I like to think that I’m open to most things, so when I was given the opportunity to attend a local meditation group run by the lovely Helen Adams, I was both excited and intrigued at the same time.
You see, my only experience of meditation to date has been way back when I was in my first year at secondary school. It was at a time before I had chosen my subject options and still had to drag myself along to what I considered my most pointless lesson, R.E. It was during one of these religious education lessons; we were learning about Buddhism at the time, that I had my first and,up until now, only meditation experience. The teacher, who’s name completely escapes me, decided that for the class to experience the inner calm that Buddhists have spent years mastering, we should all take part in a group mediation session. As I’m sure you can imagine, trying to get a bunch of 12-year old kids to sit still and take this exercise seriously wasn’t exactly the easiest thing in the world and a cold, damp portacabin was hardly the ideal environment. From what I can remember, the so-called meditating basically involved sitting cross legged in the lotus position whilst chanting ‘Ohm’ and listening to the teacher talk about beaches. A very stereotypical view of meditation and one that has unfortunately tainted my view somewhat today.
However, I was determined to look past this and I hoped to come away from this session with a much broader, open minded opinion of how mediation can help in our crazy, stressful, technological age.
Helen is a Holistic Aromatherapist, Reiki Master, Rahanni practitioner as well as being a Meditation teacher and I was first introduced to her when she wrote an article for our site, ‘Meditation for the Modern World‘. Helen has a very calming personality. The minute you meet her she literally radiates calm, which in itself makes you instantly relax. Add to this her soothing, soft almost hypnotic voice and it is clear that she has found her calling in life.
The session was held in a very calm feeling and might I add delightfully smelling room at her house. There were two other people attending the group; one of whom hadn’t tried meditation before and was keen to see if she could slow down her intensely active mind and the other person had had a few sessions before and enjoyed the time for herself that meditation allowed her.
Shoes kicked off, glasses of water filled and introductions done, Helen proceeded to tell us a bit about what to expect from this introductory session.
Did you know?
“We have up to 60,000 thoughts a day!”
So it comes as no surprise that the majority of us find it hard to switch off. We become all too consumed with thinking about the past or about things we need to do in the future; whether it’s mundane chores, or things associated with work, that all too often we forget to appreciate the here and now. Meditation enables us to re-centre ourselves in the present and in doing that we can lead a much more fulfilled and enriched life.
Before I take you through some of the exercises Helen did with us, I feel it is really important to talk a bit about the biological science behind meditation and some of the physiological effects it has on the body, in particular on our breathing.
Watch out…here comes the science bit!
There are 5 different states that our minds work at and each one is measured by the activity of our brainwaves:
This state is completely unsustainable and the body will react by producing more adrenaline and cortisone, which can lead to bad health and illness. The feeling this state produces is similar to how you feel after consuming too much caffeine or sugar. And indeed many people will turn to these substances in the misguided belief that it will give them more energy to ‘keep on going’. This will result in mass burn out!
This is the level at which our brain functions during normal, daytime activity.
Our thoughts become slower and we generally feel a lot calmer, more positive and good about ourselves. This state is usually reached after say a yoga or Pilates session.
This is the point at which we meditate and is great for:
- Creative thinking
- New ideas
It enables you to really tune into your inner mind and will often result in a ‘lightbulb’ moment.
The lowest of all states, it is one which is the most difficult to controllably achieve, as it is what we do when we are in a deep, dreamless sleep. Amazingly, Tibetan Monks who have practised meditation for many, many years have mastered the ability to reach this state whilst awake.
Now you know what we’re aiming for let me explain the three exercises that Helen took us through and my personal experience of them.
Exercise 1 – Breathing Bubble Wrap
The first thing Helen did was pass around some drinking straws. Fortunately for me she immediately went on to explain what we were going to do with them, because I was pretty much all set to pop mine in my glass of water! As it happens, the straw was intended to help with our breathing.
Now, forgive me if I’m wrong, but I always take breathing a little bit for granted. I mean, you don’t really think about it do you? You just do it. Turns out that’s where I’ve been going wrong all these years and as you’ll discover in a bit, I am actually really rubbish at it. We were told to put the straws in our mouths and slowly breathe in through the straw, holding it for a moment and then slowly breathing out through the straw. The point of the exercise was to help focus completely on the act of breathing and the straw helps slow down and control the motion. I remember being told something very similar in my antenatal group when I was pregnant with my first child; to imagine you are blowing bubbles. This certainly helped focus my mind and slow my breathing when I gave birth, so I am in no doubt that breathing plays a humungous part in settling and preparing both our body and mind.
