Tag Archives: meditation

Panic, breath and meditation

I’d been aware of the theory that panic and breath-orientated meditation doesn’t always go well, but until recently, I’d never encountered it. The experience of what was probably bronchitis coupled with several days of intense panic from stressful things, did things to my body. I found that so long as I wasn’t thinking about my breath, I was fine, but if I became aware of it, I couldn’t do it. Cue gasping frantically.

This was especially bad on the edge of sleep, because there aren’t many things a person can do with their brain. At that point, not being aware of my body proved very hard indeed, and the panicked bouts of fighting to breathe, and fighting to convince my body that it could breathe, were many. It made me realise how much my meditation practice is underpinned by breathwork. I had no real tools to deal with a situation where I needed to focus my mind on something other than my breath. However, necessity is a great teacher.

What I discovered is that I can go from cold, straight into a visualisation or pathworking. I have to plan it carefully in advance, and to make the leap straight into a deep meditative state, the subject matter has to be emotionally engaging. And then, it’s like making an enormous, perilous jump, but I managed it repeatedly. An arrowshot of intent and concentration, taking the mind away from the body so that the body could keep on with the breathing, untroubled.

I also learned that this kind of trick can be pulled when sharp and clever, but that an exhausted, sleep deprived mind can’t do it, and at that point, valerian is the better answer, or anything else you might use to knock yourself out of a night.

I’ve never felt so at odds with myself as I did during the week of not being able to think about breathing. Body and mind were functioning as two distinct systems, very much at odds with each other. It was an unnerving experience in all kinds of ways, and I hope never to have it again. It’s another example of how you can’t use meditation as a quick fix – this only worked for me because I have a long history of working with visualisation and had a skill set to draw on. Quite possibly this also went wrong for me because I have a long history of breathwork.

Advertisements

Staring at birds

One of the things I like about art, is how it makes you look at things. This is why my other half – artist Tom Brown – runs art sessions in a meditative context sometimes. Most of the time our looking can be fairly superficial, with much of what’s around us reduced to little more than backdrop and scenery. It’s god to change that.

Taking up colouring in the last year, I’ve had to pay much more attention to what things look like. How colour, and light and shape interact. What things look like, and what I can do with a pencil that might represent and suggest what things look like.

As I mentioned last weekend, I’m having a go at Inktober over on twitter. Every day I stick up an ink drawing. I’ve chosen birds as my theme. It’s already being a serious learning experience.

I sit down with a nature book, a pencil and a pad and I try to draw a bird from its photo. Something specific, and something striking enough to be recognisable – heron, avocet, kingfisher, curlew was where I started. They have shapes and colours that help them stand out from other birds. Of course every type of bird is unique, and there will be things that make it especially itself, but some of those are easier to represent than others. Some birds – like the kingfisher – can be expressed by their colours.

However, I’ve been pushing into the ink work more, and all my ink is black. Could I make a Canada goose look like itself without putting some brown pencil in the mix? Maybe.

Fractions of a millimetre in the length or curve of a line can turn one bird into another. I found it recently where working on a bear image that the differences between bear, dog and badger weren’t that big. A slight mistake on the face and the wrong animal would look back at me. And yet, we can look at these images and say dog, badger, bear where only a tiny fraction of difference exists.

For me it raises all kinds of questions about how we perceive and remember, how we sort shapes and use abstracts. How many lines do I need on the page to clarify which one is a duck, and which one a crane? Not many.


Meditation for mental health

Meditation can seem like an excellent tool for tackling mental health problems. So much so that if you go to a GP, you may find that mindfulness is suggested as the answer to your problems. Here are some of the things meditation helps with, and things it doesn’t.

Using meditation to calm panic attacks. You have to be an experienced meditator to be able to make your brain switch gear in face of panic. If you are learning to meditate to control panic, do not expect rapid results.

Using meditation to reduce anxiety. It can work if the panic is all inside your head. However, the odds are good that there are external stressors involved. You can learn to be calmer through meditation and thus cope better with stressors, if the stress isn’t too much. If you are under constant pressure, it is only by dealing with the external problem that you can sort out the anxiety. It isn’t all about what goes on in your head – not if you are bullied, forced to work in inhuman conditions, not getting enough rest or sleep and so forth. Trying to meditate your way out of it can make you feel more responsible for a problem not of your making.

Working alone and meditating in a way that makes you more aware of what your brain is doing (ie mindfulness style approaches) can work if your faulty thinking is most of the problem. For most people, anxiety has been caused by something. Sitting mindfully with your traumatic memories will do you more harm than good. Resolving trauma without the support of a counsellor is a long, hard, painful road. It can be walked, but I feel no one should have to do this alone.

