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The Practice Year

Drumroll please, I’ve meditated every day for a year.

Not for the whole day every day obviously, that’d take some doing, just for ten minutes or so. Drumroll still warranted though cos there were times when this seemed like an impossible ask of myself, to have the discipline to both remember to do it and still actually do it after that. I’d had a few half-baked attempts over the years, but with some health shenanigans going down and the walls closing in I decided it might warrant something approaching a genuinely proper go. And so in with both feet I went, socks still on though, ten minutes a day, one year, and breathe…

It’s funny how the mere mention of the M Word sends a lot of us running for the hills, preferably hills not containing anyone who meditates, and I’ve certainly been one of those people. The first time I clapped eyes on a meditator I was 19, travelling around America with my mate Dave when we caught this guy in the act in a hostel in San Francisco. We’d met him a couple of times already and he seemed OK, so we’d invited him along to a house party later that night. When we came to get him, though, he was somewhat indisposed. The dormitory in darkness and him sat on a top bunk, legs crossed, back rod-up-arse upright. We couldn’t see if his eyes were open or closed, and for a while couldn’t even work out what the hell was happening. He was just frozen, not responding to our questions.

‘Are you coming to the party dude?’

Nothing.

‘Come on man, it’s gonna be a proper San Fran house party with free booze and everyone sucking on a massive bong and everything.’

Still nothing.

Getting louder did not help, even pushing him a bit didn’t help, nor laughing hysterically right in his face, and we eventually gave up, coming to the conclusion that he must be ‘meditating or some weird shit’. We’d vaguely heard about this meditation malarkey, and maybe this was it.

What an absolute wanker.

The low light and his complete unshakeability added to this feeling of otherness. A bit like if Kurtz from Apocalypse Now had just stayed in those shadows and said fuck all. Intimidating and unfathomable to our Party On teenage minds, so we left him and he didn’t come and when we saw him the next day we gave him a pretty wide berth, of course we did. Weird Meditation Guy.

And I think that’s not far off what most people think about meditation, and people who practice meditation.

Tell people you’ve started to meditate and you may as well have said you’ve joined the Moonies or put your name down for a suicide cult. You can literally see the disconnect in their eyes as they picture you sitting pretzel-legged on a cushion and scan your friendship history for anything new agey, mystical or pretentious. It all feels very not them, usually without them ever having come close to actually trying it.

So what even is it and what’s it all about?

First off, you don’t actually need to sit with your legs crossed to do it – good news, cos school assemblies sat on the sports hall floor were nothing short of torture for me, often late for lessons because it took me so long to get up afterwards. Nor do you need to have your hands out like you’re pleasuring two invisible fellas. I mean you can if you want, but it’s definitely not necessary. Sitting on a chair is fine, with your hands in your lap, basically whatever’s comfortable whilst remaining fairly alert. Alertness kind of important though, as you don’t want to be so comfortable that you start to fall asleep, which is a different thing entirely.

And then you close your eyes and focus on an ‘anchor’, or a ‘home base’ – usually your breath but it can be a mantra (mantra definitely sounds a bit mystical huh but it can be any word, like ‘maaantra’ – I’m kidding), a sound (traffic, the washing machine), an object (eyes open for this one, does not need to be a flickering candle in a homemade altar), the list goes on. But let’s just stick with the breath for now, hopefully always available and if not it’s probably not the time to worry about meditation anyway.

And so for five or ten minutes you watch the breath go in and you watch the breath go out…

It’s just sitting and breathing…

And resisting the feeling that you’re suddenly a bit of a wanker.

I mean really, in essence, it’s actually about as new agey as having a bit of a rest.

So why not just have a bit of a rest? Watch Corrie and put your feet up?

What good could possibly come from closing your eyes and focusing on breathing?

Well maybe a fair bit, I’ve discovered, if we hang in there.

But that’s the other thing, many brave souls who get as far as trying the M Word do not hang in there. It feels odd and alien a million things they need to do start popping up in their minds. They try to focus, they get distracted cos they missed bog roll off the shopping list and is it the green bin tonight or the black bin, and at best it’s all just sort of frustratingly crap. There’s no blinding flash to tell them they’re on the right track and so they give up, feeling like they’re not cut out for such wankery and that it’s now very definitely not them.

But what they don’t realise, and what I’ve only recently realised myself, is that they’re not doing it wrong at all, that this is how it is, especially at first. For everyone.

It’s like teaching a dog to sit. (Not my analogy, a few meditation people use that so I’ve just nicked it.) And often the dog does not want to sit at all, often the dog has had his nose in a whippy of shit for five minutes before you even notice, but eventually you do and grab him by the collar and get him to sit again. And then he’s off again, and so it continues…

What’s the point in this?

The point is training.

Building a mental muscle.

And ever so slowly, over weeks and months, you actually get a bit better at it. And then a bit worse and then a bit better, cos it’s not a linear progression. It’s like how a gym workout sometimes feels like you’re seriously going to die and then other times the exact same workout feels mysteriously not too bad. (Gym-wise I’m still at a stage where this is quite rare.) And it’s the same with meditation, without the death part.

A key idea in meditation is accepting this, of not expecting it to be incredible or even good each time, of just accepting what’s there, but more of that shortly. For now let’s stick with the fact that you’re going to feel like you’re really crap at doing it, and that everyone feels like they’re really crap at doing it.

The reason I know this is because I got some guidance, which in modern times is pretty easy to do. Gone are the days of ‘one 70s book in the library’ and someone who knew someone who tried it once. There’s classes, YouTube tutorials (of wildly varying quality, granted), a whole lot of books and of course apps. Obviously we’re partly doing meditation to get away from phones and the brainfry they bring, but for me a meditation app on a phone that’s as attached to me as my own tits has been a godsend. Always available, like the breath.

