Last week while recording in a studio in London I saw a picture of the Dalai Lama. As well as being a great spiritual leader he is also one of the most joyful people I think I’ve ever seen. And it’s not because he has had a charmed life, far from it, he has faced difficulties and overcome challenges through his life with dignity and grace as well as a large dose of humour. Some of us are more naturally playful than others so perhaps we can’t all revel in the funnier side of life as easily as that; my son for instance is much more naturally fun seeking than my daughter, though I like to think they both enjoy being who they are. But what can he teach us about bringing more of our own flavour of joy into our lives?
While I was at Drama School, about five years ago now, someone told me I was an inspiration. When I left that started to haunt me a bit. I didn’t feel like an inspiration, I felt like a cautionary tale. There I was, forty, out of my safe learning environment and back in the world having left my successful banking career. I didn’t want to go back but didn’t know how to go forwards. I had a whole collection of dreams but no plan. I didn’t know what to do. So I did nothing, or at least, taking a small amount of inspiration from the Dalai Lama, I started to meditate.
Nearly every magazine and newspaper at the moment extols the benefits of mindfulness. It can help to lift depression, reduce anxiety, improve our relationships, encourage us to take better care of ourselves and generally lead to us being better humans. But what does that look like in a “normal” person? How does it impact on our day in an everyday type of way? What benefit is it to us if we are not Zen masters but simply bumbling through, trying to make the best of our lives? Well, I can’t promise to tell you all of those but they are there and here are a few that have struck me over the past few years of regular meditation practice.
1. The Morning Rush
I used to crawl unwillingly out of bed when the alarm went off, or when the snooze had worn off. I would then drag myself downstairs, make a cup of tea and wake up the children before going in the shower myself. Then during the very limited time I’d allocated to get us all ready I’d be trying to dress the children, dress myself, gather books and book bags, write in homework diaries, fill water bottles, feed the yowling cats, clean the cat litter, usually while internally sinking into the cyclone of anxiety that we would be LATE, this somehow feeling like the worst thing in the world. At the time my only absolute responsibility was getting the children to and from school so somehow failing at this first hurdle took on a huge significance, leading to my internal mummy banshee coming out on regular occasions.
Now I get up early so I can meditate as the first part of my day. I often wake up before the alarm, step calmly out of bed and pad downstairs for my quiet time where I meditate, read and journal as well as take in a lovely cup of green tea and honey in absolute peace. I can’t say this banishes the banshee completely but my urge to scream “For Fuck’s Sake just GET READY” is much lower than it was before. I still have plenty of tasks to complete but somehow they seem less overwhelming and the thought of being late is perhaps an opportunity to teach my son the consequences of lying in bed too long.
2. The School Run
Oh my, what the school run used to do to my heart rate and blood pressure did not bear thinking about. I often felt like I’d battled at least three sabre toothed tigers and aged about five years in the simple act of driving around six miles to deposit my children at school. Unexpected road works or traffic jams or a particularly slow cyclist could leave me nearly shaking with anxiety about being LATE (see above) and feeling as if the universe was conspiring against me and any plans I had for achieving anything for the rest of my life, let alone that day.
After reading a book by Thich Nhat Hahn I started to see these instances as opportunities to practice mindfulness and patience. I tried to thank the obstacle (sometimes through gritted teeth) but then paid attention to myself. Gradually I would take back control of my breathing, relax my tense shoulders and perhaps choose to sing along to the radio rather than disappear into misery and catastrophising about the effect of these traffic lights on my life. I can’t say it always works, especially on the day the snow and broken traffic lights threatened my ability to catch a flight but these instances are now a chance to learn and relax and when I return home I am ready to carry on with my plan for the day.
3. Being Late
I hated being late for work or appointments, it makes me really anxious. I remember years ago arriving late after awful traffic on the motorway. I strode frazzled and sweating into work then proceeded to rush purposefully around the office trying to catch up with what I hoped to have done by that time. This gave other people the impression I was determined and a bit terrifying whereas in fact I was suffering from an extreme case of self-flagellation.
Since starting to meditate I haven’t suddenly decided I love being late, though I now allocate myself more wriggle room so that I have a contingency should something go wrong. Even with that the vagaries of the train and tube system can render us helpless. Recently a stopped tube prevented me from getting to my appointment on time. I emailed to let them know I would be late then returned to my audiobook. The delay was not my fault. There was nothing I could do that I hadn’t done so I might as well arrive rested and ready rather than wound up and irritable. When I finally got there those I was meeting expressed surprise at how calm I was.
4. Overcoming Self-Doubt
After I left Drama School I was overwhelmed with self-doubt. What did a middle aged mother of two think she was doing believing that she could somehow beat the odds and make a living as an actor? Wasn’t I too late, too tied down, too female, too chubby, too old….. (the list went on). My mind whirled with all the reasons I was an idiot and why it wouldn’t work, not at all helpful.
Just less than a year after I left I decided to give up self-doubt for Lent, figuring that was what was causing me the most pain and difficulty. I did it with a friend and she sent me an inspiring quote. Not having time to reciprocate I made one up that day and for over a year afterwards. Through meditation I would discover how I felt and what unhelpful thoughts were guiding me and I’d discover an alternative way of looking at it. Employing a bit of distance and perspective gave me the chance to approach myself as my own best friend and give myself a way to move past the uncertainty. I can’t say self-doubt has disappeared, sometimes it is useful as it lets us know what we need to learn, but my relationship with it is much more balanced and less panic-stricken.
My children, like their parents, are natural night owls. They don’t want to go to bed particularly as they are full of energy then but if they don’t have enough sleep they are sluggish and sometimes even feel a bit sick in the morning, so bedtime has to happen. This often involved many negotiations, quite few shouted instructions and general frustration leading me to feel a failure because I couldn’t do anything as simple as putting my children to bed. I’d also be hungry and worried that I wouldn’t be able to find time to cook dinner if I couldn’t sort out this one thing.
This area is still very much a work in progress. However, a week or so ago I started meditating with my children before bedtime. Now instead of leaving my son’s room after the seventeenth cuddle, a full rendition of his day and a seething resentment I leave after we have spent several minutes cuddled up meditating me in a calm state and him no longer bounding around but ready to drift towards sleep.
I meditate using the Headspace app which also has some great meditations for children. What about you? What have you discovered about meditation that was an unexpected benefit? I’d love to hear. Xx