Psychology

When Depression Strikes

This isn’t easy to write. But I’ve promised an open and honest relationship, to lead by example. So it’s only right I share the personal challenge I’ve been facing.

Up until recently, I’d been surfing the electrochemical wave of energised neurons as they vigorously fired through the synapses of my brain. My mind felt free and abundant with ideas and exciting prospects for the future. My imagination vividly presented me bright, lifelike visualisations. An unconditional zest for being alive powered me forwards with purpose.

My energy — all that makes me “me” — flowed beyond my physical body, meeting the energy that makes everything “everything,” connecting me with the rest of the world, and beyond.

Then depression struck.

I don’t know why it surprises me, I’ve been here many times. But try as I might, it returns. And with it the reverse of what I’d experienced moments before. Zest replaced by numbness. Forward motion replaced by a sinking sensation.

Those neurons, they slowed as they attempted to fight their way through the thick grey sludge of a weary brain. My energy returned from distant stars and compressed into the confines of flesh and bone. “Me” no longer connected with “everything,” creating a bubble, leaving me isolated, stuck in the mud of the mind. My imagination now a perpetual loop of sepia-tinted memories, encasing me in a nostalgic amber of better times.

I’d been meditating. Eating well. Exercising regularly. Avoiding alcohol. Practicing mindfulness. Journaling. Taking multivitamins and Omega-3. Bathing in ultra-bright artificial light. I’d been studying the human mind, training for the time when I can hopefully help others.

But it doesn’t matter. There’s a simple truth about depression: no matter how much you prepare, no matter how much you know, or how self-aware you are, depression can strike. No matter your status in life, how happy you seem, how much money you have in the bank, how healthy your body or how healthy your relationships, depression can strike. No matter how you eat, sleep, rave or repeat, depression can strike.

An anti-emotion.

Depression is a defect of the very core. It’s the extinguishing of the sun that nourishes the body’s solar system. Yet I can still laugh at jokes, appear happy, appear motivated. For those without first hand experience, this can be a strange concept. Planets continue to orbit an extinguished sun.

In my experience, depression doesn’t really strike. Striking is filled with energy. But depression is the opposite. Putting aside beliefs or scientific understanding, depression dims the special element that gives us life, whatever the source or the nature of that element. It’s an anti-emotion, too numb to qualify as numb. It’s beyond emotion, beyond sadness.

We’re the architects of how we see the world. Everything outside of us is filtered by us. That’s what makes depression so consuming — life is filtered through bleakness. In the eye of the storm, it filters your future projections, your view on your relationships, your view on who you are, your view on your worth, abilities, importance.

Then comes the shame.

“FFS Ricky. Come on. Stop being stupid. You know these are self-destructive thought patterns. You know not to identify with them. You know how to be mindful. You know how to focus on sensation. You know things will change. So why are you stuck? This is your making.”

Then came the kicker.

“How will you ever become a Life Coach if you can’t manage your own emotions?”

Ouch. Way to kick me when I’m down and shit all over my dreams, brain.

But always remember these truths.

I’ve been vocal about depression and anxiety because I’m all too aware — no matter how knowledgeable or experienced you are — of its ability to deceive. I know what it’s like to feel isolated, and I remember reading other’s experiences in times of need, which reassured me. Still, it’s incredibly hard for me to be open and honest when I’m not hiding behind hindsight.

But this post isn’t intended to be negative, full of despair or hopeless. Instead, I want to throw a metaphorical life-jacket to anyone out there drowning a little. If you are in need of that life-jacket, please, please remember these crucial truths:

  1. You are not alone and people love you. Ignore any thoughts telling you otherwise.
  2. Your negative view on yourself and your world is temporarily misaligned. Do not take it seriously. It is not the truth, it is a perspective influenced by your current state.
  3. Be kind to yourself. Self-compassion is a massive fuck you to depression. Take the day off work, switch off, be kind to yourself.
  4. Reach out, talk to someone. Your brain might tell you they don’t care or they won’t listen, but see point 1.
  5. Start rebuilding by focusing on one or two positives. Anything. Morning coffee? A smile from a stranger? Surprise December sun? All valid.
  6. Keep going.
  7. Remember impermanence. Things will change. This too shall pass. Soon the sun will shine and the view on yourself and your world will be bright again.

