meditation and mindfulness

When I learnt to meditate in London 1987 I kept it top secret. I was working in politics and most people in my circle then thought it was a weird, if not cultish thing to do. The most common accusation – and misunderstanding – then, was that it was an ‘escapist’ thing to do.

These days meditation is more mainstream, though there’s still plenty of strange ideas about it. The most common one I’ve come up against, repeatedly, and often in the context of people saying that they just can’t or couldn’t do it, is the idea that meditation is making your mind a blank. The goal, apparently, is to completely stop having thoughts and to maintain that ‘fixed’ state for a long time. (Usually whilst sitting in an impossible, uncomfortable position, legs like a pretzel, with forefingers and thumbs touching each other to create a circle.) Meditation is much more interesting than that.

Minds produce thoughts – it’s what they’re built for – and keep producing them even when you’re meditating. You can still become calm and settled by learning to let thoughts go. And exploring your thoughts lets you see what’s bugging you, and even how your mind really works.

It’s fairly straightforward to get started in meditation. It helps to be clear about what it is. It will certainly help you to keep going if you are clear about your purpose for doing it. We meditate with our bodies as much – maybe more – than with our minds. That’s part of the on-going practice and for starters we each need to find the best posture to do it in. If you don’t have pretzel legs, sitting in a chair is fine.

Then we learn a technique (or more than one). And then we have the rest of our lives to develop this art, as that’s what meditation is really, it’s not a technique, it’s a way of being.

It takes courage to meditate – courage, gentleness, and a sense of humour. Ultimately meditation is about allowing ourselves to be who we truly are. Rather than striving to achieve an ideal state of mind, or somehow becoming a better version of ourselves, we begin to discover the delights of making friends with ourselves as we are.

I’m profoundly grateful to all the people who made it possible for me – in a crazy stressed out state in one of the busiest cities in the world – to end up learning how to meditate. It saved my life and I know many others who feel the same. I’m an imperfect practitioner. I don’t beat myself up about that any more. I’m passionate about doing what I can to help create a meditative culture here and now.

Meditation is a completely normal thing to do. Just about everyone can do it and learn to do it. Throughout history it’s been a core ingredient of traditional cultures and religions all over the world. Meditation is probably more important for us than any other people in history because the pace of life is getting faster and faster. Human beings are wired for being as well as doing, for periods of stillness, aloneness and silence. We need this practice simply to be fully human and to help our communities and society to run smoothly.

The current boom in the modern secular mindfulness movement is a response to this need. There’s concern in some parts of the buddhist world about this removing mindfulness from its full and proper context but buddhism doesn’t own mindfulness. I say ‘bring it on’.

There are many forms of meditation. Mindfulness – which can be summed up as a training in attention – is a core practice. It’s a great place to start. It’s a great ‘place’ to stay! If you need scientific validation of the benefits of mindfulness to encourage you to give it a go, there’s 30 years of research now to back up how it helps people with a range of issues from stress, pain, anxiety and depression.

Mindfulness is making its way into the NHS and other healthcare settings, nudging medication out of the way – how cool is that. Corporate executives are using it to help with stress. (I dream that someone will subsidise courses to help single parents on benefits deal with their stress.) Chris Ruane, MP for the Vale of Clwyd in north Wales initiated a debate in the UK house of Commons in December 2012 on mindfulness, especially on how it can help the unemployed.

The BBC reported at the end of February about the mindfulness courses being run at Westminster for MP’s and Lords and there’s a course planned for the Senedd (the Welsh Assembly) too. Even the US marines are using mindfulness as part of their military training – I shall never hear the military command “Attention!” in quite the same way again.

Many of you probably realise that Bangor University is a major hub of mindfulness training in the UK. Hey, there’s even courses in Pwllheli and Blaenau Ffestiniog  this summer. Mindfulness in the mountains – it’s really going places now……