Self isolation is not something we’ve just invented, for millennia people have taken themselves off to quiet places and spent time on their own, in some cases considerable periods of time on their own. One of the things that many self-isolators have come to find valuable, is the practise of meditation.

Whether you’re a voluntary or involuntary self isolator, you too could learn a simple meditation practise, which will help you remain calm, focused, and more ready to face the challenges of confinement.

I’ve been teaching various kinds of meditation for years, and practising meditation myself for even longer. There are many types of meditation, some more elaborate than others. Below is a very simple meditation practise which you can use wherever you are. Regular meditation practise will not only help you control your emotions, meditation has been shown to have significant physical benefits too – including lowering blood pressure. Can’t be bad.

So make the most of this opportunity, begin a meditation practise now, and build a habit which will help you through the rest of your life.

Just a note – meditation is simple, very very simple, but that doesnt make it easy. In fact it’s hard. But it’s worth continuing, because ultimately it’s not about getting ‘good’ at meditation, it’s just about doing it.

A simple meditation practise

The point of this meditation practise is not to fill your mind, but rather to still, quiet, or empty it, to not be actively thinking about things. To create a bit of quiet space in your very busy and noisy mind. To to do this, we’re going to use a simple repeated word form of meditation.

Step One: Find a reasonably comfortable and quiet place to sit. I encourage people to use a straight backed chair, most of us have one of them, a dining chair will do. Some prefer to sit on a cushion, or on a couch, or to use a kneeling stool. My advice is that you don’t want something too comfy – or you might just drop off. You also don’t want something which will grow uncomfortable after a few minutes. You need something that will help you keep a straight spine, as this will help you to breathe easily.

Step Two: Decide on the length of time you’re going to meditate for. I advise people starting out to go for something like ten or fifteen minutes, often the first five minutes is the hardest, so if you only give yourself five minutes, then you only do the hard bit. When you’ve decided a time, then set a timer of some sort to alert you, try not to use a harsh sounding alarm which will startle or jolt you, there are lots of timer apps you can download if that’s your thing. As you get used to it, you may find that your body will let you know when the time is up.

Step Three: For this meditation, you are going to need a word. For your first time, I suggest using ‘still’. What you’re going to do is silently repeat that word in your mind, ideally on your ‘out’ breath. So breath in, then as you breath out repeat your word: “Still….” In future sessions you may want to choose a different word, try not to choose a word with too much meaning, or else you will find it becomes a distraction. Simple words are best.

Step Four: Sitting on a straight-backed chair, with your feet flat on the floor, lay your hands gently in your lap. Don’t cross your legs. Then allow your eyes to close, but softly, don’t screw them shut. I sometimes meditate with my eyes open, but I think this is harder for the beginner, so I advise new meditators to start with their eyes shut.

Note: When you sit, you will find a number of things start to happen. You may for instance find you have an itch, the nose, the ear, the shoulder… the temptation is just to scratch it and return to the meditation. My advice is just to ignore it, it will go away. If you scratch it, another itch will appear, then another… As you sit, you will find a lot of thoughts start to float through your mind. There are three “don’ts” that I advise people here.

  1. Don’t resist any thought. If you try and fight a thought, you are actively thinking about it. So don’t try and resist a thought that comes into your head, just accept it’s there, and return to your repeated word.
  2. Don’t retain any thought. Some thoughts will seem like brilliant ideas, or important things to remember, and you will want to hang on to them, don’t do it. Let the thought go, return to your word.
  3. Don’t resent any thought. Sometimes you will find yourself so bombarded with thoughts and ideas, that you’ll start feeling dis-spirited and fed up, you will start to resent all those thoughts that are mucking up your meditation practise. That too is a mistake, because it in itself is a whole thought process. Accept that all these thoughts are there in your mind, and then just return to your word.

