‘If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate the problem of violence from the world in a single generation’ -The Dalai Lama
Ceaseless, relentless, stressful and never-ending thinking. Painful, sleep interrupting, relationship destroying and at times terrifyingly convincing thinking. My crazy mind and it’s projections into the future, just accurate enough to convince me I knew what was going to happen, often flooring me with crippling anxiety because the outcome was never going to be good. My crazy mind and its memory that would pop up, uninvited with a visceral image of the very worst of my days right when I was happiest.
At times, I couldn’t hear other people speaking because my own mind was louder and more convincing than them. I was rarely present or connected to what was happening around me because the noise in my head was too distracting.
I remember the initial stages of recovery and someone said, ‘We don’t have a drinking problem, we have a thinking problem!’ – that ‘alcohol is a symptom of a disease in my thinking’. ‘Wow!’ I thought, ‘Alcohol was not the problem?’ This was the beginning of my recovery and getting to the root of my inability to sit and just be.
I quickly learned I was pain relieving from incessant thoughts and feelings inside me. Not only was this information a revelation but it was the first time I looked upon myself with any compassion at all. Not a terrible person, not evil – just someone who had developed an array of powerful and addictive ways to escape himself and his thinking in the moment. Food, porn, sex, movie marathons, relationships, drugs and of course my favourite weapon against the pain of thinking – alcohol.
For years these methods served me well. That is, until I looked back on my life and saw only destruction from my inability to sit with myself and my thoughts. The struggle to deal with the uncomfortable feelings that came with thinking. I got sober. I got clean. I decided to get to the core of the problem – My mind.
‘All of humanities problems stem from people’s inability to sit in a room quietly on their own for 20 minutes’ – Blaise Pascal
Amazingly, I realised the whole way through my hell I knew intuitively meditation was the answer. Every time I saw the word, it was like it was spelt ‘A N S W E R’. I knew it in my heart but I just didn’t know how to start. I was not ready to sit with my thoughts. It was too much. It was too overwhelming to begin, so I ignored it. Like a bolt, suddenly I was ready. I was ready to sit down and ‘meditate’ – whatever on earth that meant.
My initial questions were – How do I sit and stop thinking? Do I sit like a monk and just enter a state of peace? How do I sit? Can I lay down? The problem was there was nothing more off-putting to beginning a meditation practice than the picture of a monk sitting in a state of Zen or Nirvana. When I sat for more than a minute on my own, my back hurt. I would get lost almost immediately in a story of the past that was so painful I felt like I had been stabbed in the gut. Whilst contemplating the future, I would have feelings so terrifying that I began to sweat and struggle to breathe. I just couldn’t sit on my own and be with myself doing nothing.
The godsend of being in recovery is that there IS an answer if you are lost or confused. I did what my program recommended. I got very vulnerable and I asked for help. I began re-directing my addictive ways towards YouTube talks and discussions. I scoured books including ancient texts to learn about this mysterious art that promised to save me from myself.
The biggest breakthroughs occurred when I attended a 3-day Meditation retreat in the Byron Bay Hinterland, at an Ashram headed by a man and woman who had travelled with ‘Osho’ a controversial and ground-breaking spiritual teacher, from the 1960s. It was their teachings, passed down by Osho that enabled me to see the simplicity of meditation as a teaching. There are thoughts and feelings, they are not you. There is your awareness of these thoughts and feelings, this is you. Watch thoughts, stay aware and see that you are the awareness, not the sensations of the body and the mind.
The teaching was super simple! As practice, it was far from simple – or easy. Over the course of the three-day course, I sat in feelings of extraordinary resentment and anger – sporadically coming back to the sensation of breathing. Continually coming back to the sense of awareness around the thought and feeling. It was tough! It was REALLY tough. I had nowhere to go, I was in the middle of the forest with no car, I was forced for three days to continually come back to the idea, that I can be aware of my thoughts and feelings, without becoming them. I left that three-day retreat, a different person, on a completely different path. I left understanding what Meditation is, but also knowing that no matter how much noise my mind made, I could sit still for periods of time and watch.
Over the next few years, I continued to deepen my journey with meditation. What I found was not just an answer, but a VERY simple answer to a VERY complicated problem.
I am able today to calm my mind like a patient parent would reassure a panicking child. I can observe what is going on in my mind and relax at a distance from the thoughts that mean there is no stress, or worry. I do still struggle sometimes with projecting into the future but honestly, I just love to dream and that is ok. Meditation taught me that!
Meditation changed my life and continues to deepen my experience of living. It has given me access to a sense of peace and has taught me how to truly see the truth in each moment. If you follow this path and dedicate yourself to the practice, it will be yours too.
Some simple advice that helped me
I had been told it worked. I had heard countless testimonials that over time, it would transform my life from the inside out and yet daily I had doubts over whether it would be effective. We do not know best in this situation! We must be patient and practice, no matter what. It is best to commit to at least a few years of exploring this method of healing.
CREATE THE HABIT
In the beginning the only thing that truly mattered was that I created the habit. I had to surrender whether I was ‘meditating well’ or ‘doing it properly’. For the first few months, the most important thing was that I was building the habit of taking the time to sit and pay attention to myself. I was taught that putting my bottom on my chair and immediately getting back up again was more important than not doing anything at all.
