Coming Back Home through Meditation
By Dr Angel Adams
Awaken to the mystery of being here
and enter the quiet immensity of your own presence.
May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven
around the heart of wonder.
~ John O’Donohue ~
The poet Rumi asks the question “Do you pay regular visits to yourself”? Day after day in my work as a clinical psychologist I am acutely aware of the stress that people are faced with. I often ask them, “do you take time out to be alone with yourself? Do you connect with a deeper stillness when giving your undivided attention to your inner self?” This appears to be a ridiculous question to ask busy exhausted parents. However, with the many pressures, demands and responsibilities people have, they often become driven to be outwardly focused and hijacked by obsessive/incessant thinking. Regular visits can help you to spontaneously experience a fundamental transformation in the way you think about yourself, others, and the world. There are many ways to do this, and for me it is through meditation, which can create a groundedness and resilience in the midst of chaos.
A few years ago I was faced with a life-threatening illness. It was a shocking wake-up call from my body as the body never lies. I knew I had to stop the spinning and speeding through my life and slow down and truly learn how to meditate. I didn’t want to use it as an escape route from my problems but as a vehicle to come into a deeper awareness of myself. My desire was for meditation to be a life-time journey to meet myself, and arrive at my true home. Coming back to home base would allow my body and spirit, as well as my heart and mind to become more connected. In Rumi’s poem, he illustrates this union by a conversation between a frog and a mouse.
Each morning, the second they see each other,
they open easily, telling stories and dreams and
secrets, empty of any fear or suspicious holding back.
There is no bog-standard way or quick formula to meditate. Each visit to yourself is unique. With all the different formal and informal ways to meditate one has to make a personal choice about what feels right for each individual. As a university student, I tried transcendental meditation but wasn’t able to stick with it. Many years later I started practising mindfulness meditation (also called vipassana or insight meditation) and found that this would synchronise my mind and my body.
Mindfulness meditation begins with finding an anchor to help focus your attention. It is usually the breath, natural sounds, music, or body sensations. Recently while away on a writers’ retreat in France, I used the peaceful sounds of a streaming brook which worked wonders as an anchor (watch the video here.) When thoughts and feelings arise, as they always do, the key is to accept them in a non-judgmental way. The intention is to simply observe them, moment by moment with kindness and interest.
Of course this is not easy as it sounds, because we are human animals with a nervous system that is nervous. We tend to latch on to negativity via thoughts and beliefs which then effect how we feel. Our nature is to become attached to these survival states. We often spend a lot of time judging ourselves and others. We are constantly trying to control things we can’t control, evaluating, regretting the past and worrying about the future, (which of course is very different than planning wisely about our future).
But that’s where our anchor comes in, because our mind is like a boat being carried away by the winds of our thoughts and the waves of our anxieties. Our anchor (e.g. the breath) helps us to pause and brings us back to our home base. Tara Brach, clinical psychologist, calls this “our moment of awakening.” She states that we are lost in thought, lost in a trance, lost in our stories and we become so identified with them that we are living in a virtual reality. When we return to the here and the now, we become awake to the truth, as the truth is in the present moment. Arriving home means to return to our authentic self, to a loving ‘presence’ that is the ground of our being. You can listen to her guided meditation called Arriving in Presence.
My experience of this process has gone in three stages. The first stage was very uncomfortable at times (it still can be). It was hard to sit still, the restlessness, the inevitable worries about getting everything done on my to-do list. Then there was the judgment I had about myself not being able to do this in the “right way”. Sometimes I would ‘name and tame’ the thoughts or feelings, especially if they were difficult to let go of or overwhelming. Brain research indicates that when you label your emotions you actually calm the amygdale, (the two almond shaped parts on either side of the brain which are associated with the fight-flight syndrome). Taming the thoughts is like quieting the monkey mind as it chatters and jumps from one thought to another. Taming the emotions activates the prefrontal lobe region of the brain which helps us to self-regulate. Dr Joe Dispenza describes it as taming a wild horse by reining it in a loving but firm way. The horse, our emotions, becomes calm as we guide it into the corral.
With the help of Tara Brach’s guided meditations which I listened to over and over, I eventually got to stage two. The horse is tamed and the monkey is calmed, and I return to my centre. I became more skilled at focusing and eventually it becomes more natural to arrive into presence. It is here that electrical brain moves into a deep stage associated with theta waves, which is the state that exists between sleep and full alertness. Theta waves are associated with free thinking, lack of judgment, and overall positive outlook. (The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2011).
The third stage for me takes place when I get off the meditation cushion and take mindfulness into my daily life. I have practised self-regulation which can help to rewire the brain, and now it is time to practice it in the real world. This means I have to pause and go back to my centre when my buttons are pushed or when I feel my emotions beginning to flare up with a reaction. Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and survivor of the holocaust in his book entitled Man’s Search for Meaning wrote:
“Between the stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
The other way to practice mindfulness in our daily life is to stop and pause even when there isn’t a stimulus in which we need to regulate our emotions. When staying at a village in France last month, the church bell would ring on the hour and on the half-hour. Every time I heard the bell I would stop and pause, breathe in and breathe out consciously for 30 seconds and enjoy arriving back into the present moment. Throughout the day, find reminders to help you realise when you are lost in thought. Then take a few seconds breathe in, breathe out and remember what really matters. This increases the bodily “felt self” of the wonder and mystery of life in the present moment. Jon Kabat Zinn states that:
“Your meditation practice winds up doing you much more than you are doing in the meditation practice. And the world and everybody and every thing becomes your teacher. And not in any grandiose new age bullshit kind of way — just simple and obvious”.