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.

TKcropIt’s always sad to hear of a death. The knowledge of a life passing means the loss of a connection, and our bodies react instinctively to that. Too many people seem to go too soon, but having reached the age of 95, that at least can’t be said of Fr Thomas Keating.

Fr Thomas, a Trappist Monk, died this week, and with his death comes the end of the life of a man who profoundly influenced me and many others in our approach to the Christian life.

I don’t remember exactly where or when I first heard of Centering prayer – although I know what era of my life it was, I was living in South Wales, and was at that time developing my interest in all things contemplation and meditation.  Reading Fr Thomas’ book ‘Open Mind Open Heart’ was a release and a revelation to me at that time. I’ve also greatly enjoyed and appreciated the youtube videos in which he appeared, which have been immensely helpful to me in the development of my own meditation practise.

When I started practising Centering prayer I found it life giving and freeing – and ever since then I have encouraged others to follow the same path.

Centering prayer is the nearest tradition to a Zazen practise that I have fully engaged with, and that was something else that Fr Thomas taught me. A respectful and humble approach to wisdom and spiritual traditions which are different to my own has now been part of my life for so many years its hard to imagine being any other way, but of course it wasn’t always like this.

For me it was crucial to find pioneers like Fr Thomas leading the way in to genuine interreligious dialogue, he acted as a kind of permission giver in my own journey in to deep friendships with those of other religions. I can honestly reflect on those relationships and recognise immense treasures that have come from them, they have challenged, stimulated and encouraged me in ways I could never have expected otherwise.

So while I feel a sense of sadness at the passing of this wonderful man, who I never had the chance to meet, I have a much greater sense of gratitude, both for his life, and for his many gifts.

Sociologists and theologians have much to say about the idea of gift, because gifts are transactions, we give in the expectation of receiving something in return. So we approach life in this way, we expect to have to earn good things, we struggle with the idea of accepting something entirely un-earned. Fr Thomas recognised this challenge in terms of our approach to spirituality: “The gift of God is absolutely gratuitous. It’s not something you earn. It’s something that’s there. It’s something you just have to accept. This is the gift that has been given. There’s no place to go to get it. There’s no place you can go to avoid it. It just is. It’s part of our very existence. And so the purpose of all the great religions is to bring us into this relationship with reality that is so intimate that no words can possibly describe it.”

I am running a meditation retreat in a fortnight, Centering prayer will be the key approach and technique for that time, and on that weekend of remembrance, we will find a way of remembering Fr Thomas.

Fr Thomas Keating O.C.S.O. 1923 – 2018

Rest in peace, rise in glory.