I misunderstood this for a very long time. I was already uncomfortable enough, just thinking! At the retreat I was told to sit in a comfortable chair or prop up my back, and immediately meditation became a deeper and easier experience for me. Many very experienced meditators still sit in chairs, years later. The key is that my body must be relaxed for any chance of my mind to become relaxed. The monks sitting in the lotus position undergo decades of training to sit comfortably. Be comfortable!
FORGET THE LONG MEDITATIONS
My teacher gave me an incredible piece of advice in the early days. She said, ‘pick a time you KNOW you can do, say 10 minutes and then HALVE that amount of time.’ The problem with a pre-conceived idea of 40 minutes sitting down is that it’s a huge ordeal to even find that time for some people. In the beginning, I would pick a time I knew I could do easily and as a result, I would want to do it. I found that by wanting to do it, I would not only do it more regularly – I began to look forward to it. Sometimes I would find myself so relaxed in the present moment, that I would sit for longer anyway.
The first thing we do when we are born is breathe in, and the last thing we do before we leave, is breathe out. There are two requirements for good meditation in the beginning – sitting comfortably and breathing comfortably. All we need to do is pay deep attention to our breath and how deep it is. It is about being curious as to the breath. What is the pace of it or the temperature of the air as it enters our nostrils? We need not be concerned with any breathing technique at this point. Simply breathing is wonderful. Try not doing it for a bit! ?
ABOUT FALLING ASLEEP
It is OK for us to fall asleep, we just try to stay awake. If we do fall asleep, we wake up grateful for the rest and do not beat ourselves up for it. Meditation is a restful exercise, so if we fall asleep and feel rested then that is great. By staying awake, we will deepen the practice as you will have more opportunity to keep focussing on your breathing and seeing the thoughts for what they are.
YOUR MIND IS GOING TO THINK, BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT MINDS DO
The mind has three functions and they are designed to keep you alive. We have survived as a species because the mind does these three things extraordinarily well. Assessing threats is vital for survival and so it has developed a trinity of functions. The mind remembers, it imagines, and it pays attention. Anything you experience in the mind is going to fall into one of these three categories. Once you know that thoughts and emotions are a result of these three things, you can see ‘it is the mind doing, what the mind does’ rather than any sort of personal reason to feel like your survival is threatened.
COME BACK TO YOUR BREATH
As we sit comfortably and connecting to our breath, feeling it rise and fall, we begin to relax and deepen into our bodies. Then, right on cue the mind will then ‘do its thing’ and start making noise. The relax and see that the mind is doing what it does and our only power is to simply notice that we are thinking. You might interrupt the thought with a realisation such as ‘Oh, I am thinking’. Once you have noticed, simply bring your awareness back to your breath. We repeat this over and over. This is meditation.
DON’T BELIEVE YOUR THOUGHTS!
A wonderful tip I got was to be incredibly doubtful of the mind. Just don’t believe anything it has to tell you. I have sat in many mediations ‘calling bullshit’ on my thoughts. I have sat there repeating ‘nope, nope, nope’ back to breath and breathe…. More thoughts! ‘Nope nope nope’. It is the believing in your own thoughts that begins the process of getting lost in them. This is always the beginning of anxiety.
SOMETHING STRANGE MAY HAPPEN
After some time practicing being able to be aware of the thoughts and feeling, something strange began to happen. I started to develop a strange sense of being a watcher, almost a stalker of the events in my mind and body. Inevitably this lead me to a very famous line of questioning – am I the thought or the person watching it?
WE ARE THE WATCHER. WE ARE AWARENESS.
With time and practice we become deeply grounded in the process of watching. Thoughts may arise whilst connected to the breath, we will watch and watch and watch. After a while we feel at home in this feeling. We feel at peace simply being aware of what arises and falls.
Meditation teaches us that there is space between the real ‘me’ and what we are thinking and what we are feeling. Meditation teaches us that there is a gap between our awareness and senses.
HOW WILL THIS HELP US IN REAL LIFE?
Expecting massive results from meditation too early leads us to become disappointed in the short term, so being careful of these expectations and simply enjoy the habit of doing it, is an important place to start from.
Over time, we notice we are calmer. We notice that we do not react to life the same way anymore. We notice ourselves choosing our responses to the events of life. We develop the capacity to exit thinking quickly as we simply bring our attention to our breaths, and our bodies.
Meditation grounds us in the truth of who you really are during life’s ups and downs. From this place of awareness, we develop the confidence to know that we can respond with patience and perspective instead of reactions dominated by stress and fear.
Supercharge your recovery with this simple habit.
Meditation will supercharge your life in recovery. If you can build the habit one day at a time with small daily investments, the benefits will be massive to your mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. The results of meditation are long lasting. What is easily gained is easily lost and nothing worth having comes easy. Take the time and give yourself the gift of a month of ten minutes, twice a day perhaps. Over time, you can increase the time if you feel like it or don’t. It’s up to you because this is your practice and your life.
Simon Cusden writes, coaches and speaks for PranaBali – Southeast Asia’s most exclusive Drug and Alcohol Treatment Program and Sancturary for Stress, Burnout, and Depression
Please check out www.pranabali.com or www.simoncusden.com for more about Spirituality, Recovery and Mental Health.