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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
A meditation method is really just an activity we can give our restless mind when we want it to settle. The meditation teacher Mingyur Rinpochecalls this restless mind, our monkey mindand he advises giving our monkey a job to do. That’s how we try to tame it and get it working for us, rather than against us. The job we give our monkey mind is to pay attention to an object that we use as a support for our meditation. In actual fact, we can use pretty much anything as a support for meditation but when we are starting out, it helps to keep it simple.
In this post we will look at two excellent meditation methods that can work for beginners.
Using the breath as a meditation method
This is a very accessible method of meditation. Here are the guidelines.
Our breath is always with us – we breathe all day long.
We can do this meditation anywhere and at anytime
Because it is so accessible, we can do very short moments of this meditation throughout the day
The only disadvantage that I know of is for people who might be asthmatic or have any kind of problem with their breathing. Putting attention on to the breath can be uncomfortable.
Using a candle as a meditation method
This is another easy-to-do method. Here are the guidelines.
This is a useful alternative for people with any kind of breathing sensitivity
Having a lighted candle makes a very pleasant atmosphere and helps us focus.
The method is not portable – you need to do it in one place.
You need to prepare your session with a candle, a lighter and so on.
Some people find the flame itself hard to focus on.
Which method should you use?
If you are beginning with meditation, my advice would be to try both methods but to do this in a systematic way.
Only use one method in each session
Try one method for a few days and make a note of how it works for you.
After the few days are up, try the other method and keeps notes again.
Choose the method you feel worked best for you during the experimental period.
Another idea would be to use the candle method when you are at home and doing your formal session. Use the breath method throughout the day for short moments of meditation on the bus, waiting in queues, before a meeting and so on.
Things you might find useful when you do a meditation session
It’s best to keep things as simple and uncluttered as possible. However, from a practical point of view there are things that help a session to feel stable and welcoming.
Here are a few pointers:
set your timer before your session so you can relax and not keep checking
turn off any devices that might buzz, or bleep during your session
perhaps have a cup of tea, or glass of water at hand to drink
often people like to have a shawl to wrap around their shoulders or put across their knees
I once saw a very funny comedy sketch about someone setting up their meditation session. They arrived with a huge bag of stuff and spent ages laying it all out. The audience were in fits. By the time they were ready and finally sitting down, their timer went off and it was time to finish! So do be comfortable but don’t go overboard.
I have been coaching Tom in meditation for a while now. Recently he had the idea to try to increase the time he meditates each day. In order to get a feel of what it means to meditate for longer periods, he designed this one-day intensive for himself. It skillfully plots a series of meditations to keep the meditator engaged, while achieving the goal for the day.
What was your purpose in doing this one-day meditation intensive?
The purpose was to consolidate my meditation practice and kickstart a greater depth and regularity in my daily practice, without committing to the schedule of a traditional retreat. I wanted to create space where meditation could be the main purpose and focus of a day rather than something squeezed into one’s timetable between myriad other daily commitments.
Did you have a goal for the day?
I aimed to do 4 hours of meditation in the day. That compares to my usual daily target of 30 minutes. Upon Maureen’s suggestion I also wanted to retain the unquantifiable quality of meditation; something of the specialness that gives it a place in religious practice. This I saw as a way to inspire better practice giving better tangible results.
Can you describe the schedule you adopted?
I started off by being pretty uninspired by the simplistic idea of a day retreat that came to mind shutting myself off from the world in a quiet place and sitting for long periods. I chose to schedule the day as a series of meditations in different places in London. Looking for places where I could sit undisturbed for up to an hour, some of the most suitable I found were London’s many churches, especially in winter when outdoor venues were ruled out.
Whilst travelling to the venues I would meditate on public transport (which unsurprisingly constitutes quite a large part of my regular daily meditation whilst commuting), or walking meditations, which is a technique Maureen and I had been working on. Once at the venues I planned different types of meditation, depending on the circumstances, for example a meditation using the ambient noises as the object (rather than seeing them as a distraction).
What worked well and what was less useful?
Meditatively using public transport, outside of rush hour, is an entirely different experience! Partly because of removing the goal-directed mindset of rushing to your destination, and partly because of the greater awareness engendered by a walking meditation, it brought a very different level of interaction with one’s environment whilst travelling.
I also found it very useful having an app called Insight Timerto record the time spent meditating and various other stats useful when reviewing the day’s efforts.
What did you learn from doing this? Did you achieve your goal?
I didn’t achieve the goal of 4 hours meditation during the day, but I did achieve my purpose of the day’s intensive meditation. I learnt however that an intensive day’s meditation is not an aim in itself but a way to build on and progress towards the benefits of a regular daily meditation habit.
Would you do it again?
Yes, without hesitation.
Tom Price is Head of Tea for JING Tea, a London-based premium tea company, which Maureen has been working with over several years on transforming stress at work and one-to-one meditation guidance.
Here are some guidelines for a meditation on sound, as Tom mentioned.
