Sitting Still & Shutting Up: Meditation for Pragmatists

Our appetite for distraction is endless. The smallest lull in our day has us reaching for our smart phones, Twitter, Spotify, Angry Birds, another coffee, another cigarette… and if, there’s unused mental capacity to be had at any point, a sneaky fantasy about that cute guy/girl that just walked past. A constant stream of amusements to keep our body and minds occupied, keeping us happy and making sure the worries and the boredom stay away. But once in a while it gets a little too much. We reach data/caffeine/sugar saturation and we need to take a break.

It’s at this point we may be tempted by meditation. From podcasts, yoga groups, weekend intensive seminars and Buddhist retreats, you too can find inner peace and happiness! Available now: Enlightenment in a form to suit you! Jokes aside, it’s no wonder so many of us are tempted to try meditation. We’re promised a mental sanctuary, some beautiful tranquil mindset illustrated with a calm lake and a cloudless sky where, in the comfort of your own mind, you can relax and escape the problems of the every day world. But, hang on… wasn’t it that exact need for escapism that got us into this mess is the first place? Surely if you can’t escape the real world by repeatedly flinging birds at a band of guffawing pigs, then sitting on a cushion in a quiet room isn’t going to hack it either?

If you’ve tried meditation and given up because you didn’t ‘get it’, because it felt like you were still sceptical stressed-out ‘you’ just sitting still and wishing the time away, or if you’ve been tempted but never did anything about it because deep down you’re pretty sure Nirvana was just a band, I’ve got something to tell you – you’re right. The problem is, meditation is boring. I don’t mean sometimes, or for some people, I mean if it isn’t boring you’re not doing it right. Which, you can imagine, is a hard gig to sell.

We “don’t like” being bored, like we “don’t like” so many things. In fact we’re so busy not wanting 50% of the experience of being alive that, while we’re filling the rest with mindless distractions to protect the notion that everything is good, we’re also avoiding developing coping mechanisms for when things aren’t so good. And this is what meditation is for – accepting that life is a mixed bag and you may as well be tooled up for the not-so-great bits. Not to avoid them, because that’s never going to work for long, but to get through them with as little fuss and pain as possible.

Buddhism, the root tradition from which almost all meditation theory is derived, put this in terms of ‘dukkha’ (or, if Pali wasn’t your language option at school, suffering). When Buddhists talk about suffering they don’t mean the bad things that happen just because they’re part of life; losing your job, the loss of a loved one, or having your car stolen. No, by “suffering” they mean the additional pain we cause ourselves by wishing that thing hadn’t happened and dwelling on the whys and what ifs of an alternate universe in which it didn’t. If a sad thing happened – be sad. Don’t add to that by rebelling against the event and don’t rebel against the emotions either. They’ll be gone soon. In a very small way, regular meditation affirms this.

Meditation isn’t an escape, it’s a tool to help you deal with the inevitable ups and downs of life a bit better. It’s about staying still, shutting up, and letting the inevitable comforts and discomforts come and go for 30 minutes with as much patience and equanimity as you can manage – then getting up, going back to your annoying, imperfect, everyday life, and doing the same.

How To: If you’re game for being bored and want to know where to begin, here’s a good exercise for newbies.

  • Grab a chair – nothing too comfortable or you’ll be tempted to doze off.
  • Set a timer for 30 mins and double check it’s set – believe me, you’ll start to wonder.
  • Sit up straight in your chair with both feet flat on the floor and place your hands lightly on your knees/thighs at an angle that permits you to relax your shoulders. (You could pop a cushion under your feet if that helps.) Close your eyes.
  • Take a deep breath, filling your lungs completely, and paying attention to the way your chest rises, your shoulders separate, and your stomach expands. Hold this breath for a moment, before slowly releasing, noticing things like your spine taking the weight of your deflating chest and the feeling of air rushing over your tongue / through your nostrils.
  • Mentally count “One”.
  • Repeat, and at the end of the second exhalation, count “Two”.
  • Continue this until you have counted up to ten and back down to one, or the buzzer goes, whichever comes first.
  • The catch: every time you get distracted or lose count you have to start all over again.

The trick here is as soon as you catch yourself thinking about something other than breathing, notice the thing that distracted you, mentally acknowledge it as relevant and important but leave it alone for now. It can wait 30 mins. Really. You’re busy (being bored!).

Happy sitting!

This post was written by a RWL Guest BloggerAmanda Leon-Joyce is a pro-profit Social Entrepreneur drawn to so-called impossible ideas by a predilection to ‘have a go anyway’, and adamant that the answers to the problems of society and planet alike, lie in the development of good businesses. Images by lipsticklori.