Step five: So you’re sitting in your chair, you have a word to repeat, you have an amount of time, now just begin. Press start on your timer, and then gently close your eyes, let your breath become regular and settled, and once it is, start repeating your word, try to do so on every out breath. When your meditation session finishes, don’t rush off, allow yourself to pause, feel grateful for the time, maybe take a sip of water to help ground yourself again, and then move on to the practical tasks of your day. Ideally aim to do this in a regular slot, according to what you think you can manage. Any meditation is better than none, an unmanageable schedule is not a good idea, be realistic and develop a practise that is helpful and sustaining for you.

Repeated word meditation is not a practise that suits everyone, if I have time I will either write some more instructionals with other meditation techniques, or record some podcast style tutorials which will help people who find they just can’t get on with this. However, I believe that given time, this is a technique that can be used by more or less anyone in a wide variety of settings.

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A short break from the usual light hearted blog posts to let you know about my lent series on ‘deconstruction’ which starts on the 26th of Feb. I will be using my regular ‘weekday meditations’ email series to explore the idea of deconstruction, what it is, why people go through it, what to do if you find yourself in the middle of it, all that good stuff.

Touching on issues of social control, power, loss, love, failure and other good stuff. You can sign up here, (it’s free and I won’t misuse your data) I’m also aiming to produce some supporting material to go with it as we go along…

I hope you can join me!

“What are those red things in the hedge?”
“No idea.”
“Come and look – there are two red things in the hedge. They look like… chillies.”

We’ve been promised a storm, and I’m awaiting its arrival at the living room window. But my attention is not on the scudding clouds or the leaden sky, I’m transfixed by the two red things in the hedge.

“I know what they are, or rather, what it is!”
“What?”

As I look at the two strangely shaped red things I have a sudden memory, to a summer day when I was enthusiastically clipping the hedge. I was armed, as usual, with not with just one, but three different types of cutting items, a standard pair of garden shears, some loppers to cut back the bigger branches, and a small pair of secateurs. With red handles.

“It’s my secateurs! I’ve found my secateurs!”
The lack of response is a little aggravating. But I continue enthusiastically nonetheless.
“The red things, they are the handles of my secateurs, I must have balanced them on top of the hedge…”

The discovery is both pleasing and discouraging. How am I that person who loses a pair of secateurs in a hedge? I then begin to idly wonder how many pairs of secateurs are lost in hedges on a regular basis. There is no way I can tell, so I guess that it happens a lot.

“Didn’t you do this with a trowel too?”
The question cuts through my reverie, and I am forced to face facts.
“Do you mean the trowel I left in the bag of ericaceous compost?”
A year or two ago I unwittingly ‘overwintered’ a trowel in a bag of ericaceous compost. I had discovered it in the spring, when I had cause to get some compost out of the bag.

“That trowel was lovely and shiny when it came out of the bag…” I remember that I thought this could be a good way to store tools, the acid in the compost had agreed with stainless steel of the trowel leaving it gleaming. I had however chosen to stick with a mixture of sand and oil for garden tool storage. Buying expensive bags of compost just to stick tools into seemed like a waste. Looking at the red handles of the secateurs I wonder if I’m likely to consider a hedge a good place to store cutting items. I suspect not.

Staring out of the window, I make a mental note: “Don’t, under any circumstances, let anyone find out about this.”

FIVE HOURS EARLIER

“Of all the types of rock,” drones the bore, “I like punk the best.”
Of all the types of rock? I give him a look which says, “you clearly know nothing about music.” But despite this, he carries on regardless. Soon I know his opinions on everything and they are more or less uniformly deplorable.

I choose to break in to his monologue with a left field idea: “If you don’t have a lanyard,” I ask, “do you even have a job?” This throws him, and leaves him searching for words, thus clearing the way for me to the exit the conversation without having to engage in an act of violence – something I had hitherto found myself almost ready for.

The conversation now effectively over, I’m now able to mingle, which is something I’m keen to avoid. Instead I make my way to the kitchen where my wife is holding a mason jar with home made pickled cabbage in it. Her arm is outstretched and she has the appearance of an actor playing Hamlet, holding the skull of Yorick. On the outside of the jar there is white substance which she is looking at suspiciously. “That looks fine.” I say. “It’s just a chemical reaction.”