A friend of mine told me a wonderful story about his early days of leading meditation sessions. At the time of this story he was working full time, had a young family and had really only been meditating himself for a couple of years. on top of all this he volunteered at a local Buddhist centre in Dublin, where he was asked to hold the introductory meditation session before the talk of the evening began. He was eager to help but really over-extended. My friend told me that he would rush out from work, grab a quick bite to eat on the run and dash across town to get to the Buddhist centre. Oh, and by the way, the room where the evening talk was held was up eight flights of stairs with no lift. He said he would arrive out of breath, hassled and all over the place. When he sat down in front of the group, he would have trouble remembering what it was that he was supposed to do.
I am sure he was exaggerating because he became a really good meditation guide, but his story often comes back to me. Our lives tend to be so busy and over-scheduled. When we finally sit down to do our meditation, our minds are often racing. We don’t give ourselves time for settling into meditation.
In this post I am going to share a simple routine for this process of settling.
Choose your meditation spot well
You don’t need to be fussy about where you meditate. At the end of the day you can do it anywhere. You just need to be sure that where you choose works for you and you feel comfortable there. If you want to choose a place outside, then go for a spot where people will not stare at you. You need somewhere a bit secluded—or you can always wear sunglasses!
If you are doing your session at home, then make sure you are going for a place where your family, or flatmates are not about to start an activity. You don’t want a hassle about who is going to do what, where.
Above all, choose somewhere that feels right.
Remember why you want to meditate
It is good to just take a moment as you sit down to remember why you wanted to meditate in the first place. You will have heard about all the benefits of meditation. Which are the ones that resonate with you most? Bring them to mind as a way of inspiring your session.
Perhaps you have a favourite benefit? Bring it to mind and remember why this was important to you. It could be that one benefit pre-occupies you at the moment but next moth it will be a different one. That’s fine. The point is to connect with the inspiration for yourself right now.
Take a few deep, slow breaths
It’s a good idea to take a few really good deep breaths before you start. It helps us to relax and to arrive on our meditation seat – to settle into meditation. I find it helps me to make a break from the activities I have been busy with and the focused, quieter time I am going for in meditation. You can do this before you sit down and combine it with a stretch. Do whatever works for you.
Pay attention to your posture
The way you arrange your body for meditation will affect the meditation itself. It is a crucial element in how you settle into meditation. The posture and the meditation go hand-in-hand. There are two fundamental things to keep in mind—relax but be alert. It’s easy to get stiff and self-conscious when we sit to meditate. We try to sit ‘properly’ and usually end up being uncomfortable.
Here is a simple checklist:
Back straight but respecting the spine’s natural curve
Chin slightly tucked in
Eyes open with the gaze slightly downwards
Relax your shoulders
Legs crossed if you are on a cushion, feet firmly on the floor if you are in a chair
Hands relaxed on your thighs
Mouth relaxed, with lips slightly parted
If you feel uncomfortable, just stretch and come back to the posture.
Do a simple body scan
A full body scan meditation takes about 45 minutes, but you can do a simple body scan in just a few moments.
Bring your attention to the top of your head, and slowly let it travel downwards through your whole body. Try not to miss any parts of your body—remember the back of your neck, your arms and elbows, your hips, legs and so on. When you reach your feet just relax. Whatever aches, pains, and sensations that you notice, that’s fine. Really. Just notice them. Try not to have a reaction—I don’t like this feeling in my shoulders, my stomach is too big. Just notice and move on.
This is just a simple check-in with your body to help with settling into meditation.
Notice your mood
The next part of the checklist for settling into meditation is to check in with your mood. This does not mean you have to arrange yourself to be in a good mood. Just look into how you feel and notice whatever is going on. Perhaps you are a bit tired – just notice. Maybe you are looking forward to an event you have coming up – just notice your excitement. The idea is to look at your mood without judgment, accepting it as it is, without wanting to change it. This is the kind of attitude we have to our thoughts and emotions as they come and go during our meditation session.
Connect your meditation to your world
I find it helps to make a brief aspiration at the beginning of my meditation session. Sometimes I make it quite general—like a hope that through meditation I will learn to calm my mind and become more useful for other people. Other times I will try to connect it with something that is going on in the world, or in my own life. I might think of people going hungry in Venezuela and hope that as meditation becomes more popular in society it will lead to great wisdom and kindness in politics. It helps inspire me to complete my session.
The 7 steps that I have shared here are ones that help me with settling into meditation. You might not want to take on the whole 7, or you may have one or two others that help you as well. If you do, please do share in the comments section. One last tip—decide what you need for your session and make sure you have it to hand. Are you using a timer? Have you turned your phone off? Are you drinking tea, coffee, or water? Do you need a blanket? Decide on all this before you start, so that once you sit down you can relax and not worry about anything else.
If you like checklists here is one to help you remember the steps to help you settle into meditation. You can download the pdf Settling infographic-2
If you would like to go deeper into meditation, then try this online course – it’s packed full of practical tips for making room for meditation in a busy schedule.