Friday 15 November 2019

New Year Resolutions: Finding peace of mind

Because she couldn't stop, Sarah Caden realised that she had to stop, and so she's started taking 10 simple steps to a meditation habit - so long as it is brief, and it's close to all the things she 'should' be doing

Sarah Caden. Photo: Kip Carroll
Sarah Caden. Photo: Kip Carroll

Sarah Caden

I'm sitting in one of the treatment rooms at herbalist Sean Boylan's clinic in Meath, and I'm in a bit of a panic. He has already seen me and gently poked at my seized-up shoulder, but he has stepped out for a minute to sign off with another client. He's only gone a few minutes, but it seems like forever. I twitch for a minute before giving in to the urge to check emails on my phone, and I do it hurriedly, furtively, because I know that if he catches me, he'll identify this as part of my problem.

And I know, I know, I know that my twitching panic that I need to be somewhere else, that I need to be doing something else, is part of what has brought me to his door. And, irony of ironies, the thing that I'm panicking about is the fact that I should be at home writing this piece. This piece about my mission to start meditating. This piece about not being twitchy, panicky, always worrying about the next thing that needs to be done.

Mindfulness has become the mantra of the modern age, but to some extent we're all guilty of talking about it a lot but doing very little about it in reality. We all know that we're racing too much, in a race that we will never win, but we don't know how to stop. It's a case of, "Yes, yes, I must live in the moment . . . but first I have a to-do list as long as my arm that just won't wait."

Stillness has become scarce in most of our lives and, increasingly, it has become something I crave. At the same time, it has become increasingly difficult for me to attain, as my body and mind race away from me constantly; on to the next task, the next errand, the next email or text. But it was the thought, recently, that it's no longer a case that I won't stop, but I can't stop, that spurred me to action. Or, more accurately, mindful inaction.

For some reason, meditation has always been something we find funny. Growing up, it was somehow amusing to mimic cross-legged yoga poses and chant, "Om". I wonder now if we laughed because it bothered us to some extent, the stillness we saw in these people that was so at odds with how we Irish believe we should be. The guilt button is easily pushed in us, and we believe that if we're not busy, we're letting everyone down or, sin of sins, being lazy. The thought that someone would decide to be 'lazy', sitting around meditating and humming was beyond us, perhaps, and strictly for drop-out hippies.

We're a bit wiser now, but, like a lot of people, I still struggle with the notion of meditation as doing nothing. But a little bit of nothing does you good, or so the saying doesn't go. And, guess what? I found an app for that.

So, I've embarked on a 10-day free trial with the meditation app, Headspace, set up by English-born, former Tibetan monk, former circus performer, Andy Puddicombe. Yes, it has made him a fortune, but, focus now, that's not the point. It helped that this 10-day course of 10-minute guided meditations was free of charge. Because I don't need any more things to feel guilty about.

And it helped that I could do it at home, instead of out somewhere, because I remain physically close to things I 'should' be doing, like paid work and housework, and, therefore, it doesn't feel like gallivanting or skiving. Yes, I know this is a bonkers game of checks and balances being played in the name of carving out a mere 10 minutes of head space, but I also know that I'm not alone in my resistance to letting my mind relax.

What I hadn't anticipated was that meditation would allow for my resistance to doing 'nothing'. In meditation, it's OK to have a head full of other things, because that's how life works. We all have many strands to our lives and many demands, and meditation is not about working against all the stuff swilling around your head, it's about working with it. It's not about battling being busy, because we're all busy, it's about letting busy flow.

This revelation has come as a great relief, and, to a great extent, it is what has convinced me that meditation is for me in 2015. If meditation can be brief, in time terms; if it can be achieved without me leaving the house; if it can be complementary to the realities of my life, then I'm in.

To a purist, perhaps, this is the wrong way to come at it, but, for me, it means that I might actually do it, instead of putting it off until the elusive perfect time arrives.

So I'm on board. I've taken some of the 10-day trial and, if nothing else, I've learned a few things.

One key lesson I've learned is that by fighting the realities of life, we create a double stress. There is the stress of normal emotions and responsiblities, which are unavoidable if you are human, and then there is the stress of trying to wrestle them into submission.

I know this is obvious, but, like a lot of things, it's obvious on paper, or if you're advising someone else on their life, but not so easy in practice in your own life. Like the mantra of mindfulness and existing in the moment, we all know that we're not supposed to stress the small stuff and that we can only do our best, but living like that is tricky.

The other thing I've learned is that what the practice of meditation can bring me is the ability to let my emotions flow, without the urge to tackle each and every one, each and every minute. I know already that I'm going to struggle with this. It's Irish-mammy syndrome, with a huge dose of control-freakery thrown in.

For this reason, so far, when I've given meditation a moment, I have struggled to keep my mind from straining and feeling around for things to do, things to worry about, an itemised list of what I should be doing instead of sitting still.

The kindly voice of Headspace's Andy tells me that this is OK, though, and, best of all, he tells me this so many times as he talks me through each 10-minute meditation that I realise that I'm not at all alone in this drifting. And that helps, too. I'm alone - in my head and in my sitting room - but I'm experiencing something universal, and that's reassuring all by itself.

And, if meditation for me only amounts to having a nice little sit down, then fine.

Often, New Year's resolutions are about jettisoning something, denying yourself something, maybe even attempting to alter your very self. All of which sound like the real struggle from where I'm standing - or even sitting. This January, I want a little bit more of me, not a little bit less.

In Sean Boylan's treatment room, I manage to resist checking my phone for emails a second time before he returns. It's a struggle. And when he comes back, I suspect that he knows well that sitting still has been difficult for me. At the end of our appointment, he makes one suggestion that he thinks would make a massive difference to my life. Meditation. Funny that.

Sunday Independent

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