George White explains how he overcame his initial scepticism to harness the true benefits of meditation...
For years I was sceptical about the principles of mindfulness, self-help and, more than anything, meditation. The idea of sitting cross-legged and in absolute silence felt nightmarishly awkward, and I didn’t believe it could help me in any way. I imagined that if I ever tried it, I’d end up like Ron Swanson does in that episode of Parks and Recreation – bored out of my mind.
Yet, after finally giving it a go late last year, I found it not only helped me, but it properly changed my life. I’ve been converted – from sceptic to fanatic. And, according to Shaun Glossop, an experienced instructor at Nottingham Mindfulness Group, I’m far from the only one. “I’d say around thirty to 35 percent of people that come to us are quite reserved about the whole process,” he explains. “They often think it's not for them or they simply think it's nonsense that probably doesn't really work anyway. But many will eventually come to meditation in a bit of desperation after trying other avenues, and find that it’s the best way to help themselves.”
For me, the pandemic was the cause of this desperation. As lockdown restrictions were put in place, there was no longer any separation between work and rest. I did everything in the same place, with my living room becoming my office and my home becoming a constant reminder of all the stuff I had to do. If I wasn’t busy and productive I was constantly thinking about being busy and productive, and it became impossible to rest and unwind.
As my anxiety and stress levels worsened, I decided I needed to take action. I ended up downloading the Calm app to do exactly that – try and calm myself down. To my shock, meditating helped immensely, enabling me to become far less anxious and much more relaxed.
Rachel Jackson, who runs Nottingham-based wellbeing organisation Mind Alive, says my situation is not uncommon. As many people have been forced into the world of remote working, relying on digital devices more than ever, it has become more difficult for us to ‘switch off’ and establish boundaries between our professional and personal lives.
This has led to a greater demand than ever for meditation, as those struggling with their mental health have been left with little choice but to tackle their issues head-on. “It's a prime time at the moment to really look inside ourselves,” Rachel says. “We tend to look forward to better things rather than thinking about how we can enhance what we've got now. But with a lot of things shutting down we no longer had that escape, and had no choice but to take steps to make the present a better place.”
Many will eventually come to meditation in a bit of desperation after trying other avenues, and find that it’s the best way to help themselves
The steps I’ve learned for improving the present have been far more effective than I expected. Guided mindfulness has taught me to embrace challenges and take control of my emotions; rather than trying to block out negative thoughts, I have learned to accept them, put them into perspective and clear them out. Taking time out of my day to focus on nothing but myself has been incredibly useful, and highlighted how little I did that before.
However, I’ve found meditation is about more than just sitting peacefully with a faint “hommmm” reverberating from your lungs – it also provides practical techniques that can be used throughout the day. Simply taking a deep breath and embracing a moment of quiet at regular intervals can help with not only staying calm but increasing focus, improving your ability to do things like your job to a surprising degree.
For Rachel, it is often these simple steps that can prove most beneficial. “Quick, mindful breaths are really important,” she claims. “I say whenever the mind gets too full with stuff, that's the time to close your eyes and take a focused breath. The way I teach mindfulness is that if you have a busy mind and can go maybe three breaths with full focus and a clear mind that’s brilliant, but even if you can only manage one second, that's one extra second your mind has to rest.”
If my story has yet to convince you of the power of meditation and self-care, the practice has been promoted by people far more intelligent than myself. Now embraced by the scientific community, mindfulness is often prescribed by medical experts as a tangible, viable method for tackling an array of mental health issues.
This is how Charlotte Lynch, one of Shaun’s students, came to meditation. She explains, “I have had periods of depression on and off for the last twenty years and tried all sorts of things. At the end of last year my doctor recommended I join a self-help programme and I came across Nottingham Mindfulness Group. It’s definitely helped. I’ve noticed a change in the way I am and how I live my life. This is just the beginning and I’ll keep working to improve with the support of the group.”
Like Charlotte, my experience with mindfulness is an evolving one. Even after months of regular practice, I am far from a master. But at such a difficult time, taking even small steps in the name of self-care has proven important. So if you still think meditation is a waste of time, this former sceptic can say with confidence that it isn’t. Give it a go – it might just change your life.
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