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.
The short answer to the question, what is the best time to meditate is—any time and as much as possible! However, this does not help us so much when we are trying to get used to meditation and to find a place for it in our lives. In this post we will take a look at three popular times for your meditation session that can work very well—as well as where they can be problematic.
First thing in the morning
In many ways this is the best time to meditate. Your day has not yet got going so there is some space. You can control when you set the alarm and what time you choose to get up. It’s always a good idea to get up a bit earlier than usual if you want to do a meditation session. Having some quiet, focused time is a great way to begin the day. It gives a flavour to everything that comes after and makes it easier to come back to meditation at odd moments throughout the day. It feels good to prioritise making this special time for yourself.
There can be drawbacks of course. Getting up earlier cuts down on how late you go to bed the night before, which is not always easy. You might not be a morning person at all. You need to consider whereabouts you will do your meditation session. If you live with other people, they are going to be affected by your decision to start with meditation. You might need to negotiate some quiet space for yourself.
During your lunch break
This can work for anyone, but it is particularly helpful if you go out to work. Creating a space to be quiet and present is a good way to cut through the busyness and stress of a working day. It also brings meditation directly into your work environment and makes it easier to take short meditation moments at any time.
There are two disadvantages. The first is that your lunch break is quite vulnerable to interruption. Things come up all the time and you could find yourself with only a moment to grab a sandwich. There is also the problem of where you do your session. Do you have a quiet place at work you could go to? One hint I picked up from a client of mine recently is to find a nearby church and go there for your meditation session. He said it worked brilliantly for him!
Before going to bed
This is popular with a lot of people who like the idea of having a peaceful finish to their day. It’s true that meditating in the evening can help you to sleep better. Some people do their session as soon as they get home. Others wait till they are going to bed and make it part of their usual routine.
The disadvantages are that by the end of the day we tend to be more tired and the temptation to skip our session and get straight to bed is very real. On the other hand, we might want to go out and have social plans for the evening, which makes fitting in a meditation session quite hard.
So, what do we do?
It is important to just play with which time works best for you. Take it lightly and don’t beat yourself up when you can’t stick to a routine that you’ve set up. It’s a good idea to experiment with all three times. You could set out to meditate every morning for a week. Next try lunchtimes for a week, and then the evenings. After an experiment like this, you can see what has worked best for you. No one method will be perfect—you will need to choose the one that has the least disadvantages for you. If you feel daring, you could try having your first choice for a meditation session, and if that does not work out you go to a fall-back position—your second choice. This would mean not meditating at the same time every day, but it would increase your confidence if you felt you could be flexible. That’s what we are aiming for long-term.
What other times of the day have your tried to have your meditation session? Let me know in the comments section.
Here is a simple checklist that shows the pros and cons of the three times we talked about in the post. You can download a PDF here Time to meditate
There is a great deal of information out there about meditation. To meditate is very simple but to make time and space for it in our lives can be tough. We need to find simple, practical ways to make it a habit – just like cleaning our teeth – so it becomes a natural part of our daily schedule.
Here is a simple checklist that outlines the main stages of a session of meditation.
Over the next few weeks, we are going to look at each part of the checklist and go into more detail.
Until then, please get in touch and let us know if you think we have missed anything out. We always like to hear from you.
It took me a long time to realize that my kindness can suffer from a lack of attention. Although it matters a lot to me to be kind, I am only too aware that it is not always easy.
Do you know the Cherokee folk story about the grandfather talking to his grandson? The Grandfather describes the two wolves that he feels are always battling within him. There is the kindly, caring wolf who looks for peace and harmony and then there is the fierce, angry wolf who likes to fight and make trouble. The grandson asks which wolf will win the battle and his grandfather replies, ‘The one that I feed’.
I always feel that the old grandfather is actually telling the story of how our old brain can undermine our newer brain, the prefrontal cortex at any provocation. Our old brain, or reptilian brain has been passed down to us from our early beginnings when our attention was primarily focused on hunting, procreating and staying alive. It was much later, when we started to gather together in communities in order to protect our families and raise healthy children, that we began to learn the value of cooperation and connection.
So, from one point of view, the wise grandfather is reminding me that kindness might be part of our evolutionary make up, but our self-interest is instinctive. In other words, if we don’t pay attention then our old brain can hijack all our well-meaning intentions.
These are some of the ways it can happen for me.
When does my kindness suffer?