A message of hope.

For our muscles to grow, first they must be damaged. Then they repair and grow stronger. What’s to say depression isn’t the brain’s equivalent of this process?

Thank God, I’m coming out the other side. Again. And you will too. Every time you do, you’ll recover quicker. You’ll return stronger.

When the sun reignites, it’ll shine brighter than before.

Depression deserves respect, but it’s not something to be defined by.

You are not depression, and neither am I.

 

Mindfulness

3 Mindful Exercises To Make Daily Chores Enjoyable

There’s immense power in living mindfully. Though mindfulness has become a buzzword in recent years, the basic practice of being completely, utterly focused on the present moment produces huge benefits. The mind — and all the belief systems and thoughts that come with it — clouds our experience. It likes to label things, to transform experience into concepts. Work. Play. Boring. Fun. Like. Don’t like.

What you experience is then filtered through the mind’s labelling system. If something’s labelled boring, it becomes boring. By applying mindfulness, you experience life beyond that labelling system. Everything just is the way it is.

Which leads me on to today’s post, which focuses on boredom, monotony, or any other label that has the same effect. I highlight boredom because it’s an interesting feeling. It’s not as intrusive as unpleasantness, but it’s a low-level, apathetic state that can suck the joy out of certain activities. Plus, being mindful when walking in the sunshine with your significant other while on holiday in an exotic location is much easier than being mindful taking out the bin. Especially when the bag splits. Yuck.

washing-dishes
Washing dishes can be a mindful process.

By applying mindfulness to “boring” tasks, I’ll hopefully highlight the benefit of practicing present moment awareness. With that in mind, below are three mindful exercises I’d like you to try. I’ve chosen these three activities because they’re the kind we generally undertake on autopilot. We like to get them “out of the way.” But remember, any moment spent wanting to get out of the way, or to move beyond, is a moment wasted. So, on we go…

Mindful Exercise 1: Showering

Why am I choosing showering? It’s not that boring, is it? Although not boring, applying mindfulness to your daily shower is important. In theory, standing under a warm, gentle flow of water is a pleasant experience. But it’s also the perfect environment for our monkey mind to take control. Think back to your last shower. How many thoughts did you have? My money is on a lot.

For whatever reason, standing in the shower seems to give the green light to a significant number of our daily 70,000 thoughts. If you’re anything like me, when my mind is particularly busy, I’ve caught myself in the midst of shampooing my hair immediately after shampooing my hair. Such mindlessness is costly; American Crew ain’t cheap.

Mindful practice involves paying focused attention to your present experience. That includes all of your senses. In particular while showering, temperature, smell and sound. Your mindful shower may go something like this:

  • Before entering the shower, set your intention by taking a few deep breaths and reminding yourself you are about to shower mindfully.
  • Notice the sensation of the handle as you turn the shower on. What does it feel like? How much resistance is there as you turn it to the desired speed (is that the right term, shower speed? Shower power? Shower strength? Someone help me out?).
  • Again, take a few deep breaths. Pay close attention to the sound of the water falling from the shower head to the base of the shower. Try and notice each audible plop.
  • Stand in the shower. Can you feel the water before you step under the flow. Can you feel the heat emanating from it? Does the air near the flow move slightly?
  • Stand under the water. Focus on the pleasantness of the sensation of water running over your body as you stand still. Scan your body from head to toe, feel the different sensations.
  • As you reach for the shampoo / conditioner / shower gel, notice the weight of the bottle. Notice the sound as you open the bottle. Notice the texture. Then turn your attention to the scent as you breathe deeply.
  • As you wash away the shampoo / conditioner / shower gel, notice the sensation and scent, but also the flow and texture of the foam as it runs down the plug. Bye foam!
  • Celebrate for being mindful. And clean.

