4 Things We Can Get Wrong About Happiness

4 Things We Can Get Wrong About Happiness

Photo by Andrew Bui on Unsplash

Have you ever met anyone who did not want happiness? Certainly, I haven’t. I have met people who have funny ways of going about trying to be happy but never anyone who was just not interested in it.

The funny is though, that wanting happiness and having it are two different things. In the first place, we don’t always know what will make us happy. Even when we work it out, we can’t always make it happen—we might long for someone to love but are not able to find the right person. The irony is that even when we do get what we are looking for, it does not always make us feel as good as we expected.

Happiness is tricky—partly because we have some funny ideas about it. Let’s look at four of these.

We confuse happiness with pleasure

In evolutionary terms, pleasure acts as an incentive for keeping us alive. So, food, sex, caring for our children, and accomplishing our goals cause the brain to release the chemical dopamine that make us feel happy. This search for good feeling has helped to keep the human race going, but these feelings were designed to be temporary. Think about it—if we only mated once and never needed to again, we would see a startling fall in the birth rate. Pleasure is something that is so enjoyable that we want to experience it again and again. However, it is designed as a temporary state with a specific purpose, rather than something that will last forever.

Sadly, we often seem to find this hard to accept. Our search for happiness can become narrowed down to the pursuit of pleasure. Once we have it, we to hold on to it– or at least try to repeat it as often as we can.

The trouble is that we so often mistake transient pleasurable experiences for lasting happiness.  We have evolved to a place where our happiness is not based on survival alone. Yet so often we settle for the quick fix, pleasure-based route to happiness, without taking into account the full range of potential effects.

Perhaps we feel a bit low, so we surf the internet for a bit, then drink a coffee and checkout the news channels on TV. We could take some time to look into the low feeling in order to understand and resolve it. However, our impulse is to distract ourselves from it and not deal with it. It’s as if we are aiming to run our life as a series of good moments, with as few bad ones as possible to interfere with our final score.

We imagine it will last forever

So, we can see that from an evolutionary perspective, happiness is designed as a reward for keeping ourselves alive. It is not meant to last forever. In our modern western culture though, there is the idea that we should be happy all the time. We make choices based on the belief that they will make us happy now and into the future. The idea that our preferences or circumstances may change doesn’t seem to come up. We don’t consider that our future selves may see things differently from how we do now. 

Anyone who has been divorced, or had a great new job turn out to be disappointing will have experienced this for themselves. When I was a young teacher in London, I decided to cash in my teacher’s pension so I could go traveling. It felt like a great decision at the time. Suddenly I had a good reserve of money to finance one of my dreams. Years later, when I left teaching,  I deeply regretted not having a pension fund to carry forward.

On a lighter note, I have a Danish friend who became a Buddhist nun some years ago.Whenever it’s too hot to wear socks I have the treat of seeing a tall, slender woman in long,maroon robes with a tattoo of an iguana coiling up her left ankle. The frisky young womanwho, some years back, thought this tattoo would be an addition to her image, apparentlydid not envisage the possibility of herself as a nun in the future.

We think money will make us happy

2006 saw the publication of Richard Layard’s book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. One of the key findings that he highlighted is that over the last fifty years, the standard ofliving in the US and Western Europe has roughly doubled. No surprises there, you might think. The shock came with the second half of the finding—levels of happiness have stayed the same. Think of what it takes to double our standard of living – the compromises in work–life balance, the increase in the number of families where the only way to manage is for both parents to work, the stress of the increase in pace and variety of the modern workplace. It’s shocking to find that none of that has an impact on our basic level of well being.

The way we adapt to what we have and the extent to which we compare what we have with others comes into play here.

Adaptation

One of the most startling results to emerge from research into happiness is that big lottery winners, after experiencing an initial period of euphoria, tend to return to their normal levels of happiness within a year. The huge rise in their financial and then material resources is not enough to lift their happiness levels long term.

The trouble is that we adapt to what we have and so become used to it, and when the gloss of having it fades, we want something more.

The process of adaptation we experience with material possessions seems to work in the sameway for life experiences – so career moves, lifestyle changes or new relationships, ratherthan transporting us to new levels of happiness, eventually settle down until they become simply part of our normal pattern of happiness.