When my opinions take over
We are going through tough times in world events—disastrous wars, austerity, Brexit, climate change, Trump, an increase in support for populism—and our 24/7 media coverage brings it all very close. Like many people, I care a lot about these issues and have strong opinions about how they need to be addressed. The thing is, it’s all too easy to talk about the people that I disagree with in very harsh terms. Sometimes I do not even realize that I am doing it!
When an issue is one we value dearly, then it is hard to tolerate opinions which seem to cut right across those values. We can use the fact that we feel ‘passionate’ about our causes to cover up how we behave in supporting them.
I have come to realize it is not so much use to campaign for things that matter to me in a style that does not fit my values. I don’t make loads of New Year Resolutions, but I am determined to find a way to speak up with strength but not harshness.
When I am too stressed, worried and pre-occupied
When we are stressed, or worried our horizons tend to narrow and we focus more on what is going on for us than with other people. Even being in a rush can lead us to overlook the needs of others. Stress can act in the same way as a threat and trigger our old brain responses. Our thinking brain tends to shut down and we focus our attention on just getting by—rather than noticing other peoples’ needs.
The irony is that we benefit ourselves from practising kindness—it’s not just about the other person.Research shows that kindness can improve heart function, lower blood pressure, slow aging and strengthen our immune systems. The author and scientist, David R. Hamilton explains that through the production of the hormone, oxytocin and the neurotransmitter, serotonin our levels of wellbeing are raised. Anxiety, stress and depression can all be reduced through preforming genuine acts of kindness. When we can open our hearts and minds to pay attention to the needs of others, we feel a sense of relief to connect with the world beyond our own individual worries.
When someone I care about is having a bad time
A few months ago, a close friend of mine got into a frustrating and demoralising hassle about a new work project he was initiating. It was a project he cared a great deal about and he was not given much chance to fight for it before it was cancelled in quite a callous way. When he told me the story, I found myself immediately leaping to his defence and blaming the other people for their lack of vision. I was able to support him with his frustration and disappointment, but it was only later that I realized that I had not been very fair to the other people involved.
That’s another tricky thing about kindness. Most of us are pretty good at giving kindness to those we love and are important to us. It gets much more difficult when we are asked to offer kindness beyond the circle of those we care about—and then even to people we disagree with and perhaps do not even like! I try to remember that there are plenty of people who don’t like me, but I still would like them to treat me fairly.
When I am able to separate a person from their actions, it gets much easier to wish them well and want to show them kindness. However, I can only do this when I am paying attention and not simply reacting.
Although we all want to live happy lives and for things to go well, we know that difficulties come along as part of the ups and downs of life. This happens to everyone. When I am going through a challenging time and need my friends to be there for me, it’s not always possible for them. Perhaps they are struggling themselves. When I am paying attention then I can remember this. When I am not then I get hurt.
How can I pay attention?
Why is our attention so fickle? We have seen how our reptilian brain can over-ride our more sophisticated reasoning brain but there is more. In 2010 two Harvard psychologists,Gilbert and Killingsworth developed an iPhone app which tracked the happiness of volunteers throughout the day. The results were astonishing: for almost 50% of our waking hours we are thinking about something different to what we are doing, and it does not make us happy. Our ability to ruminate, to think of events of already passed and to anticipate things that have not yet happened clouds our attention and takes us away from our immediate experience. We are simply not fully present to vast stretches of our activity.
Meditation enables us to bring our minds home, to pay attention in the present moment, without judgment. It helps us to connect with our own inner capacity for kindness and builds resilience to the challenges of life. Neuroscientists are discovering that as soon as we begin to practice meditation it is has positive effects on our brain. It is my meditation practice that gives me the foundation for kindness.
Making a habit of giving the benefit of the doubt
With meditation as the ground, I try as much as possible to give people the benefit of the doubt. It’s not always possible to manage it straight away, but gradually it becomes easier to come back to it later on. Perhaps there is an initial burst of frustration, or impatience but then I see what I am doing and remember kindness. It is as an act of self-compassion to forgive myself for not getting there faster.
Remembering to put myself in the other person’s shoes
Another useful technique is to remember to put myself in the other person’s shoes—to try and see things from their point of view, from their own experience. It is hard to begin with but gradually it becomes possible to find the thread of another person’s insecurity, worry, sorrow or conditioning that could be informing their behaviour. If I can, I try to see myself as I might appear to them—what would they see when they look at me?
