Diving for Pearls with Maggie Kay
Meditation Is Easy
Gently Does It
One of the biggest mistakes people make with meditation is trying too hard. The language often used to teach meditation doesn’t help – “concentrate on your breath”, “watch your mind” – it reminds us of forcing ourselves not to daydream in order to pay attention to a boring lesson at school.
Mistakenly, we think we are being asked to bear down on our brain like a vice and force distractions out of the way. We attempt to obliterate stray thoughts and feel like we are failing when a constant stream of insistent nonsense cavalcades through our mind. But this is not meditation; it is merely a recipe for a headache.
I prefer a much gentler, inclusive approach. Rather than feeling like I have to squeeze thoughts or daydreams out of my mind, I spend some time just relaxing and being interested in what is going on. Instead of clamping down and excluding unruly thoughts, I expand my awareness until it is so huge I comfortably include every thought, feeling and sensation I am having. Then I discover that everything is just fine the way it is or isn’t, and I don’t have to do anything. Phew, what a relief!
This is why the meditations I guide usually begin with a period of relaxing and noticing. Once we have become comfortable and relaxed and have a basic sense of the rhythm of our breath, we gradually include every aspect of our experience into our awareness and into the vast space of our breath. Then we can take our whole being on the meditation journey without any wayward rebel parts of ourselves digging their heels in.
To include our whole being like this, we start by noticing everything we can hear and smell and taste and touch and how this makes us feel. Then we notice what our mind is up to, and gently invite our mind to have a pause from all that thinking for a while. (Our mind probably hadn’t even registered that having a pause was an option before.)
Finally, we tune in to our emotional mood via our heart and include that too – even if it is not a happy mood, even if we don’t want to meditate. And all of that thinking, feeling, sensing and knowing is now included in the breath, included in the growing space of our overall awareness, included in our whole deep being.
Get Everyone on the Bus
Spending time like this is so worthwhile. Every aspect of our experience has a place, and needs to be included. Otherwise it will simply oppose our deepening meditation and overall direction. It is a bit like rounding up a rabble of children for a bus trip. If there is one child whom we haven’t noticed needs to go to the toilet, or another who hasn’t had a chance to say goodbye to his mum yet, there will be trouble. Give the kids what they need first, even if it is just a bit of acknowledgement that they would rather not be on the bus trip at all. That way there will be relative peace and the bus can at least set off for its destination without someone running away and holding everyone up.
The quality of attention that is great for meditation is gentle and allowing and receptive. It is less like concentrating for an exam, and more like getting lost in a beautiful piece of music. Instead of ‘watching’ the breath like some sort of army major, you might prefer to ‘listen’ to the breath to encourage that sense of receptivity. My personal favorite is to ‘swim’ in the breath (probably born of my experience of scuba diving where you are literally doing that). That way I can surrender and float in the vast ocean of the breath, becoming totally immersed in the rhythm of the waves.
Keep Clear and Focused
However, it is important not to let go so much that you forget what you are doing and why. Even as you let go into the vastness of your experience, remember to feel, to stay in touch with, a sense of direction and purpose as you meditate. Balanced meditation is like carrying a little bird safely in your hands. You don’t want to squeeze too tight and hurt the little bird, but at the same time, you don’t want to let your hands go too loose in case the bird flies away.
Similarly, balanced meditation requires both focus and breadth. It needs focus in the sense of being clear of what you are doing and why and remembering the purpose of the meditation. And it needs breadth in the sense of being inclusive of your whole experience, relaxing rather than squeezing and forcing. And so, before you start meditating, always clarify what you are doing, how long you are doing it for, and find some sort of anchor (like your breath) to come back to when you drift off.
The image for the right balance between focus and breadth came to me when I was in the middle of an intensive meditation retreat many years ago. I imagined that I was a mermaid (okay a scuba diver, but mermaid was more poetic and that’s how it came to me at the time!) swimming deep underwater, holding a lantern in front of me. The light led the way, cutting through the darkness purposefully. In the light’s wake, many sea creatures and plants were illuminated. I was aware of all the wonderful colors and forms around me, but I didn’t get so drawn into them that I stopped swimming or dropped the lantern. Instead, many of them started to follow along on my great underwater sea journey.