Comparison

Along with adapting to what we have in life, we also suffer from comparing our lives with other people’s. So, your new car may be satisfying while no one else in the street has a better one, but as soon as someone turns up with a newer model then you become less satisfied. We’re pleased with our pay rise as long as we’re the only person to receive one, or if our rise is greater than anyone else’s.

We compare ourselves with our peers, people with roughly similar lifestyles. The lives of the super-rich are far beyond our reach, while many people feel comfortably far away from the very poor. Studies of Olympic medallists show that bronze medalists tend to be happier with their medals than silver medallists because they compare them- selves to people who did not get a medal at all, while silver medallists believe they just missed a gold.

We look for happiness outside of ourselves

We’ve seen that pleasure is based on external circumstances, such as our job, where we live, or what we like to eat. Although the benefits are short- term we can often mistake this for happiness, overlooking the possibility of something more reliable. A more helpful view is to say that there are two kinds of happiness: the short-term, pleasure-based experience and a more lasting happiness. The first kind is much easier to attain than the deeper happiness,which requires effort but once established serves as a reliable basis for wellbeing.

Giving ourselves the time and space to explore and develop this lasting happiness is oneof the deepest acts of self-compassion we can engage in.

So, how do we access this deeper kind of happiness? Firstly, we need to recognize that it isnot about looking outwards but depends on having an inner peace of mind and heart. Thisis the basis for self-awareness and the awareness of others – the foundation of compassion– that enables us to view our actions and those of other people with greater clarity. It canbe developed by working with both our basic attitude and with the actions we take whiletrying to be happy.

Meditation is the best way to get a handle on how our minds work. It helps us to work with our basic attitude and the habits we have. Bringing awareness into our actions means that we are more able to make the right decisions.

A deeper meaning to happiness

Sometimes, it’s worth asking ourselves how we value the happiness of other people. Is their happiness important to us? Would our happiness be important to them? Do we consider out happiness to be the most important? On what basis?

There is a simple question we can use here as a measure of whether or not our actions will be a source of lasting happiness: 

Do they bring real benefit to oneself and others,or not? 

Actions that bring benefit automatically result in happiness and help us to develop our compassion. We need to develop a clear sense of discernment to enable us to analyse our actions clearly in the light of this question, and to identify the habits that lead us away from lasting happiness even if they initially seem to bring pleasure.

It might seem a lot to take in but reflecting in this way will help us to navigate the tricky path of happiness. It could help to put things into a different perspective.

Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.

What happens when you lose your job

What happens when you lose your job

I have had one major incident of job loss in my career. It was messy and painful. Although it happened years ago, I can still wake up in the night and wonder what on earth happened. I wasn’t fired but made redundant, although the difference felt like semantics. The experience left me feeling disorientated, lonely and inadequate.

For most of us, losing a job means a scramble to find another one as soon as possible. The bills that need paying do not stop with job loss. My own solution was to become a solo entrepreneur, which involved a steep learning curve. There is very little time left to care for how wounded, low and discarded one can feel.

Here are some of the issues that I tried to work with while setting up my new business.

Who was I after my job loss?

My job had been in senior management in an international non-profit. I travelled a lot, I had teams who answered to me—I was a boss. When it was over there was a short period of time where I was completely disorientated. For so many years I had worked very hard and focused my energy on my work. Without it I was not sure who I was.

It took me a while to consciously disconnect myself from the job that I had had. I needed to remember why I wanted the job in the first place, and to re-connect with the motivation that led me to carry it out for so long. Slowly, painfully it became possible to remember interests that I had dropped through lack of time before my job loss. My meditation practice, which had become minimal during the busiest times, flourished again. The space it helped to open up enabled me to process what I was feeling in a way that was healing.

Struggling with a sense of shame

Brené Brown describes shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of live and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

That seems pretty accurate. I certainly felt that I had failed and become somehow lesser in people’s eyes. Indeed, by not being able to avoid job loss I had failed in my own eyes. However, much worse was the idea that people would think that as a failure I was not someone they would want to know. Not being able to explain to myself what had gone wrong made it very hard to explain to other people. I felt defenceless. 

That was the place from which I set out to build the next phase of my working life.