Mindful Exercise 2: Washing Dishes

You’ve just enjoyed a lovely meal that you’ve spent time slaving over, and now you’re left with a full stomach, but an empty plate. Time to do the washing up. FFS. Washing the dishes is high up on the monotony stakes. Quick frankly, it’s rare you’ll ever be motivated. The entire process ticks the box of being “something to get over and done with” — but it doesn’t have to be.

Want a quick motivator? Okay. How long do you spend washing up dishes each day? 10 minutes? That’s over an hour a week. Four hours every month. Two days every year. Almost six months of your entire life spent getting over and done with or wanting to be somewhere else. I don’t know about you, but if there’s a way I can spend those six months a little differently, I’ll take it. Well fear not, because now you can replace them with six months of mindfulness. Hurray!

Believe it or not, a recent study revealed that mindful washing up is a great stress reliever. Out of those taking part, those who washed up mindfully had a 25% increase in inspiration and a 27% decrease in anxiety. Much like the mindful shower, to washing dishes mindfully means focusing attentively the senses:

  • Notice the thought that springs to mind as you look at the dirty cutlery (“Ugh, there’s loads, this’ll take a while”). Take a few deep breaths.
  • Instead of seeing this is a mountain to overcome, focus on each item without rushing through. Notice any thought related to time or frustration at how long the process will take.
  • Give all of your attention to the item currently you’re currently holding: How heavy is it? How hard do you have to scrub to remove the stains? Is it smooth? Rough?
  • Notice the scent of the washing up liquid and the formation of the foam.
  • Tune in to the sound of the running water, the unique clunk of each plate as you place it in the drying rack.
  • Notice the temperature of the water.
  • Celebrate being mindful. And having clean dishes.

Mindful Exercise 3: Eating Chocolate

Don’t say I don’t bloody treat you. I know I promised three boring exercises but if you’ve washed the dishes mindfully, it’s time to celebrate by doing something fun in the same manner. Being mindful increases our perception, no more so than the sense of taste, which is greatly enhanced. Yet most of us don’t really take time to eat. Instead, we go on auto pilot, chewing, swallowing, thinking of the next mouthful.

To highlight just how incredible food can taste when attention is fully switch on, try this third and final exercise:

  • Sit down and place the chocolate of your choosing in front of you. I’d choose a Bounty, but I know I’m in the minority.
  • Notice the eagerness to dive straight in. Sit with it and breathe.
  • Carefully peel the wrapper, paying close attention to touch and sound.
  • Then, notice the scent of the chocolate. If you feel another urge to take a bite, slow down and breathe.
  • Take a tiny bite, but don’t chew. Leave the chocolate in your mouth. Notice the physical sensation as it melts.
  • Now focus fully on the taste. Does it taste different than usual? Is there more flavour?
  • Allow the chocolate to melt as much as possible before chewing.
  • Notice the impulse to take another bite immediately. Breathe and wait for two minutes before taking the next bite (this is a lot harder than it sounds).
  • Repeat until the chocolate has gone. Never rush. This whole process should take at least 10 minutes.
  • Celebrate. You’ve just eaten chocolate. Oh, and mindfulness. Yeah! Mindfulness!

If you’ve read these instructions, you may be doubting their credentials. They sound incredibly simple. And yes, I may have over-detailed the instructions, but I really want to emphasise how mindfulness is about breaking down every micro-second of experience, tuning into the senses and fully being.

So try them out. And remember, if you practice this regularly, you can replace all of those “boredom” labels with mindful ones. Now if that’s not an achievement, I don’t know what is.

Psychology

Categorising 70,000 Daily Thoughts

One of the biggest benefits of meditation is increased awareness of thought. Meditation allows you to see thoughts for what they really are. When you see thoughts clearly, you are less attached to them, which gives life a greater sense of ease. But how significant and consuming are thoughts? How many thoughts do we have daily? And is there even anything wrong in thinking, anyway?

Most of us live in our heads to some degree. Estimations on how many thoughts fire through the brain vary. The higher end predicts we have up to 70,000 thoughts every day. That’s 2,916 every hour. 48 every minute.