When a person is depressed, the world appears in certain ways. I’ve never found meditation helpful for changing my outlook, not if all the meditation does is send me inwards into my own personal hell. Distraction is much better – pathworkings and other guided meditations, meditating on something simple and uplifting – a plant, a cloud, a nice oracle card… Getting out of your own head in this way can bring considerable relief. Sometimes, just getting the headspace is enough to help move things forward. Sometimes it isn’t.

There’s every reason to use meditation techniques for immediate relief and for coping with problems. If you find you can use it to tackle larger problems – all power to you. However, if you find meditating makes things worse, it is not a personal failing. If you find no respite, and that it sends you further down your own rabbit holes, don’t do it. If your problems are out there in the world and caused by other people, don’t make yourself solely responsible for fixing things.

Meditation is not a magic bullet, it is not a salve for every ill. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either trying to let themselves off the hook, or save themselves money, or wants to diminish your problems for their own comfort. It may be that they’ve only experienced very mild depression and anxiety – the sort meditation can definitely help with – but they don’t know what a minor brush they’ve had.


Contaminated headspace

How many things need thinking about in a day? Meals and family time tables, the laundry, social commitments, other people’s needs and timetables… It’s an issue I first became aware of a while ago through a feminist blog. Like emotional labour, this kind of holding all the things in your head is work that falls disproportionately to women. I raised it at the time with the chaps of my household, and we changed some things.

However, headspace contamination is also a work issue for me. It means trying to plot social media strategies in my time off. It is writing blog posts in my head when I wake up in the morning, and things of that ilk. Sorting out the way in which my own poor boundaries leave me with an over busy head has been an issue. The over busy head does not rest well, stresses a lot, and doesn’t have space for wonder or imagination all too often.

I replaced my never ending to-do list with a diary. I noticed (thank you other bloggers who helped me see this) that a to-do list easily becomes a thing to beat yourself up with. With a diary, I have to think carefully about what I’m going to do when, and it is easier to budget in time for non-workish things too. I don’t overload my days, and at the end of the day I’ve usually worked through the list, so it helps my morale. When I get an idea, rather than obsessing over it, I write it down for the day I’m going to tackle it. It’s very rare now that I try and write blog posts in my head.

I’ve put down work that doesn’t suit me. The things I do well, I seldom have to sweat over. I need small patches of time here and there to reflect, ponder and speculate about my work, but I don’t need to do it every day, mostly I can crack on. Jobs where the remit wasn’t clear enough or where I wasn’t a natural match at all have had me trying really hard to overcome that. I hate doing a job badly. It took me a long time to recognise that if all I do is bang my head against a thing, it is better to put that thing down and move on. There’s no shortage of things I could be doing, I need not do things that tie my brain in knots and leave me feeling low and exhausted.

Clear communication is a good antidote to contaminated headspace as well. No second guessing, no dances of imply and infer, just straight, clear, expression and open negotiation. Increasingly, I’m not willing to invest in people who need to make every social exchange into a complicated set of manoeuvres. Intellectual hide and seek is not my idea of fun. Emotional snakes and ladders I can cheerfully miss. If I know where I am with people, I don’t get into wearying speculation.

Taking control of my headspace has been a process, but as I get better at it, more time and energy becomes available to me. It also becomes apparent as to who and what is a good use of my time, and what just sucks the life out of me to very little effect. Yes, I can use meditation in short bursts to quieten my mind, but it is a good deal more effective to tackle the busy issues at a life level, and save my meditation time for more creative and soul nurturing things.


Forgiveness Meditations

Trigger Warning: Body shame and body dysmorphic disorder type issues. These are meditations designed to help with this, but I didn’t want anyone to wander in unawares.

 

I’ve never had a good relationship with my body, and have a great deal of internalised guilt, shame and hatred around how I look. I’ve been working with a meditative approach for a while now, and I’ve found it helpful. This is a broad explanation, you will likely need to fine tune it to suit personal needs and issues. Be really alert to not letting words in that reinforce the problem rather than easing it.

I find this is easiest lying down, but again, adapt as makes sense. Pick a quiet, safe environment. Do whatever you do to enter a calm and meditative state. If you can, put a hand on one area of yourself that you have a problem with. Just stay there for a while, and breathe slowly with it. Focus on being calm.

I started this process simply being repeating the words ‘I forgive’. Inevitably this can cause memories and feelings to come up, so I took to creating a longer stream of thoughts. “I forgive, I accept, I let go,” works for me. I’ve found if I try to use really strong positive words ‘love’ for example, I am more likely to panic myself. “You are ok, you are good enough, you are acceptable” is more effective for me than anything I cannot accept. I don’t do well with conventional affirmations, suggesting to myself that ‘I am beautiful’ makes me feel panicky and sick. It’s not a good idea to try and run when you can’t walk.