Most of all, it helps to remember that however much we want to act with kindness and consideration, we are subject to the overwhelming power of our basic instinct to preserve ourselves. Although our kindness is hard-wired we need to pay attention to it in order to bring it into action—it needs intention and focus. Our self-interest is instinctive. Meditation is a sustainable way to calm down our hyper-active minds and pay attention to what is going on with ourselves, with people around us and with our environment.
If you liked this post and feel inspired to go more deeply into kindness, you could try this online course
As the Beatles sang in their song, A Day in the Life,
I read the news today, oh boy….
As I read the news, the main headline was about the ‘final call’ to save the world from ‘climate catastrophe’—in other words, everyone and everything frying in less than 30 years time. There was a piece about girls in school uniform being sexually harassed, and another about increasing homelessness even in prosperous cities in the USA. Another right-wing candidate has leapt to prominence, and the incidents of PTSD among veterans is seriously on the rise. Young people who have enough money for a 10% deposit on a house still cannot afford to buy one. Then the usual stories of bribery, corruption, and the misery of long-term refugees is like a familiar backdrop to the daily round of suffering, violence and natural disasters.
Quite a lot of my friends have stopped watching the news. They say it is way too distressing, and makes them feel powerless, frightened and miserable. Why put yourself through it—it’s enough to make you crazy?
So why do I risk the news driving me crazy and keep watching it so regularly?
Something that comes into my head over and over again as I struggle with watching the news is that any one of the people I am watching could be me—I could be flooded out of my home or attacked by a terrorist while moving about the city. I am one of the people directly affected by Brexit, new tax regulations and the housing shortage. It seems vitally important to realize that each of the news stories are made up by people just like me. We might live in different countries, have different interests and concerns but each of us needs basic shelter, enough to eat and a way to earn our living. We all have hopes and dreams and we all experience crushing disappointments, anxieties and fears. Somewhere, at some level we all want and need love.
Putting myself in their shoes
As I watch the news I try to put myself in the shoes of the people involved – to see things as they are experiencing them. This is not the same as letting myself get overwhelmed by what is going on. It’s more like walking a bit on someone else’s shoes until I get their feel and then putting my own back on. I know it will not help anyone if I just feel bad and miserable. The point for me is not to withdraw but to see it all within the scope of how inter-connected we all are – to keep my own heart open and responsive, to dare to be vulnerable.
It gets a lot harder if I try to put myself in the shoes of the perpetrators of terrorism, or conflict, or crime and sometimes it is just not possible. At the very least, I make an attempt to fathom what led them to act as they did—to ask myself what suffering they may have experienced that led to such drastic action.
Dealing with judgement
We seem to be living through a time of deep polarization between different opinions and ways of seeing the world. It is all too easy to judge those we disagree with as being less capable, less honest, almost less human. It hurts to see legislation, political appointments and decisions that go directly against what you yourself feel to be important. At such times it’s easy to feel cynical and dismiss it all as just another manifestation of how hopeless it all is and how we should not even try to make sense of any of it.
I was struck by a recent video I watched from Michelle Obama in which she encourages people to get out and vote—to take responsibility for how they want to live. She did not urge people to vote democrat—she simply encouraged people not to go passive in the current melée of politics but to engage and choose. Her insistence that it is fundamentally up to us resonated with me.
Managing my dislike
I confess to feeling angry, frustrated and overwhelmingly sad when certain politicians come on the screen—I just need to hear their voice, or see their name and my reaction rolls in. It surprises me how visceral it is. Generally my preference is for dialogue, kindness and compassion and yet when these particular political figures appear on the screen I just want to yell abuse.
This cannot be called a productive response at any level.
Perhaps one of the main reasons for this reaction is my sense of helplessness—I want to hit back because of how frustrated I feel. Just lately, it has been becoming clearer that if I can manage my exactions with more equanimity, less dislike and less judgement I can feel that I am taking back some control of the situation. A meditation teacher of mine used to say, If you want to bring about nuclear disarmament, start off with the atom bomb in your own heart. The wisdom of this is finally beginning to filter through.
Just as Michelle Obama encourages participation as a way of taking responsibility, so working with my reactions—from aversion, through judgement to dislike—can help me to have more resources and energy to see the new items more clearly. This can only help in developing the understanding and compassion I am looking for.
Watching the news has become a way of bearing witness for me—bearing witness to the pain and suffering in the world, to the struggles that we all have to manifest our natural capacity for kindness and to my own path to developing my resources in order to be of benefit, rather than adding to the chaos and confusion.