Major cracks in my self-confidence

Perhaps it is inevitable that when you suffer a job loss you are precipitated into an intense period of self-examination. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good idea to take time to reflect on your work habits and how you are coping with your working life.

The trouble comes when, hurting from the shock of losing your job, you forget all about how to be kind to yourself. I have had friends who have been made redundant or lost their job who have turned to me for help. I have never subjected any of them to the tirade of judgment and criticism that I poured out to myself.

Self-compassion was not so well known at the time that I lost my job. As part of my work now I have studied it quite thoroughly and wish that I had known more about it at the time. Learning how to tame the sharp voice of my inner critic and to change oneself through kindness would have helped me enormously. Understanding that my job loss was not something that only happened to me but was happening to many other people at the same time would have taught me a great deal.

Fear of what my job loss meant for the future

Underneath everything else there was the constant worry of not being able to get more work. The threat of financial difficulties was a constant drain on my energy. Working with that fear became a priority because when it got too intense, I froze. 

Fortunately, we often have more resilience than we think. As much as I could, I used the fear to cut through my feelings of inadequacy and to spur me on.

The loss of community

One thing that I had not anticipated was how much I missed the people that I had worked with. People that I had worked with for years and seen every day simply dropped out of my life. Gone was the flow of ideas and the shared camaraderie. 

When you work with other people there is a ready-made social network. Of course, you are joined together by the work you are doing but you also share all kinds of other things. You hear news of what is going on in other people’s lives. There is an audience for you to share what is going on in your’s. You accompany each other through all kinds of moods, challenges and accomplishments.

With a job loss, all this is gone in a moment. 

Struggling with the sympathy of friends and family

My friends and family were kind and sympathetic, but I found it hard to be the one needing support. I am more used to offering it. Too often I found myself putting on a brave face when actually I felt really low. In fact, it was a journey for me to allow my vulnerability to show and to accept their support with gratitude. 

However much we may need to move on after a job loss and find new work, we need time to grieve. Yes, it’s uncomfortable and it takes time but without it we are denying ourselves the opportunity to learn from what has happened to us. In order to move on in a good way, we need to be able to make some sense of what has happened. How we heal the pain of our loss will depend on being able to take the time for reflection, and evaluation. Job loss is one of the most stressful experiences we will face but it is also a time of opportunity. We need to give ourselves the gift of that time.

men and women being fired

I hope you enjoyed this post. I am currently designing an online course to support people through job loss. If you could fill out my survey it would help me to gather data for the online course. It will only take you 10 minutes. Thank you so much!

Slow down and go faster

Slow down and go faster

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.

Meditating together

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. 

How to Find Ease with Stressful Work Situations

How to Find Ease with Stressful Work Situations

Photo by Suhyeon Choi on Unsplash

We hear a lot about increasing levels of stress in the workplace. It seems that now almost 20% of workers in Europe say they experience stress in their job. I recently witnessed an incident with a flight attendant and a difficult passenger. It struck me how keeping your cool can come at a high price. Looking for ways to ease a stressful situation could work well with less cost.

The incident that caused stress

It was on a return flight to Amsterdam from the UK that I overheard a fellow-passenger giving a flight attendant a really bad time. It was hard to catch the full story from where I was sitting but it involved the passenger asking for hot water in a plastic, see-through cup. Apparently cups of this sort are not safe to hold hot water and the only alternative was the purchase—for three euros—of a polystyrene cup. Not surprisingly the passenger found this rather excessive. What was more surprising was his response—he proceeded to cross-examine the flight attendant in increasingly aggressive tones, applying the kind of ruthless logic that would not have been out of place in a courtroom. 

The reaction to the stress

The flight attendant did his utmost best. He remained polite, consistent and managed not to react to the escalating tone of complaint and anger that he was subjected to. He had a kind of party line that he could fall back on, ‘Sorry sir, this is company policy, I am not allowed to give you this cup…’ and so on. After some time, he managed to get away and push his trolley on to the next customer. As he came past me our eyes met and I murmured, ‘breathe’.He looked at my rather desperately but did not respond.

The passenger’s final attempt to get his own way was daring—he simply marched up to the refreshment trolley and started all over again. He returned to his seat carrying a bottle of cold water.

