A Beginner's Guide to Lockdown Meditation
Mindletter post written by Dr Kitty Wheater.
Great to see you at yesterday's Mindfulness for Sleep workshop, and looking forward to seeing you for next Thursday's one on Mindfulness for Zoom Fatigue.
The lunchtime drop-in continues today (Friday), 1.10-1.50pm. This week, while all are welcome, it's a Vet School special - so spread the word to your veterinary colleagues and students, and invite them to come along. You can access the drop-in with your usual UoE sign-on here.
A Beginner’s Guide to Lockdown Meditation
People tell me that this third lockdown has been the worst. Even though it’s spring, and even though we’re getting vaccinated, and even though there are dates for unlocking, we are worn down. At a certain point, the knowledge that things are moving just feels abstract. We’ve heard this before, we think, and there’s still much further to go.
By this point we are tired of waiting, bored by time alone, and numb from the sameness of days, faces, and routines. It’s Groundhog Day, except we can’t go to the café and eat all the cakes. Months on Zoom have left us disembodied and jittery, and months without hugs or casual touch have left us feeling delicate and touch-deprived. The lack of variety in our social interactions makes us strangely anxious around others, surprised at our low tolerance for casual chatter with an acquaintance over a wall, or a conversation with a doctor in a mask. With life standing still, the messiness of the past rises to fill the vacuum of an empty present, and the unknowables of the future haunt the wee hours. Our nervous systems alternate between shutdown and desperate energy.
In states like these, we are looking for things to help us go just one step more. We’ve done Netflix, knitting, and Joe Wilks. We are tired of books and walks. (Don’t even mention recreational Zoom.) Round about this stage, with the lockdown anniversary looming, you might find yourself begrudgingly revisiting all those ‘how to keep sane in the pandemic’ articles of last year.
When you do, every second newspaper article will be telling you to meditate. It’ll calm you down, they say. It’s good for you. It’ll make you more productive, amidst the pandemic worry-fog. It will reduce your anxiety, your twitchiness, help you sleep better, make you less snappy with your locked-down family. But amidst the promises, some of you will be thinking: I already spend too much time on my own, in my head, in my thoughts. If I’m going to try this, how can I do it in a way that would really help?
You’re right to ask these questions: the isolation of lockdown can make meditation potentially both more useful, but also more difficult to start, sustain, and get help with. If you are one of the people who picked up a mindfulness practice early on, found it helpful, but have lately been struggling, now may be a good time to step back and reconsider just what you may need at the point of lockdown 3.0; and if you are a sceptic who has finally been pummelled by news onslaughts into considering meditation, this guidance is for you.
1. Start Small
If you are enthusiastically new to meditation, or simply at your wits’ end, you may be tempted to jump straight into long meditation practices. Beware! Your mind isn’t used to this. All the ordinary mind-states that come up when we meditate – boredom, resistance, irritation, the to-do list – will feel the more frustrating if you have sat yourself down for forty-five minutes. So start small, and simple. A ten to fifteen-minute practice every day, like this mindfulness of body and breath track, is enough to begin to notice a difference.
Something small, done regularly, is also contained enough that your mind will be able to metabolise what comes up. Lockdown has been hard on all of us; amidst the tiredness and numbness, this is something that we can forget until it presents itself, unexpectedly, and we find ourselves weeping or raging. When you start meditating, it’s wise to be gentle with yourself. You are learning something new, and there’s no rush.
2. Find Aloneness, Together
The biggest myth about meditation is that it is something that you do by yourself. In fact, many of us have been 'by ourselves’ an awful lot this pandemic. Even and especially if we’re surrounded by others at home, sitting by ourselves for several minutes every day can seem very challenging. There are other things that press for our attention; there are the voices in our minds that have their own opinions; meditation is new, and unfamiliar. For many of us, what we need for meditation to feel most supportive is a sense of being alone, together.
So figure out where you most need support, inspiration, and guidance, and ask for it. Enlist your flatmates into practising with you, or buddy up with a friend over Whatsapp. Don’t sit in silence time after time, mind drifting and ruminating, but make use of our regularly updated library of guided practices. Try Tara Brach’s weekly podcast and meditations, for a fresh perspective. Join the lunchtime mindfulness drop-ins on Tuesdays and Fridays, for some structure and routine. Drop me an email, if something comes up in your practice and you’re not sure how to approach it. Experiment, and find the balance of being alone, together, that helps you best.
3. Know When Not to Meditate
Meditation purists will tell you to take everything to the cushion: anger, irritation, anxiety, low mood. But certain nervous system states are better tackled in other ways. If there is a lot of energy in your emotions, walking can be especially helpful. When in the grip of anger, stamp it into the ground; if you are feeling very anxious, move your eyes around as you walk, taking in the space, the sky, the trees. Rather than doing a formal meditation with your eyes closed, to go for a walk, or turn to an engrossing book, can be the most mindful way of responding if you are in the midst of something difficult.
If you are experiencing strong emotions, simple adjustments to your meditation practice can also help. If you have a lot of anxiety, then sitting upright, with your back supported by a cushion against a wall or the back of the chair, can feel more supportive than lying down. If something overwhelming comes up while you are meditating, then opening the eyes, looking around the room, and pressing the hands and feet against the floor, can be very grounding. If in doubt, press pause on the practice, and send me an email: I'm always happy to reply.
4. Stay Curious
Like any other commitment, a meditation practice needs to stay interesting in order to seem worthwhile. Each time you meditate, try dropping a couple of questions into mind: ‘What mental pattern am I noticing?’ ‘Where have I seen this before?’ Afterwards, take a moment to jot down your answers. It needn’t be much – a few words, or phrases – but as you become more familiar with the activities and habits of your own mind, connections and insights will arise.
Over time, you will start spotting patterns not only in meditation, but also as they pop up in your mind during the ordinary flow of daily life. You will start to spot triggers and reactions – and you will also start to notice what helps. You’ll discover that taking the attention to the soles of the feet helps in a moment of news headline fear, or that sensing the sit-bones helps you stay grounded when you are irritated with Zoom. It gets curiouser, and curiouser. Try it and see.
I wish you happy experimenting, in the midst of this burgeoning spring, and impending unlocking.