The nature of your relationship with your body will inform the kinds of words you need to use, and if you explore this, you may find things emerge for you that you can work through in this way. It is essential to be able to hold clear intent around self-acceptance, and not let abusive, corrosive language slip in. You don’t have to make excessively enthusiastic statements about yourself, and you may find it easier not to, certainly at first. “This is my body and I accept it and am ok with it” is a very powerful, affirmative statement if you have a lot of trouble owning and accepting your physical form.

Ideally, you need to think about what would be helpful without getting too bogged down in the problems themselves. I find that one body area in a session is plenty to be working on, and that moving around different areas of shame and discomfort over different sessions is helpful. It can bring things up so I only do it when I feel equal to dealing with what emerges. I usually work quietly, but saying things out loud is also powerful and worth exploring.


Meditating on sound

Over recent weeks, I’ve been working with naturally occurring sound for meditation. It’s warm enough to have the window open, so I can lie on the bed and listen to the stream or to the bird song. Both create interesting challenges.

There’s no rhythm or logic to the songs of many birds overlapping. It’s not at all like listening to human music and so my mind, trained as it is and predisposed also, doesn’t actually handle it as well as it would more predictable sounds. The stream is similar – what sounds like a constant babble turns out, on deeper contemplation, to be a stream of sound that my brain cannot quite predict or settle into. As a consequence I find my attention drifts and I have to consciously haul myself back to paying attention.

Contemplative listening of course cannot tune out the sounds of cars, dogs, people, and other perhaps less-attractive noises that make up my sound environment. All of these come unexpectedly. The sound around me does not permit a smooth state of mind, I cannot drift off with it, I have to be an active participant and maintain my attention deliberately.

It is also possible to go the other way, treating stream and song as background noise, hearing not the details but the flow, and I find if I do that, I drift away from the sound, and soon I’m not really hearing any of it and the thoughts in my head quietly take over. It can be a good way of getting to sleep, but it doesn’t give me active engagement.

So, I’m working on being present to my soundscape – not trying to empty my thoughts, but trying to be as fully aware of and interested in the ongoing sounds around me as I can be. I’m finding it a really interesting practice.


Meditation and pain

Pain is no aid to concentration. For the person in pain, being in the body is often the last thing you want. However, many meditation techniques start by focusing a person on their body – on breathing especially, and deep breathing at that, and on awareness of physical presence. Some meditation methods are purely about being present to yourself. If you’re in a lot of pain, it’s not an appealing prospect.

It is possible to meditate while in pain, and to benefit from doing so, but many approaches won’t work at all.

For mild pain, and pain that comes from tension, it may be possible to get some relief using meditation practices that focus on relaxation. However, for many of us, this will make little positive difference and may just serve to unhappily increase personal awareness of pain.

Make sure that everything in your meditation environment supports and enables your comfort. Ignore any other advice you have to, to achieve this. Any restful position that improves your comfort, any mild activity you can meditate around is good. Don’t do anything that adds to your pain, no matter what anyone else has to say about its value. People who are not in pain can have some funny ideas about what’s going to be useful, I have found.

Pick meditations that don’t depend on you having good concentration. Guided meditation CDs may help, listening to meditation music, cloud watching, contemplating a physical object – things where you can drift away and drift back, but which do not focus you on your pain.

Alternatively, pick a scenario that you would find it good to be in, and contemplate it. A sunny beach, an isolation tank, a sauna, a woodland in spring – whatever makes you feel good and can be easily imagined. Flight is a favourite of mine when I want to be away from my body, as is visualising myself floating in warm water. If you drift, just re-start, as there’s no narrative and no goal, it doesn’t matter if you can’t hold the thought for very long.

Meditate only for as long as works for you. Some bodies stiffen and become more painful if kept still for too long, so especially ignore the old chestnut about how if twenty minutes seems a long time you should be doing it for an hour… A lot of mainstream meditation advice comes from people who are largely well and assumes the person on the receiving end is fine, too. You know your body and you know your limits and no one is entitled to demand that you hurt yourself for a spiritual practice.


Meditation and mental health issues

It’s widely suggested that the more extreme end of mental health problems and meditation are not a good mix. For those who suffer delusions, and struggle with consensus reality, any journey into the mind is potentially fraught with danger. It’s very easy to imagine this is an issue for other people, for people somehow set aside by things that make ‘them’ separate from ‘us’. This is not so.

The way a brain functions is influenced by its environment and the way in which it is used, as well as all the hardware issues. Any brain can become dysfunctional – obsessive thinking, and narcissism are wholly available to all of us. Any of us can court delusion, and can render ourselves dysfunctional. Used the wrong way, mediation can be a very problematic thing indeed.