Another clue to our focus and breadth balance is our hands. If we are sitting with one hand resting on top of the other, palms up, with our thumb tips touching (Buddha style), we can use this as a barometer of our balance. Check on the tension between our thumbs. If they are forcing together so that the thumbs start to point upwards, we need to relax. If they are drifting apart from each other, we need to sharpen up a bit.
Calming a Busy Mind
Some people say, “I’m just no good at meditating.” “I can’t sit still and my mind is all over the place.” Well, I have a couple of tips. The first thing to say is that energetic, active people are just as capable of meditating as peaceful, docile ones. My foremost Buddhist teacher, Sangharakshita, used to say that it is easier to calm down an overexcited, energetic person than it is to stimulate someone whose energy is very locked up or repressed. Take heart!
In fact, most of us experience times when we are stirred up and overexcited and find it difficult to settle down. It is just a matter of preparing for sitting meditation in a different way. I find that having a dance or a run or just jumping up and down a bit can really help to discharge a bit of raw energy. Running or swimming can be very meditative anyway and I would even go as far as saying that some people are better off meditating while they are engaged with something like this rather than sitting down. Personally, I love 5Rhythms dance. This is a free-expression moving meditation practice that gets me into similar states of peace and clarity as sitting meditation.
Another fantastic vehicle for our raw energy is our voice. Singing is great, but chanting can be even more effective. If we know a chant we can repeat over and over again it gives expression to some of our pent-up energy, and somehow this brings our energy into harmony and we calm down and can meditate more easily. It is said that the voice unifies the heart and mind.
You might like to try chanting the popular Buddhist mantra, “om mani padme hum”, the mantra (sacred sound) of the Buddha of compassion, Avalokiteshvara. Om mani padme hum literally translates as “om, the jewel in the lotus, hum” and has a poetic meaning of finding the treasure of yourself as you open up the lotus of your being. You can use a simple repeated tune or just chant in monotone. It probably doesn’t matter what you chant. There’s a lovely story about a Buddhist disciple mishearing the mantra yet getting enlightened chanting, “om mani padme cow” instead of “om mani padme hum”. Another simple option is to repeatedly chant one of the ancient Indian ‘seed’ sound syllables like Ah, Om or Hum.
If you find that your mind is still a bit overactive once you are in sitting meditation, there is something else that can be done. As you follow your breath, pay particular attention to the sensation of your breathing low down in your abdomen. This brings your energy down out of your head and helps you settle. On the other hand, if you find that your energy is low or you are feeling sleepy, bring the attention up to where the breath first enters and leaves your body – your nose and mouth. This wakes you up and stimulates you.
Waking Up from a Dead Zone
Strangely enough, the tips for low energy, sleepy would-be meditators are pretty much the same as for overactive ones; we need to move our body. Moving the body puts us in touch with our feelings more authentically. If we move about a bit we may discover that we are low because we are unhappy about something and have shut down our energy or gone numb to avoid feeling it. Yet it is really a relief to get in touch with our feelings and have a good cry or rant. Of course, it may be that we simply need to sleep because we are tired, in which case, have a nap. However, it is okay to meditate while feeling sleepy and it can sometimes help us drop our habitual thinking. Whatever our feeling is, include that background into our meditation. Get pain or tiredness or unhappiness onto the bus too.
Accept Your Feelings
When we meditate, the main thing is that we relax. We relax physically, emotionally and mentally and that allows a deep, restorative, natural energy to flow through our body, heart and mind. I often encourage myself to let go into this state of rest and openness by remembering the simple Zen saying, “Body like a mountain, heart like the ocean, mind like the sky.”
Of course, quite often when we pause and begin relaxing for meditation, we realize how painfully tense, hard-hearted and busy minded we are. Initially, it can be uncomfortable feeling and acknowledging this. No wonder we would rather just stay frantic and numbed out. But if we know that it is important and helpful to melt anyway and ride the waves of discomfort for a short while, we soon find ourselves feeling better. Bringing some honest, loving attention to our self is the fastest way of feeling at peace with our self, no matter how we started out.