Hello! If you enjoyed this blog and want to go deeper, you might enjoy this online course: How to Be a Good Friend to Yourself
This is the story of how I recently overcame my feelings of wanting to lie low and nurse my stress by going into town and joining with the common humanity I found there.
The last few months have been pretty stressful one way and another and I have been feeling the effects. I work from home, which is great, but when things are intense I can end up feeling a bit isolated. A couple of weekends back my partner was away giving a workshop and I had not made any plans myself. Because I was not feeling sociable, I thought I could work through the weekend.
Unexpectedly, Saturday morning dawned fresh and bright and tempted me to go out and play.
Getting out of my comfort zone
Although I could feel the pull to get out of the house I resisted for a while—I had too much to do, I didn’t want to spend loads of money, I was a bit tired…………. After a while I realised, with a bit of a shock that what was getting in the way was my reluctance to leave my comfort zone. It was easier to stay at home, feeling a bit sorry for myself, than make the effort to go out. This insight gave me a real jolt. I don’t see myself as someone who plays safe. I made up my mind to get ready and go out.
Common humanity and self-compassion
Kristen Neffis one of the leading voices in the research and practice of self-compassion. She sees self-compassion as being composed of three elements:self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Each of these components is an antidote to ways we can undermine ourselves when we do not practice self-compassion. So self-kindness is an antidote to judging ourselves and mindfulness is an antidote to over-identification, or the ways we exaggerate what is happening around us. Common humanity is the antidote to self-isolation. I certainly felt that when I realised part of me preferred to stay home and wallow!
The healing potential of connecting with common humanity was something I experienced directly that Saturday, as I went tired and bruised into town and came home feeling re-charged and uplifted.
Connecting with others is healing
Amsterdam was packed that day. I had forgotten for a moment the huge impact of tourists in the city. There are always lots of people visiting Amsterdam but, in the summer, it gets astronomical. In a city of less than one million inhabitants, 18,000,000 visitors are expected this year. Sometimes I can find this invasive but somehow this time it touched me.
So many people were out and about wanting to enjoy themselves and have a good time. You could hear a whole range of languages and accents as people tried to find their way around the city. There were families and young couples. Older people in tourist parties followed closely behind their guide. There was a tangible sense of movement and enquiry.
To my shame, my Dutch is very poor. Although I have lived in Amsterdam for many years I have not managed to become fluent in Dutch. When I am on my own I always want to let people know that I am not a tourist, just a poor Dutch speaker. On this Saturday I had interactions with all kinds of people in shops, and my confession led to a whole series of interesting stories with the people working in the shops I visited. There was lots of sharing of experiences and much laughter and teasing.
Because I was on my own, people were more likely to take time to talk with me. I could feel something in me relax with the enjoyment of chatting without any particular kind of agenda. In the café where I stopped for coffee there was time to look round and see the other people enjoying their coffee and cake.
One of my favourite meditations for common humanity
The more I walked around and felt myself as one of the crowd, the more I could feel the tightness of recent months begin to dissolve. With my own stress and worry still so close, it was a small step to look at others and wonder how they were and what they were coping with.
I found myself reciting, or paraphrasing lines from this meditation more and more as the afternoon went by. Would anyone know from looking at me what I had been carrying over the last months? Probably not. How can any of us gauge what someone is dealing with, other than by accepting the basic truth that life is both wonderful and very hard at the same time. We all want things to go well but life shows us that some of the time they won’t. Everyone has their own worry, suffering and pain—everyone. So it is possible to look into the eyes of anyone you pass by and think, ‘just like me.’This is the experience of common humanity for me.
As my walk around town continued I experienced a growing sense of gratitude. It felt so good to be part of the energy of the people enjoying the city, as well as feeling a sense of connection between myself and them.
My worries were still there but I felt much less alone with them. Remembering that everyone I was meeting would be going through their own version of challenge and anxiety lifted the heaviness from my own. Before I set off to play in town I was feeling that my problems were all-pervasive. After a few hours of shopping and people-watching I simply felt that we were all in the same boat—wanting happiness but dealing with whatever comes along.
Research into gratitude over the past 15 years is finding several emotional, and lately even physical benefits. Connecting with common humanity, recognising its power to help me and experiencing gratitude because of that transformed my mood and lifted my heart. I will not quickly forget the experience.
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