Meditation is a word that fills me with a sense of boredom. The word reminds me of sincere couples sitting cross-legged on the floor of a Buddhist monastery, of calm, well-travelled middle class people who have a bookshelf full of profound volumes on the subject. These people give off a sense of calm that can come across as a bit staid.
Don't get me wrong, I think meditation is great -- it's the best tool for dealing with the pressures of 21st century life -- but the people I associate with these activities, and the organizations that serve this growing market of self-aware souls, all strike me as rather boring. This is my prejudice, my hangup, my problem, but I can't help thinking that most people share my disdain, and this might explain why meditation and mindfulness (a modern version of the same thing) are only practiced on the fringes of society.
People say that I look younger than my age (48) and I put this down to the fact that I have incorporated into my life a few simple meditation practices that are remarkably effective at defusing (as in defusing a bomb) all the stress, worry and pressure that can so easily become overwhelming. The key meditation skill is "letting go" -- the act of visualizing every thought (and worry, anxiety, fear) as it comes into your fevered brain, and then letting it float away. If you can do this when meditating (which you can do in a chair; the lotus position is not obligatory) you have a simple way of sluicing out the stress from your system. I visualize ideas as soap bubbles that rise out of the top of my head, look pretty for a few moments, and then pop.
Buddhism has been an important influence in my life. I have approached the religion (adepts call it a way of life) as a jackdaw, taking what I like but not studying it properly. Many years ago I cycled from Edinburgh to Liverpool and came across a muddy site (Samye Ling) where cheery Tibetan monks and muddy British volunteers were building what has become one of the biggest Tibetan monasteries in Western Europe.
I met a wise old woman there who told me that you can use sleep in the same way that others use meditation, as a means to get rid of the worries of the day. "But you have to be asleep by 11 p.m.," she warned in a fairy godmother's tone: "that first hour of sleep is the most beneficial." Ever since then I have been using sleep as a way to "restart" my system and begin afresh each morning. If I am really stressed about something in the daytime I lie down for a few minutes, close my eyes and try to sleep for just a few minutes. This "forced shutdown" has the effect of clearing my mental desk of everything and is incredibly refreshing.
My big brother Kim was a Buddhist monk in England for more than 10 years. We used to visit him near Hemel Hempsted, and we would join in the morning meditation session. They would talk about meditation in great detail, filling me with theoretical knowledge about the practice. I was like a sponge, eagerly absorbing all their words about this curious oriental practice that seemed to have relevance to my everyday life.
I then travelled to Tibet and taught English to the Buddhist monks in the capital city of Lhasa. I don't remember learning anything about meditation from them but what really impressed me was their irreverence: They were young and naughty and intent on having a good time. You could have a laugh with these monks -- not like in England where everyone was so serious. It was a shock to learn that meditation and Buddhism can be fun.
Meditation is really simple, and you don't need to join a class or read a heavy tome (but I would recommend this cartoon guide). Just sit down for 20 minutes and concentrate on your breathing; breathe deeply and listen to your breath, and let go of your thoughts. The experts say "empty your mind," but this is impossible for most of us (the cartoon book says we process 70,000 thoughts a day). When I sit down to meditate a crazy cacophony of ideas vie for attention, each one more urgent than the last. These ideas are like demons that need to be released into the air or they will undermine my ability to function. I acknowledge them, smile and let them drift off into the wind like so many helium-filled balloons.
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