The cost of that reaction

I happened to be one of the last off the ‘plane and exchanged a few words with the male flight attendant. Remembering my attitude of sympathy—but not my advice to focus on his breath—he asked me what I thought of the sort of thing they had to put up with. During our short conversation my earlier hunch was confirmed—when dealing with a stressful situation he relied on his determination to stay professional, rather than adopting any strategy tomanage his stress. Instead of looking for ways to ease the stressful situation, he gritted his teeth in the face of trouble. He took up the burden as a way of demonstrating to himself how efficient he was at enduring one of the downsides of his job. It would probably have been how he was trained. 

3 ways to ease a stressful situation

Here are a few things that the flight attendant could have tried:

1. Humour helps to bring ease to the stressful situation

When he saw that the passenger was not impressed by the company policy, the flight attendant could have used humour. There is something farcical about two grown men arguing about a cup of hot water. With a bit of skill, he could have tried to get the passenger to see things from his point of view and to laugh with him.

2. Putting himself in the passenger’s shoes would have brought ease to the stressful situation

I found myself having some sympathy with the passenger, although I did not care for his aggression. It is galling to be told that a seemingly simple request cannot be granted. No-one likes to be managed and the passenger could probably feel that that was what was happening to him.

Because the flight attendant was focusing on containing the situation, he did not appear to take the time to see it from the passenger’s point of view. Nor did he really take the time to address the needs of the passenger. 

Both men adopted opposing sides of the situation, without trying to find common ground. One of the most direct ways to disarm a situation is to realise that all the participants are just trying to manage their day. They would like their day to go well but could be dealing with all kinds of hassles along the way. We all have this in common.

3. Working with his emotions to bring ease to the stressful situation

The flight attendant had his emotions firmly under control but that was part of the problem. He was obviously challenged by the passenger and yet maintained the same party line throughout. Being able to notice when your emotions are triggered and then working with what you noticeis a more sustainable way of being with emotions. 

When we are in the grip of emotions it can be hard to remember that they will pass, that they are not solid and real. Mindfulnesshelps us to be able to identify an emotion, to acknowledge it and to gently let it go. It helps us to respect it but not to take it too seriously. When we start to identify with the emotion and use it to bolster our position then we are creating a possible trigger for stress.

The kind of stress I witnessed on this occasion was not major, but it was nasty. The man I spoke to looked very tired by the end of the flight and I doubt if it was his last of the day. The tension he was holding looked like it was heading towards a stiff drink and a good moan—not so bad in small doses but not a good long-term strategy for stress-management.

office building

If you have found the ideas in this post interesting you might like to look at my new online course, How to Make Kindness Matter at Work. You can find out more here.

How to Keep a Good Meditation Routine this Holiday

How to Keep a Good Meditation Routine this Holiday

Photo by Vicko Mozara on Unsplash

Many of us in the northern hemisphere are heading off for our summer holidays about now. It’s a time of excitement and anticipation. The rest and relaxation you have been longing for is finally here. It’s been a busy time getting everything in place so you can go away and maybe your meditation routine has slipped a bit in all the rush.

Do you have the idea that while you are on holiday, with all that free time, you can catch up and fit in lots of extra meditation sessions? Sadly, things rarely turn out that way. All the new impressions, the lack of your usual routine and with so many fun things to try out it’s hard to find the time.

However, if you are relaxed about it, it is possible to establish a good meditation routine for your holiday. You just need to be flexible and open to trying some new things.

Take time to just relax and unwind

Here is a shocking statistic I came across recently. Brits take an average of 46 hours and 42 minutes to feel relaxed on holiday, according to a survey of 2,000 people from travel experts Tots to Travel A lot of this must be to do with our ‘always on’ culture. It can be hard to adjust to have lots of free time with no deadlines and demands

So, first of all, give yourself some time to simply unwind, arrive where you are and enjoy the space. Relax.

Don’t set unrealistic goals

It’s very easy to compensate for the lack of a work routine by starting your holiday with a long to-do list for your meditation practice. Maybe you have brought s bunch of books you want to read up on meditation. Or you have decided to do so much meditation every day come what may. With all that free time, it should be easy right?

The trouble is with this kind of goal-setting there is a big chance you will finish up your holiday feeling disappointed that you didn’t accomplish enough. You are really just taking your everyday work attitude to getting things done and applying it to your meditation practice while on holiday. 

