, presented many workshops and meditation retreats.
A long-term cancer survivor, Dr Gawler co-founded the world’s first lifestyle-based cancer and multiple sclerosis self-help groups and convened Australia’s first Mind-Body Medicine conference, Mind, Immunity and Health.
Ian is a regular blogger and has authored six bestselling books including his latest Blue Sky Mind. He has also co-created a meditation app for people affected by chronic degenerative disease.
Dr Gawler was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for his services to the community in 1987.
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