She continues to look at the jar, before swivelling her head to turn a laser like gaze on to me. “You have a way of saying things,” she says, “which makes it sound like you know what you are talking about, but when you think about what you’ve just said, they don’t make any sense.”

I am undone. Bluffing has got me all the way to 43, but now what? The smokescreen has at last been pierced, and people know. They know.

I’m still thinking the same thought as I stand in front of the window. How many other people know, maybe they all know. Or maybe only one person knows. How do I know?

I’m still standing there thinking the same thing when my wife comes in to the room. “Everything ok?” She says. “I was just thinking,” I reply. “I was thinking that at times like these, I wish I had listened to what my Chemistry teacher used to say.” “Why?” She asks. “What did she say?”

I turn to her with a baleful gaze. “I don’t know. I didn’t listen.”

Original image by Fidlerjan on Morguefile.com Used under Creative Commons.

Original photo by Anthot4 on Morguefile.com. (Creative Commons)

In which I meet a had-been and would-be-again pop star, and am embarrassed by my footwear.

A number of years ago, when I worked for a media organisation which shall remain nameless. Because we were journalists we occasionally got invites to the openings of new places, the best tickets usually went to the senior people, but sometimes the treats trickled down.

On one occasion the entire news team were invited to the opening of a new Go-Karting track, to which a number of media and ‘celebs’ had been invited. It was on a week night, and directly after work, as a result we all turned up in our work gear, which in my case included a pair of pretty shiny black brogues.

I knew – somehow – that we would be given protective overalls to wear, but for some reason I’d somehow overlooked or forgotten about the issue of footwear. As a result I found myself in a changing room pulling on a boiler suit and worrying about my shoes.

The man next to me was also getting changed, and zipping up his grey boiler suit. I suppose I assumed that he was a journalist too, but couldn’t be sure, so I said to him: “What do you do then, mate?” “Oh,” he replied, “I used to be a pop star.” “Really?” I said, looking at him in the hope that I might perhaps recognise him. “Were you in a band then?” “Yes,” he said, “I was in a band called Take That.” “Oh… yes, I’ve heard of them…” I replied rather weakly. This was a fairly momentous error on my part, Take That had been huge shortly beforehand. The conversation ended shortly afterwards, and we said goodbye. He smiled broadly, I grinned sheepishly, and he went off to the track wearing, I noticed, a pair of trainers. I meanwhile tied the laces of my brogues and headed off awkwardly to find my colleagues.

The mystery singer turned out to be Howard Donald, the Take That heart-throb who had until recently sported a head full of dreadlocks. I told myself it was his new hair cut that had flummoxed me. I told the rest of the team about it, noticing that they too had all thought to bring trainers with them. In our team photograph I alone stood wearing the boiler suit and shiny shoes. But we wrote up the story – which was published the following day in the Daily Record, of all places, with the headline ‘Howard is Top of the Crops’ and giving a blow by blow account of our changing room conversation.

Jesse Stone, the now largely forgotten (ironically) Blues musician who some think of as the founder of rock and roll prophesied the nature of my little encounter with Howard when he said: “Fame is a fickle thing… as soon as you relax for five minutes, they’re gone, you know, and they’re following somebody else.”

It’s been a big week.

For years the doors in our house have been a problem. The ones that closed made noises, the ones that didn’t make noises, didn’t close. We could always tell which of the kids got up in the night, by the noise of their door. But at least they closed.

Dave turned up on Tuesday morning along with his team. They don’t mess around those lads. It took them two days. Now there are new doors, and they all close.

“The new doors have changed my life!” I say. Adding: “for the better.” For the purposes of clarification.

Others in the house are less certain, but I feel strongly. The dining room door for instance, has changed my world. I stand by it, opening and closing it with admiration. “They had to take this off about ten times.” I explain to my daughter, “it was so hard to get it right.”