Instead, try to set small, attainable goals for your meditation and then keep to them. It will be nourishing and encouraging to build on when you get home.

Use any odd moment for your meditation routine

Because you are on holiday and everything is fresh and new, don’t feel you can only meditate sitting on your cushion.Whenever you have a couple of quiet moments, do a short session of meditation.  Perhaps you are on the beach looking at the ocean—take a moment to sit. Pause before taking your first sip of your drink, or bite of your ice-cream. If you have the intention it is possible to meditate anytime, anywhere.

Just sit upright, connect with your breathing and then maintain awareness of your breath for a few moments. If you do that several times in a day, you are collecting quite a lot of meditation time. You are also building a new habit which will enable you to be more flexible with your meditation routine when you return home.

Be present for new things

Anyone who practices meditation knows that being present and mindful of where you are and what you are doing is of fundamental importance. Generally being on holiday means experiencing lots of new things. Notice all these new things. Try to be mindful of what is happening in your day. As you see something for the first time, take a moment to really experience it. Don’t just hurry on to the next thing but let yourself be present with it.

Maybe you visit a museum, an historic building, or a local market. Let yourself be there, without thinking about what comes next, or what you might do this evening. Notice the sky above your head, and the people around you. You can use all of your senses to be mindful—so notice the smells, the different languages being spoken and the touch of the ground beneath your feet.

Connect with the people around you

If you are trying to use more of your daily life for your meditation practice, you might like to try connecting with the people around you. This is one of my favourite meditations. 

Bring to mind how all the person that you meet during the day want to be happy and to live good lives. They may have different lifestyles to you, but you have this fundamental point in common. Even though we all want happiness, we know that life can be very tricky and challenging things can happen. It’s inevitable that some of the people you meet will be dealing with these challenges right now. Thinking like this can touch our hearts and allow us to empathize with them. Notice how you are drawn to some people but pull away from others. Then remember that we are all in the same boat in terms of dealing with the challenges of life.

Practice gratitude as part of your meditation routine

With all the fun, opportunities and experiences of being on holiday there is plenty of reason to be grateful for being there. Research is showing that actively practicing gratitudehas all kinds of benefits for the person doing it! Generally, people who take time to reflect on what they are grateful for are happier, feel more alive, sleep better and experience more positive emotions.

So, as you go through your day take time to pause and look at what is happening for you. Remember that each experience is a unique moment in your life.

Something that I enjoy doing is reviewing with my partner what we have found special during our day. Maybe over dinner, or before going to bed you can make a cozy time to share with your family and friends.

Use nature 

The chances are that you will spend long stretches of your vacation in nature. That gives you plenty of opportunity for short meditation sessions. 

We already mentioned watching the ocean. Considering how the waves rise and fall across the surface of the ocean is a good reminder of how thoughts and emotions rise in our minds. 

Looking into the sky helps to bring to mind the unlimited scope and potential of our natural mind. Noticing how the clouds come and go across the sky is just how our thoughts move across our mind if we don’t grasp hold of them.

When you are in place of natural beauty, let the awe and grandeur of what you are seeing bring space into your mind.

Bringing your meditation routine together on holiday

If you can keep your meditation practice at the centre of your attention you can still manage to keep up a strong routine on holiday. By being flexible and allowing yourself to do some different kinds of meditation you will find that there is plenty of time available. Having this kind of ease and flexibility is also a good investment for your meditation routine when you get home.  It will help to build the confidence in your practice that will make it reliable.

busy life

How to Make Time for Meditation in a Busy Life

If you are interested in developing your meditation practice to really be integrated into your everyday life you might like to try this online course. You can read about it here

How To Deal With The Stuff That Comes Up In Meditation

How To Deal With The Stuff That Comes Up In Meditation

At last you’ve made it to your meditation seat! What a relief to actually get down to it. You sit in the correct posture, you go through your settling routine,and then begin with your method. All seems well—for about 10 seconds and then all kinds of things you never expected start to happen.

Let’s take a look at what some of those might be.

 

  1. Your thoughts are out of control

There is no problem to have thoughts going through your mind during a meditation session. The thing is not to follow after them. Just let them come and fade away. Our habit is when a thought comes, we pay attention to it, and get into it. We follow it through to see where it is going. This is what we are aiming to change in meditation. It’s not about stopping our thoughts but about changing our habit in relation to them.