I’ve done whole meditation days, and as an occasional thing they are wonderful, but I also had a friend who took up meditating full time and destroyed his life and mind in the process. Whether the meditation was a cause or a symptom it’s hard to say, but either way it needed taking seriously.

We can use meditation to build and reinforce a sense of being special, spiritual, superior, and this can help lead us astray. If we are creating pathworkings and visualisations, it’s important to keep an eye on what ideas we are reinforcing, what we tell ourselves about the kind of people we are and the sort of world we inhabit. This is by no means easy, and a mind that is unwell is least equipped to see how an apparently spiritual course of action might be turning into something damaging. It is easy (I speak from experience here) to use meditation time to reinforce fears, obsessions, and to keep running round the very loops we need to avoid.

There are no easy answers to avoiding this. Checking in with other people can help, as can watching out for situations where you’re being asked to validate an experience that might not be a good thing to validate. If you think someone else is hurting themselves with meditation, an aggressive challenge is not the answer, that much is clear.

Meditation should be about calming the mind, opening to inspiration and insight, self knowledge, creativity, relaxation and delight. However, much the same can be said of cake and ice-cream, and if you go overboard with those you can ruin your bodily health. Balance is key, and knowing that the risks are available to anyone may help.


Meditation and anxiety

Meditation can be really helpful for managing anxiety, but it can also trigger it. The most important thing to bear in mind is that the individual (be that you, or someone you are working with) is always right. If it doesn’t feel good, it isn’t good, simple as that. It doesn’t matter how useful or helpful someone else thinks a practice is, if it triggers anxiety, don’t do it.

For some of us, learning to control breathing is a great aid in dealing with panic. My panic attacks tend to impact on my breath – the more dramatic the attack, the more likely I am to lose control of my breathing. The discipline of breath control learned in meditation can help me avoid hyperventilating, and it can also help me reassert normal breathing if I have been panicked into entirely losing it. However, breath control is not a magic cure all, and if controlling your breath leaves you feeling anxious, it won’t help you.

A guided meditation or visualisation can be really good for taking the disturbed mind away from itself for a bit. A pathworking can be a wonderful distraction that allows the mind some respite. However, you have to trust the person who is speaking it for you. A recording that you can check through ahead of time may be of most use. A friend who knows your issues may be safe enough, but anyone leading can make mistakes – I’ve triggered participants in meditation, in all innocence. On one occasion I blew out the candle, not knowing one of the people meditating with me was seriously afraid of the dark.

If having someone else tell you what to do pushes anxiety buttons, stay away from guided meditations.

Often, anxiety issues relate to a fundamental fear of losing control or being powerless. Meditation can help you assert a sense of being in control of your own mind, able to step in and out of practices and ideas as you choose. Pick ways of working that support your right to determine what happens inside your head, and that affirm your sense of being in control.

You can use meditation as a safe space to confront issues of not being in control. You can face specific fears by visualising situations, explore letting go of protective measures and use contemplation to work on, or work out underlying issues. This can go a long way towards dealing with the causes of anxiety, but it’s something to do in your own time and on your own terms.


Meditation for depression

Depression tends to take people into the dark places of their own minds. Consequently, any form of meditation that is basically about stilling your mind and noticing your thoughts, will not help. There are times when noticing that you are thinking in a depressive way will be useful, but it can easily reinforce the experience. Further, depression tends to undermine concentration and create feelings of apathy and pointlessness, which can make some meditations technically very difficult.

On the whole, meditation that takes you out of yourself is the most useful. Techniques with the potential to distract, and inspire can help shift a mood while anything that makes you more self aware can perpetuate it.

I recommend deliberate concentration on something other than the self. Anything you like will work. It could be a houseplant or the view from a window, an oracle card, an object – natural or created. Skies, landscapes, birdsong, the feel of grass under your hand. Whatever appeals to you.

Then simply sit with it and pay it a lot of attention. Notice the details, let those details fill your thoughts. If your mind derails you, just take a few deep breaths and go back to what you were doing, or let your attention shift to some other external thing. Do it for as long as you feel comfortable.

In this way, the benefits of slowing down are available without the hazards of introspection.

Physical meditation practices, and recorded visualisations and pathworkings are also worth a thought. I wouldn’t recommend trying to do visualisation from books as the odds are you won’t have the concentration, but a friendly voice on a CD will keep you on track if you want to do something more creative with your brain.

Don’t push yourself into anything that doesn’t feel right. Being gentle with yourself is very often essential for getting out of a depressive hole, any pressure to ‘be spiritual’ or ‘be disciplined’ about something uncomfortable can leave you feeling worse off, not better.