Its taken us about eight years to get these doors done, but at last its happened, and all our doors not only close, but they match too. Unprecedented.

“I feel like I’m living in a holiday cottage” I say as I go upstairs. “I don’t like it, it’s weird.” Says a daughter, looking worriedly at her new bedroom door. “It’s not weird, it’s great.” I explain to her. She doesn’t understand. So I try to explain with reference to literature.

“Aldous Huxley said that when someone had been through a door, they are changed, wiser but less sure of themself, humbler in acknowledging their ignorance…”
“When he said ‘doors’ what was he talking about?”
“Um, well he was talking about a number of things, art, religion…”
“Drugs?”
“Well yes, I suppose he was talking about drugs too. He was talking about how there are things which change the way you think.”
“So not real doors then, not doors like these.”
“Well no, I suppose not.”

“Maybe”, I think, “I’m the only one who loves the new doors.”

I’m reminded of another Aldous Huxley quote, ‘you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad’. “Shut up Aldous.” I think. Before wondering what sort of a name Aldous was anyway.

My wife comes up the stairs. “Good doors!” She says. “Yeah, I’m pretty pleased with them.” I say. “Me too!” She says. “You know the dining room door, they had to take that off about ten times before they could get it to fit.”

For some reason, even on routes that I have traveled many times, I still sometimes feel compelled to use a Sat Nav. I tell myself it’s because it may help me avoid traffic delays on the motorway, but it’s more likely that I’m just concerned that I will miss the junction.

So on my way to an overnight meeting, at a venue I’ve been to many times, I pulled over at a service station about half way, and typed the destination into my phone. That was probably my first mistake.
In what was probably my second mistake, I then drove off, following the directions from the authoritative voice that came from the phone. “At the next junction, turn left…” And so I did, even though it took me off the main road which I know I have to go down to get to the venue.
I’m the sort of person who commits to things, and once I’ve decided I’m following a disembodied voice, then that’s what I’m doing. And so on I went, following what seemed to be an increasingly bizarre set of directions.
“At the next junction, take the second exit on to B… The journey usually takes me down a main A road, then on to a Motorway, and then back on to another A road before the quick skip through a village to reach the destination. Usually.

As I drove down the increasingly tortuous set of winding roads, with names like ‘forest lane’ and ‘burned stump hill road’ occasionally blinded by the headlights of an oncoming vehicle, I found my mind skipping back to a story I had covered as a young journalist. Mike Hamill, a man who had suffered a rare disease that had made his arms whither away, had taken to driving his automatic Volvo with one foot on the pedals, and the other on the wheel. I don’t know how he turned the radio on. I had covered the case reasonably extensively, speaking to Hamill before attending the hearing at Manchester Magistrates Court at which he was banned from driving. I had got what I thought was ‘every cough and spit’ which was a favourite phrase of my editor at the time.
Except when I came to type it up, it turned out that there was something missing. “Is he going to keep driving?”
“What?” I said.
“Is he going to keep driving?” The volume was louder on the second ask – and trust me the volume could get pretty loud.
“I… uh…”
“YOU DID ASK HIM, DIDN’T YOU?!”
Of course I hadn’t asked him. I was so full of the facts of the case, and all the ‘colour’ of background information that I’d gleaned, that I hadn’t thought to ask what seemed to be the most obvious question. In the end, he did keep driving, and eventually went to prison because he wouldn’t stop.

I thought about this case, as I drove through the dark, my own automatic car occasionally bleeping to complain that a filter might clog. “What on earth are we doing?” I wondered. “Driving around in enormous metal boxes powered by burning refined oil, while getting lost in the countryside, guided by disembodied voices from small black rectangles. What a weird way to live.” Then I thought again about Mike Hamill, and his desperate attempt to maintain his independence by driving his car with his feet alone. And as I passed a sign that told me I was heading towards a place which I know to be in the opposite direction of my destination, and the Sat Nav told me to turn left on to what appeared to be a farm track, I thought about how lucky I am.