Straw placed down, soft, flutey music playing in the background I settled back in my chair, feet on the ground, hands relaxed on my lap and was told to close my eyes and relax. The aim of exercise 1, which I have entitled ‘Bubblewrap Breathing’, is to focus not only on breathing, but to also instil a protective bubblewrap layer that I guess promotes self assurance, confidence and a kind of ‘I can do this’ attitude. Breathing slowly in through the mouth for as deep a breath as possible, holding, and then slowly breathing out through the nose over and over became, as I mentioned, an incredibly difficult thing to do. I became completely obsessed with trying to do it right, to the point where I wasn’t really paying attention to much else. In one respect that’s fantastic, as it gave me the opportunity to solely focus on one thing, but a negative voice would keep popping into my mind telling me I couldn’t do it. Of course, everything takes practice and I was under no illusion that I was going to be a naturally gifted meditator after just one session. Whilst I was struggling with the voices in my head, Helen was calmly telling us to imagine ourselves in a protective bubble, like bubblewrap; somewhere we are safe and no one can harm us both mentally and physically. It was a lovely calming image and had I not become so obsessed with my breathing, an image that I feel would serve great purpose and it is definitely an exercise I intend to try again. By the end of exercise 1 I did at least get a grip on my breathing and I certainly felt as though I was in a much more relaxed state of mind to continue positively with the session.
Exercise 2 – Gassho
Let me firstly explain what Gassho meditation is. Gassho is a Japanese word that literally translates as ‘hands together’ and in meditation terms is the act of placing your palms together in front of your chest. Meditating in this way allows energy to transfer and any negative thoughts or feelings are switched with positive ones. I look at it a bit like spring cleaning for the mind; cobwebs are blown away with each and every breath, allowing clear space for positivity, happiness and the power to live and feel in the present time. Helen kept it very open about what we should think about and although we again needed to focus on our breathing technique, I felt much more confident about it this time round. As we were doing the exercise an image of a field filled with dandelions sprang instantly into my mind and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to use these as tools for my breathing. So, with each breath out I would envisage slowly blowing the seeds away from the dandelion; watching the delicate seed parachutes blow across the fields. And with each breath in I would see new seeds growing, ready for me to blow away again. It was such an incredibly calming, tranquil image and one that I can definitely see myself using again, as it made me feel so at peace, without a care in the world and as though I was the only person in the world. Truly amazing and as I write this now I am still somewhat in shock about how easily the image came to me.
Exercise 3 – My Garden
The final exercise was a lot more creative and involved visualising a garden. Helen told us to imagine we were stood at the top of a staircase. In her soft, dulcet tones she instructed us to slowly walk down each step and as she counted each step it felt almost as though I was moving into a slightly hypnotic state. When we reached the bottom of the staircase, Helen instructed us to imagine a garden. The garden was behind a closed gate, but other than that she offered no description of what the garden should look like. The instruction after this was to open the gate and walk into our own personal garden. And it is at this point that I quite literally hit a brick wall, because my mind would not, under any circumstances allow me to open the gate into my garden. Now, any psychotherapists out there will probably have a million theories about why it is I couldn’t get into my garden, but I’m not going to dwell on that. What I did find interesting however, was that my mind allowed me to peer through the window of the gate to see what was through the other side, it allowed me to wander at my hearts content in the space outside of the walled garden and at no point did I feel angry or negative about the fact I couldn’t get into the garden. So, who knows…maybe I wasn’t ‘ready’ to enter the garden on my very first meditation exercise or maybe my mind simply wanted me to enjoy what was outside first before discovering what’s inside. Either way it was both frustrating but strangely liberating at the same time. So, whilst I presumed the other two had managed to get into their gardens I found a weeping willow tree in my ‘outer’ garden and lay down there before being instructed to climb back up the stairs. I realise that for people who have never done meditation before it’s very difficult to get your head around such strong visualisation, and even having experienced it myself I struggle to understand it. But, what I do know is that it left me feeling calm, aware, it allowed me to exist in the present, spend time with myself and bizarrely left me feeling incredibly light as though something had been purged from my body.
What do I REALLY think about Meditation?
I started off this article indicating that although I was open to meditation, I may have been slightly put off from a rather stereotyped version back in my school days.
So, where am I at with it now?
I must say I was thoroughly impressed, both with Helen’s natural ability to instil calm and her experienced techniques that were quite frankly merely a taster of what she has to offer. I came away with the knowledge that I need to make more time for myself, something which I’m sure deep down most of us are aware of, and that actually meditation is immensely beneficial for surviving and enjoying this rollercoaster we call life.
Alternatively, if you fancy trying meditation yourself at home, there are absolutely hundreds of training tips, programmes and apps available to help with this. Just search on YouTube, or try the Headspace app for a great starting point.