Have you ever felt so mentally overwhelmed that you get to the point of not being able to focus on anything, even though your to do list has plenty to go at? When thinking consists of high speed, mental jumps from one task to the next, lacking in any kind of productive focus, bolstered by worry. When the internal monologue that won’t quit; left to its own rhythm, incessantly sending thoughts round and round, building into a chorus of sensory overload. Like some sort of out of control, merry-go-round, the outcome can often be a lack of action, focus and a side order of frustration about the whole waste of mental energy and time. This post is about how meditation can help separate our thoughts from our selves.
Thinking clearly in a 24/7 connected world
This kind of over stimulated thinking/ under productive action is increasingly common, and hardly surprising when we live in a world which is connected 24/7, meaning we are continuously bombarded with messages. From reading work emails out of hours, whilst keeping up to speed on group Whatsapp chats on the treadmill; to getting emotionally attached to reality tv celebrities, in between glum global news updates and checking in on ebay favourites on the commute. The never ending news, streams, feeds, alerts, notifications, matches, updates, and everything else in between make for an information overload beyond what the human brain was designed for. Meanwhile we have Silicon Valley technology executives opting out of internet access due to ‘addictive’ qualities; in the UK the NHS expects 1 in 4 of us to experience a mental heath issue in a year*; and the annual cost of poor mental health to the UK economy coming in at £99bn, with ‘the number of people forced to stop work as a result of mental health problems [being] 50% higher than for those with physical health conditions’. So as our thoughts underpin our wellness, our perceptions about the world, others, ourselves and everything we do, it makes you think about your thinking habits.
Redesigning a lifestyle from the inside out
I got curious about meditation whilst going through the process of redesigning my routine, and indeed lifestyle, as a freelance worker and looking to optimise my time; I’ve been fortunate to be able to set my own routine and have been experimenting with different approaches to fitting it all in. This change from the 9 to 5 means I can enjoy being flexible, but also need a reliable system and self discipline to make sure I meet all of my responsibilities and get things done.
My preferred approach to problem solving is to be able to go deep into a challenge to tackle the root cause, reimagining new approaches from a blank canvas. So as a mental discipline habit, I wanted to see whether meditation could help me achieve what Bruce Lee describes as a ‘mind like water’; helping me to approach tasks objectively, with less wasted mental energy, a greater focus and more productivity? I decided that meditation was an investment in my learning and development (and totally an expense to claim back in my tax return).
“Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
I loved the concept that, once the discipline of meditation was mastered, the skill could be used in a way which was:
- Free of charge,
- Location independent,
- Time flexible,
- Without need for any equipment and, best of all
- Beneficial to any situation
How often do you have a solution which meets all of those criteria?! And that’s just the here and now practicalities before you get onto how a regular meditation practise over time increases actual grey matter density in the brain, as shown in a Harvard MRI study.
The art and science of wholeness, resilience, creativity and wellbeing
When I saw the ‘Introduction to Modern Meditation’ at Manchester’s biggest yoga community, The Life Centre North, where I work and practise yoga, and it felt like the perfect opportunity. It was a bit scary to think of committing myself to opting out of fun thoughts, daydreams, imagination, and all the rest of that inner world good stuff that I enjoy indulging in; but having a calm, controlled, constructive headspace was the goal and as per one of my favourite zen proverbs, obstacles are the path! Described as ‘a unique 4-week course introducing the art and science of wholeness, resilience, creativity and wellbeing with Mick Timpson’, the course description set the scene as:
‘Week-by-week, Mick will gently guide you towards knowing how to stop and relax purposefully, guide your attention and manage your mind towards knowing a deeper conscious awareness. Combining current research with ancient wisdom, Mick teaches how you can develop the insight gained in meditation into something that’s built into your daily life.’
My expectations were actually exceeded with the thought provoking weekly content of the course; what really made it was Mick’s down to earth delivery, as well as his own inspirational story. Mick is a warm, upbeat, intelligent and dapper architect-turned-meditation and yoga teacher who describes his work as ‘helping people design their own inner landscape’. It was fascinating to chat with Mick, learning about how he sees his career journey as a natural transition as he was able to identify the familiar state of ‘flow’ achieved in his architecture work upon the discovery of meditation and yoga (a moving form of meditation).
Mick told us that all meditation practice utilises one key fact: ‘we are already hardwired for happiness and wellbeing. All we need to do is know it!’