By far the best app I found to do this year on was Calm, although I initially took some convincing. I loved the design and feel of it but the velvet-voiced American (I thought) narrator felt completely unrelatable, as if her greatest challenge was updating her Insta whilst negotiating the hot slabs between her sun lounger and swimming pool. That voice sure was velvety though, so I hung in there and the more I listened the more I learned, including that it actually belongs to a Canadian, Tamara Levitt, someone who came to meditation as a result of various difficulties in her own life. A regular person with regular struggles like the rest of us, just blessed with a voice that makes you feel like your head’s in her lap and she’s stroking your hair.

And the app itself is vast (the full version, the free one’s just a taster); meditations from Tamara and many others (including the excellent Jeff Warren, who describes meditation as ‘inner smoothness’), masterclasses, courses on anxiety, depression, stress, physical pain, Sleep Stories to help you drift off at night (people often get sidetracked with these and don’t even try the meditations, which is a real shame, but then who wouldn’t get sidetracked when you can get talked to sleep by Matthew McConaughey), and ‘Daily Calms’, brand new meditations each day from Tamara, with much wisdom to impart.

It was in one of these that I first heard Tamara mention this crucial detail of every meditator feeling like they’re completely crap at doing it, although she’s a wise and eloquent woman and didn’t put it quite like that obviously.

What she did say is that meditation is called a practice for a reason, with the emphasis on practice.

Every day, experienced or not, we are literally practising meditation…

Just to know that was a huge help to my green bin black bin mind, so I pressed on and eventually, many weeks down the line, started to see some progress…

The result of some meditations was now less like frustration and more like the effect of an amazing nap, and one that I could take more or less anytime, anywhere. Not one of those naps where you wake up disorientated and looking like you’ve been hanging bat-like from your feet all night either, but the good naps, the ones where you’re refreshed and raring to go again. From a few minutes of meditation. Woah.

And then something even better…

One day there I was, diligently policing the shit-sniffing dog, when something opened up. It’s hard to describe what, but there was suddenly no thought, no anything, just a great big wide nothingness and a very nice nothingness at that. I didn’t know quite what it was even, and I still don’t, maybe eternity or pure consciousness or – I know I know, steady on, let’s reign that in a little – but it felt so simple and so pure and so good. Like not far off the best drug I’ve ever taken, and I took bloody stacks of good ones in the 90s, minus the side effects.

Then naturally the next time I meditated I expected the same, like I’ve had this breakthrough now and it’s going to be like that every time, and it wasn’t. But by this point that idea of acceptance had taken hold a bit, of not fighting things or trying to steer them, just going with what’s there and watching it go by, always back to the breath. So if I got that trippy eternal nothingness feeling again, and I have a few more times, then great, but if I didn’t and I was just dog sitting, sometimes so often on the shit sniff that it almost felt like not worth doing, then that was OK too.

Every time you bring that scamp back, it’s training. All part of the practice.

But the odd thing is it’s not just a few amazing meditations that’s resulted from this year, as ever-so-slowly a bizarre array of other things have changed for me generally, outside of the meditations themselves:

I’m way better at dealing with problems and stress, and when I do get as far as a freak out I’m much faster to calm down cos I’ve learned to ‘pop out of my thoughts’ and switch focus. In the meditation world they call this ‘non reactivity’, and it’s very frigging helpful indeed.

I’m successfully using the same non reactivity to deal with physical pain, the main reason I tried the M Word in the first place.

I’m experiencing fleeting moments of genuine peacefulness, for no apparent reason.

I’m feeling more positive and sometimes find myself doing a stupidly massive grin, again for no reason.

I’m sleeping better, even without Mathew McConaughey. And if I wake up and I’m struggling to get back off, sometimes I don’t even need the app at all, cos it’s taught me some techniques to help me drift off without it.

I’m breathing properly. This is big. I was always a shallow chest-breather and the only time I breathed correctly was when I really concentrated on breathing correctly. But now I catch myself doing it naturally – blowing my belly out like a baby and not even caring that it looks like a massive beer gut.

I’m more present – definitely more present. Really big, as I was not good at this at all. But now when you’re talking to me, a lot of the time there’s a decent chance that I’m actually listening to you rather than raking over the past, predicting the future or thinking about bin night.

I’ve got more clarity on my priorities and I’m following through on some of the things I’ve wanted to do for ages, like that blog I always thought about starting.

I’m feeling an alarming amount of gratitude. Also really big, cos I’ve always been a seriously ungrateful bastard. But there it is welling up inside me and it’s not just over obvious stuff like my wife and kid and Mom, it’s over stuff like lampposts and flasks. Yes, I said lampposts and flasks. WTF.

And I’m going to stop right there because you’re probably thinking, ‘what an absolute wanker’.

I’m pretty sure I’m not though, or at least not for the above reasons at any rate, and I’m pretty sure Weird Meditation Guy wasn’t one either, just an ordinary fella carving out a bit of peace for himself in that crazy San Fran dormitory.

It seems plain bonkers that all of this could result from a few minutes a day of sitting and breathing, but it actually seems to be true. And it’s not just for the new agey and the mystical and the pretentious, it’s for all of us. For people with health issues or people who can’t sleep or people with so many problems that it feels like our heads are gonna go Scanners, cos there’s no time for nothingness anymore, unless we make it.

But just ten minutes a day – or even five minutes a day, everyone can find five minutes, right? – could be all it takes to start giving ourselves the ultimate time out from this madness.

At the very least it’s better than Coronation Street.

And maybe loads more too.

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