Day 18: Mindfulness and meditation

This title has been sitting as a draft article here for three weeks now! I felt like I couldn’t write about it until I had some magical meditational breakthrough to write about, until I realised that’s not happening any time soon. What has happened is a sudden explosion of community related tasks in the run up to Christmas so that my job has completely – happily – engulfed my time and I have found myself running about the town on various missions of festive frivolity that I have had no time for anxiety, and much less time to explore ways to overcome it.

It crosses my mind that the past 12 months – in which I gave myself a break from stressful jobs by creating loads of free time for introspective writing – was the space of tranquility that allowed many years of undiscovered anxiety to pop up and be heard, and that my previous lifetime of workaholism was keeping all that quietly under control. So I’m guessing it was a good time to explore all my inner demons, and develop coping mechanisms, because what I find now is that I am full of positivity, love, energy and enthusiasm for all the people and projects around me that I am now so busy – and so happy – that I wake up smiling about the many jobs I have to do each day.

So is it a gradual increase in wellness that has sparked this upward turn of happiness that allows me to get involved and excited about life again, or is it the getting excited about life that has enabled me to find the energy and focus to return to pretty much full time work? Or is it a return to workaholism that my brain is opting for, knowing it has been the most effective method of keeping anxiety out of my head?

I’m not sure. But today, having woken up a bit weak and trembly – no temperature and no cough, don’t worry – I find I’m lying on the sofa not getting anything done, and I am gently reminded to return to my 18th lesson on meditation and mindfulness.

I thought these two were the same thing but today’s research shows me they’re not. Mindfulness is a type of meditation, of which, according to this article, there are three.

NO wait, this article says there’s nine.

Hang on, Headspace tells me there’s 16.

This is probably not the place for a detailed exploration of the multitude of meditative methods, and I am definitely not a scholar on the subject, but what I understand is that there are three main types – focused (on a particular thing), open monitoring (that’s mindfulness) and transcendental (beyond all of it), and probably all the many different types fit into those three categories somewhere.

For most of this year I have been doing what I like to call meditation, but really it is sitting cross legged, facing east, with a snuggly blanket around me and my eyes closed for half an hour while my mind wanders all over the place. Guided meditations have been helpful for a bit, but I can’t do them more than once, and there is usually a breathy american accent and silly sound effects that ruin it for me.

It crossed my mind a while ago that it might just be something that some brains can’t do. Years ago in researching the difference between men and women I saw a diagram of how our brains are wired differently, and how for evolutionary purposes it was useful for men to be able to separate out all the boxes in their brain (for enhanced focus while hunting) while women had brains that connect everything (good for childcare, foraging and social skills). This made sense when I was arguing with a man about how he could just switch off the pain of a distressing event we had both encountered. ‘I just compartmentalise it,’ he said. I didn’t have the ability to do that, and I still don’t. But I accept that some people can.

I don’t intend to make some sweeping statement about the difference between men and woman, but I think every individual has a brain that is wired differently, and I am guessing mine is super-inter-connected (be that a female thing, a middle child thing, a church thing or something else) in a way that it has not got the skill of switching anything off.

So I can do stillness, I can do breathing exercises, I can visualise the beautiful bright light of the universe cleansing my chakras, which is all very lovely, but I don’t know that I can fully empty my mind.

Which means the focused type of mediation, where you switch everything off and still your babbling thoughts is probably not for me.

The next type, open monitoring, makes more sense for me, as it is acknowledging and accepting every thought, sensation and experience, without judgement or suppression. This is mindfulness, which I am probably better at. A friend let me borrow his John Kabat Zin mindfulness CDs so I had a go on the ‘Body Scan’ one, which is done lying down. It was very lovely, a nice guided journey of awareness and relaxation through the whole body, but I couldn’t pay attention and kept thinking about work. I will try it again when I haven’y got deadlines looming.

The transcendental type is so far beyond me that I’ll leave that as an aspirational adventure for the future, and will keep researching and trying to find a practice that works for me.

One thing I read recently in my amazing Natural Health Service book, is that the author also couldn’t get on with meditation, but found that walking in nature and gardening provided her with all the calming benefits that most people get from meditation, which was a relief to read. We are all wired differently, and my brain might be a particular type of chaotic that really can’t sit still, and finds its peace through walking, digging or spending an hour or two crawling about on the ground, fully absorbed in the meticulous task of arranging stones into hearts.

So I’ll keep doing that then.

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