On the meaning of meditation, ‘to turn up, to apply yourself and be present’, Mick explains the absolute simplicity of the practise:
‘Meditation is not mind control, once learned it takes no effort, you are not stopping thinking, more changing your relationship to thinking… There’s a cognitive shift where you realise you are not your thoughts, which helps avoid rumination and getting caught up in other unhelpful thoughts.’
Connecting to your true self which is innately happy
I can actually vouch for the cognitive shift! It comes down to Mick’s be and do concept, which echoes my merry go round from the start. With busy lives, always on the go, we are often consumed with thoughts about what we need to do. The ego, the part of our selves, which is, concerned with self identity and all things ‘I, me, mine’ can get caught up in these everyday actions which can lead to overwhelm. Rather, by connecting with our ‘being’ self – the subconscious, the true self which is the awareness that the thoughts we have are not us, is inherently happy. Sitting with this perspective helps us to see things how they really are (instead of from that overwhelmed, over stimulated place). It was genuinely surprising how quickly I was able to achieve, and return to, this sense of being – feeling day to day concerns slip away as I returned to what was turning into a familiar place of peace, like coming home.
The great thing about this approach is getting past the day-to-day stuff and going deep into a conscious sense of relaxed stillness. It feels great, especially when you get used to practising regularly, both as part of a daily routine and tactically when a moment of calm is needed. The way feelings of worry, responsibility, items on the to do list, what you need to get from the supermarket and everything else slide away leaves a sense of calm and contentment, as you connect with yourself. From there, re-engaging with the day to day stuff creates a sense of space between the things that need dealing with and emotions, helping you to think about what needs to be done more objectively (the total opposite of our energy wasting merry go round of overwhelm).
There’s a quote which has resonated with me all the more since starting to meditate, which captures this essence:
“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but thought about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral. It is as it is.”
Getting into flow to get things done
Even if you’ve never tried meditation, there will have been times in your life when you have had a meditative experience, guaranteed. Like Mick, when absorbed with his conceptual work sketching as an architect; he didn’t know the name for what he experienced, just that he was so involved with doing that thing he loved, totally in the moment, not thinking of anything else. For me, flow can be happen through writing, yoga and hula hooping, it can be achieved through any activity that a person enjoys and is the goal of Mick’s beanddo meditation. Mick describes the flow experience as a sublime combination of:
- Every action seeming to support the next. One moment, then another, then another. A succession of meaningful actions that support each other towards a solution.
- A calming, relaxed feeling unfolds from within which moves across the whole body.
- Thoughts about what you are doing at that moment fall away into the background. The mind is clear and open. The inner critic takes a break.
- And there is joy, an innate joy. A happiness that just seems to be connected to a momentum, which seems to push along the action towards the goal.
Flow activities are an example of how meditative thinking can be applied to daily life – the more you can build these into your day, the clearer your mind will be.
A voyage and return to your self
The whole experience of meditation made me think of my favourite storytelling archetype**, voyage and return. In stories of this genre the protagonist experiences a sudden arrival in a mysterious new world where they experience many a strange and fascinating adventure. When they return to regular life everything is back to normal, although the protagonist retains insights and learnings from their other worldly experience. Stories of this genre include Alice in Wonderland, The Matrix, The Labyrinth and Little Miss Sunshine. An alternative (more obscure-sounding) title for this blog post could be ‘Meditation: a voyage and return to the true self’, which is what genuinely I experienced in my learning about meditation and why I’m passionate about sharing my experience. People keep commenting on how I am ‘glowing’, ‘look really well’ or other lovely sentiments about my demeanour and a big part of that is my meditation practise. I hope this in depth account does Mick’s amazing course justice and my personal story helps inspire people like you, reading this now, to connect with your own strength within too.
Talking about his own journey through yoga and meditation, Mick told me about his first ever yoga class, and how just ten minutes in, he felt ‘the most extraordinary feeling – [experiencing] a state where the constant butterflies of anxiety disappeared immediately, and for the first time, I saw a way out. Which was actually a way in’.
You can give Mick’s meditation a go with the ‘how to’ tips below as well as a handy 4 minute guided practise to listen to here to help you prepare for a productive working day.
You can check out Mick’s next ‘Introduction to Modern Meditation’ course at the life centre north here.
* McManus, S., Meltzer, H., Brugha, T. S., Bebbington, P. E., & Jenkins, R. (2009). Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: results of a household survey. The NHS Information Centre for health and social care.
**Reference: The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker.