No, I didn’t watch my waistline, I watched my mind instead.
I checked out of Christmas and into what could easily be described as festive rehab: 10 days of silence and meditation in the middle of the windswept Wiltshire countryside.
So let’s first address this issue of the festive bulge. It’s not a question of one too many mince pies, pay no mind to those. It’s a question of mind, full stop
. Year round we consume toxic ad campaigns and trash media, but somehow it’s quadrupled at Christmas. It reaches fever pitch.
Until finally we crawl into January wearing our exhaustion like a badge of honour, and dreading the fated resolutions and draconian diets. So ditch them, I say, and begin this New Year with just one new practice.
You’ll find it exceptionally easy: it’s called breathing. The mind is wild
It is also extraordinarily sneaky. Say you set the intention to stop thinking about someone or something. You’ll probably manage it for a moment or two. Then somehow you’ll find your way back to the forbidden fruit in a way you’d never imagined.
I’ll give you an example. I wanted to stop thinking about Bob (names changed here, obviously). So I did. But then I started thinking about Bill. That was nice. Until I realised I only knew Bill because of some random vague connection to Bob. Dammit. Back to square one. The mind will trick you
. It will lead you astray to places that upset and unravel. Which is exactly why we need the breath to rein it in and rally those thoughts. We have millions of the little buggers every day, dictating our moods and running the show. There’s always something to assess, analyse and anger.
But that’s okay. You see, the whole point of this breathing exercise is not to empty your mind. It doesn't require that you deny your humanity or the brilliance of your wild mind, but instead accept it. When we accept our madness, it’s liberating
. If we just breathe through it, we achieve a level of separation that makes life a lot calmer. And the more you breathe through it, the more the mind tires itself out like a toddler. If you don’t respond to its antics, the child eventually gets bored and gives up.
Here’s how we do it. Anapana is your best friend
We began by learning a foundational meditation technique known as Anapana.
This consists of three elements: the in-breath, the out-breath and the touch sensation that it creates on your skin. The latter provides an important focal point, but if you’re struggling you can also mentally say “in” and “out”.
The aim is to train your concentration and give you sweet release from the crazy. And the beauty of this is that you always have the breath. Wherever you go, whatever you do, whenever you sense an imminent freak out, you can call a time out instead. Simply get back to the breath and its wispy tickle on your skin.
This isn’t the kind of meditation that requires you to tap your third eye. There’s actually no need to tap or solve or think or create or plan. Anapana does it all for you. The breath does it all for you.
That’s why some call it our life force, Chi or Prana. It’s directs our energy, our attention, our moods and our state of mind. It’s a gift. And after a good Anapana session you'll emerge with incredible clarity.
It creates space and silence, but it does take practice and patience. There’s no getting around that I’m afraid. Simply give it a few minutes a day and you’ll discover it’s worth it. And, if the mind wanders, you haven’t failed, you aren’t hopeless, you’re human
Let’s take a closer look at what that means. All states are impermanent
Next comes Vipassana meditation. This is a full body scan that allows you to observe different sensations from top to toe. Just as you focus on your nostrils during Anapana, now move your awareness around your body.
The top of the head, the palms of the hands or soles of the feet tend to be easy places to start. Once your awareness is in situ, you notice the changing sensations: sometimes hot, sometimes tingly, sometimes nothing at all. That’s okay, move on – don’t think about it, just experience it.
This process allows you to observe what is known as Anicca
, aka change. You see how quickly the hands become hot or the feet become tingly. You see how those sensations dissipate just as fast as they came. And so the same goes for your mental sensations. Anger or sadness come and go just as swiftly, if we let them. When we accept that all life is Anicca, all life is changing all of the time, we stop fighting this change
– we stop resisting reality
Things are so often taken out of our hands. Yet still we hold onto an illusion of control, to an idea of permanence and importance. When these illusions are shattered by change that's out of our hands, we quickly become disparaged and even despairing.
But over time the practice of Vipassana helps us to accept Anicca, to allow it to happen. So when changes hit on the outside, we’re in a better place to deal with them on the inside. If in doubt, get back to the breath.
The following might help too. You make what you become
You become what you make. So if you’re angry or sad all the time, imagine how that’s impacting relationships, lifestyle choices, everything
. I noticed how sad a lot of people looked while in silence. There were plenty of scowlers. Maybe I was scowling too. Who was there out of depression or grief or exhaustion, I wondered. Not that it was any of my business.
Nonetheless I began to write stories about each person based on their energy and demeanour. I used NLP eye cues to further the tales. If someone looked up and left they were recalling something visually; down and right indicated self smack talk. Sadly there was far too much of that going on and I wanted on many occasions to break my silence and intervene.
Not that I wanted to violate their privacy. I was there to tend to my own story, not theirs. And we can never presume to know what anyone else is experiencing. It’s their prerogative whether they share it or not. It’s their prerogative whether they own it or not. You see that’s how we make what we become; by taking ownership of whatever stories we’ve been living out up until this moment, when we’re sitting in easy pose ready for some Anapana.
As Brené Brown
writes: “When we deny the story, it defines us. When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.”
So what does any of this have to do with breathing? Everything.
After hours of Anapana, I emerged surprised by the amount of old bollocks my brain churns out. Playing the same of old tapes from archives that should have been burned many moons ago. And during Vipassana I often felt the pain of old relationships in my hips.
As time went on I began to sit with it; to understand that whatever had happened was entirely my responsibility. No thinking, just breathing, watching, accepting, and the dawning realisation that it’s time to write that brave new ending.
It is precisely our story so far that causes us so much mental grief. And playing the same old tapes is torturous. Especially when we shirk responsibility for what happened. But when you bring it back home, you sit with those sensations and breathe until the torture passes. And it will pass so you can see that it’s okay; that whatever you did you actually wanted to do at the time, you did what you could with what you had.
So get back to the breath, observe how things come and go – how the things that have past have past. What’s done is done. You know how the old tapes play out so make space for the new ones that a New Year deserves.
2016 is waiting. Proceed with zestful ease
This motivational coach speak is all well and good, but let’s get practical now. We’ve been led to believe that meditation practice requires a minimum of one hour a day, sitting with a ramrod up your bum. This is not the case. Thank goodness. Our teacher told us: “When effort becomes excessive, you have pride which means wandering of the mind. There should be no gritting of teeth or clenching of fists. You should proceed with zestful ease, which means you should be alert and heedful, but also relaxed.”
So start with Anapana. Vipassana will come when you’re ready for it. Get comfortable and breathe. Make the commitment but don’t try too hard. Just try. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s Anicca for you.
But that doesn’t mean give up at the slightest whiff of distraction. It means get up, have a cup of tea, then come back. Be open to whatever comes and observe. It will change every day. Stay with the change, don’t fight it – change is our reality
There is no right or wrong. We’re not making promises or vows that can so easily be broken. When we break things we lose hope. So enter into this knowing and accepting that your mind is unreliable. And that’s okay. You’re taming it now.
Enter into this knowing and accepting that you’ll try seven different positions and take a tea break most days. Enter into this knowing and accepting that you will at least try, for your own sake, just a few minutes a day.
And you do have the time. We have so much time, more than enough. When you spend 10 days in silence with no Google and no phone, you realise how much of the stuff we actually have. Take back a few minutes and you’ll eventually recoup hours, days and years.
So take a breath. And let’s begin again. I stayed at The International Meditation Centre