When I sit down to meditate and realize that my shoulders are painfully tense, or I am feeling bad about something, or mentally rerunning a difficult conversation I’ve had, I surround that pain with a big cloud of loving acceptance. I realize that the pain will not kill me – it is just a pain, a bit of discomfort. Soon, I am not lost in the pain, but gentle and curious about it. That, in itself, is soothing and the pain quickly loses its intensity.
Be Settled and Vast
Even once we have relaxed a bit, we may still feel like our head is all over the place, thinking about a million crazy things. The truth is we probably conduct much of our life like this. It is just that we have not paused long enough to notice. My goodness, what does that mean about the decisions we make? Who is in charge?
The great gift of meditation is that it provides us with enough calm and inner space to make sure that we are choosing what is right for us. Once we practice giving ourselves this mental wherewithal when we meditate, our mind gets the idea and is much calmer and clearer as we go about our daily life. It only takes a few days of meditation to experience this and the results are wonderful.
One of the images I have for our crazy mind is that it is like one of those model snow scenes inside a glass globe. Most of the time, life is shaking the globe and all the bits of glitter snow are whirling around furiously inside. When we meditate it is a chance to put the globe down for a while, and allow all the bits of glitter to gently float through the liquid and settle on the ground. Then we can clearly see the details of the scene through the liquid.
There is a Buddhist analogy which describes this mind clearing phenomenon in another way. An elephant dropping into a small pool of water makes an almighty splash, but an elephant dropping into a vast lake only makes a relatively small splash. When we meditate, we create huge lakes of calm consciousness, so that when the ‘elephants’ of our everyday preoccupations drop in, we have a vast body of water within us acting as a buffer. Every time you meditate you are topping up your lake and you are giving yourself more equanimity as a resource.
Changing Your Whole World
When I was first learning to meditate, I was always amazed when I opened my eyes after a few minutes of meditation and looked around the room again. Everything seemed more beautiful – the colors more vivid, the shapes sharper and the forms more pleasing. How did the transformation come about? It is the same room as before, after all. Of course it was me who had transformed by letting the inner whirlwind subside and being able to see things more clearly and accurately. This is what meditation can do for you. It can change your whole world in an instant.
It is said that one minute of meditation cancels out hours of ‘bad karma’. Meditation is so powerful and so pure that even a small amount of it undoes a lot of bad habits and purifies us very quickly. So even if we only do a short meditation, the purity of that act is so powerful that it is transformational, changing our state of mind and, therefore, the course of our life for the better.
This reminds me of a tale about a selfish king who wanted to carpet the whole world to save his precious feet from getting sore. “Why not just carpet his feet instead?” an astute aide suggested. Then, wherever he walked, the whole world would feel carpeted. We can carpet our feet like this; wrap our consciousness in meditative wisdom so that we can experience the whole world differently. By taking responsibility for ourselves like this and without harming anyone else, meditation is a most profound yet peaceful way to radically change the world.
Known as the Inner Wisdom Coach and formerly an ordained Buddhist, Maggie specialises in meditation, mindfulness, law of attraction, metaphysics and spiritual intelligence for life, love and business.
As well as coaching one-to-one, she trains accredited Thrivecraft life coaches and meditation teachers and runs retreats and workshops for soulful entrepreneurs, coaches and well being professionals.
In 2016, with her son Jamie grown up, Maggie established Thrivecraft Home Hub, a riverside country retreat in Cornwall, UK, where she lives with her soul mate husband, Patrick.
Her new book – Diving for Pearls: A Wise Woman's Guide to Finding Love (O Books) – is a highly readable true love and spiritual adventure story laced with tips and teachings on meditation, Buddhism, inner wisdom and relationships relevant to all.
Maggie's vision for the future includes taking Thrivecraft worldwide via a new online academy; continuing to mentor coaches, well-being professionals and meditation teachers to grow and prosper their businesses; producing audios of her full range of guided meditations; and writing further books to inspire and support everyone to create rich, happy and fulfilling lives.
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Thrivecraft with Maggie Kay
Wisdom. Inspiration. Self-belief.