There is nothing like sitting down to meditate to make you realise how busy your mind is. People often tell me that they are not very good at meditation because they can’t stop their thoughts. First of all, it is a misconception to think that meditation is about stopping thoughts. It is not. It is a way of seeing thoughts for what they are and developing a different relationship with them.

A helpful image is of the sky and the clouds. Our minds are like the sky—spacious, vast, sparkling. Our thoughts and emotions are like clouds—sometimes light and fluffy, sometimes dark and looming. Whichever they are, they don’t stay and moreover, they do not stain the sky. When they pass away the sky is still as spacious and limitless as before.

It is because our minds have this sky-like quality that we notice when we get distracted. The more we notice our thoughts, the better we get at working with them. If we let thoughts come and go without grasping at them, then we can use the thoughts themselves as a way of waking up our awareness.

So, we could imagine sitting on our meditation seat and a thought comes into our mind, Oh I need to buy vegetables. We can just notice the thought—we can even label it ‘thinking’, or ‘thought’ if it helps. Then we place our attention back on the method. That way, each time a thought, or feeling carries our attention away, we use it to strengthen our meditation by bringing our attention back.

 

2. You get sleepy

 

It’s very natural to get sleepy. Generally, we are so busy and doing all kinds of things all the time. We actually take so little time to rest and just simply be. In meditation we get to sit and relax, so it is not so surprising that drowsiness sometimes overcomes us.

One thing you can try is to raise your gaze. I always recommend meditating with your eyes open. If you feel sleepy, just look up a little. Keep your gaze soft and not too highly focused.

Just stay with your meditation method and if you fall asleep, just wake up again and continue. The thing is not to get anxious or frustrated about it. Just feel that you had a couple of moments of deep rest. If it continues for several weeks – make sure to do your session in the morning, rather than in the evening when you are more tired.

 

3. You are bored

This can get us in two ways. Firstly, the fear of being bored can stop us getting to the meditation seat at all. We like to stay entertained and engaged and the thought of sitting quietly by oneself can seem daunting. In fact, there is even research that shows that people will even give themselves electric shocks rather than sit alone in silence. College students were asked to sit for 15 minutes alone in a plain room, with nothing to entertain them. Most people reported feeling uncomfortable and distracted. In a follow up experiment, 67% of the men and 24% of the women opted to give themselves electric shocks.

In meditation we do not have anything outside of ourselves to entertainus, and sometimes this can feel confronting. We might feel some excitement at beginning with meditation, but we quickly become used to the method and then we can feel restless and bored. It’s not unusual to have stretches of memories, and things that worry you come up. Then we notice we are lost in thoughts and remember to come back to the method and try to settle. 

The more we do this, the more we do settle. Then we may begin to find our stories slightly boring and not as compelling we previously thought. This is the beginning of the process of coming to know ourselves fully through meditation.

 

4. You are uncomfortable

People often complain of back pain, knee pain, stiffness and pins and needles. We are not used to sitting still in a particular posture, so it is inevitable that some discomfort will arise. The thing is not to worry about and not to pay it too much attention. 

If you feel slightly uncomfortable, then shift your posture slightly. If you feel very uncomfortable, stand up and stretch. Whatever you do to ease your discomfort, do it as part of your meditation—with mindfulness and awareness. Just pay attention to the discomfort lightly without reacting to it and making it into a big deal.

 

A traditional example

Often meditation teachers compare the early stages of learning to meditate as being like a waterfall. All our thoughts and emotions come crashing in with lots of noise and fuss. If we stay with it, this begins to settle, and the meditation becomes more like a mountain stream—active and bubbly but less chaotic. Eventually our meditation can become like a broad river flowing towards the sea—calm and serene.

This example goes to show that this is all natural, recognisable and simply part of learning to meditate.

 

What to take forward from all this 

Getting used to meditation is so important for us. Most people do not have a habit of sitting still and being with their minds. It’s no wonder that all kinds of stuff come up. We just need to relax—it’s all fine. My meditation teacher always used to say to us that there is no such thing as a bad meditation. It’s all just meditation.

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