Is that number accurate? 70,000 sounds like a lot. There are only so many times you can think about what you’re having for tea or what to watch on Netflix. However, the number skyrockets thanks to the wealth of subconscious thoughts firing through the mind at any given moment. Subconscious thought is so instinctual and deeply ingrained, most of the time we don’t realise it’s the reason we’ve become distracted.

Breaking Down The Different Types Of Thought

Before I begin dissecting the different categories of common thought, it’s important to note that thinking isn’t inherently bad. This is a frequent misconception with meditation — that transcending thinking is an idea goal. But that discounts rational, intellectual thinking which absolutely necessary. Problem solving, planning, analytically weighing up the pros and cons of a situation are all crucial skills of human maturity that fall under the umbrella of “thinking.”

thinking
There are many types of thought.

The key is that only a small portion of those 70,000 are deliberate thoughts. That means the rest of the time, your brain is busy thinking without your consent and influencing your emotions.

When referring to meditation and spirituality, you’ll often hear terms such as “detached from thinking,” “not identifying with thought” and so on. In an attempt to clarify what such statements mean, I’ll break down the thought processes I notice within my own inner-world.

Purposeful Intellectual Thought

As mentioned above, this includes problem solving and planning. I wholeheartedly support this rational thinking because you need it to live life as a fully functioning adult. While admirable and necessary, it’s also rare for us to a) take some time out to actively focus our attention on such thought and b) avoid slipping into a daydream state where the problem solving and planning takes control of us.

Let’s say you’re planning a weekend away. Purposeful planning would be putting aside some time to sit down, do some research and weigh up the cost and logistics of different locations. Maybe you’ll scan Airbnb, go incognito on Skyscanner, look at affordable flights and write a list of desired destinations, budgets and so on. Great! This is essential if you want to go on holiday. It ain’t gonna book itself while you sit and meditate on the breath.

However, even this form of well-meaning thinking can cunningly turn into idle, background static in the mind. Example: you’re walking through the isles at Aldi looking for something to eat for dinner, when you realise you’ve spent 10 minutes thinking about where you could go on holiday, and now you’ve strolled passed the cheese section — you want cheese for dinner.

Here, your subconscious has continued to work, and it’s disrupted you at a time that isn’t convenient.

Purposeful Reflection

Here’s another area that isn’t intended to be swept up in the “thinking is bad” mindset. I call this purposeful reflection because again, the desire to reflect is deliberate on your part. Reflecting is a valuable process for spiritual and emotional growth. If something bad happens, taking your mind’s eye to that place, looking at how you behaved and what you can learn has immense value. As is the experience of processing events.

Most of us engage in a little purposeful reflection while travelling. Great! This is a healthy, enjoyable process. Like planning, though, sometimes reflection creeps up on us. I often become immersed in a world of events gone by when, wait, what’s that smell?! Shit, I’ve burnt my toast because I was swept up in memories of what I was doing this time last year. Oops.

Psychological Time-Travel

I can (and I will) write a lot on this topic. Eckhart Tolle’s concept of psychological time was one of the first concepts that really opened my eyes to the extent the mind prevents us from simply being. If I could ask anyone reading this to explore one “spiritual” (I use this term loosely) concept, it’s this.

Psychological time is the understanding the present moment is all that ever exists. The past consists only of memories. The future, our imagination. Therefore, psychological time is a product of the mind, and it isn’t useful (clock time is, though: see fully functioning adult). Being able to mentally flitter back and forth from the an apparent past, present and future, deceives us into feeling like time is a palpable entity.

When time feels like a palpable entity, we identify with it. This is a problem. Anyone who suffers from anxiety will know how vividly the mind can project mental visualisations of a future that appears real. Such futures are almost always worst case scenarios.

It’s not only anxiety sufferers, though. Everyone travels in the mind on a daily basis. Let’s say you’re on your way to work, when a complete stranger physically knocks you out of the way to get the last seat on the carriage. You feel angry and victimised. Suddenly, you realise five minutes have passed and you’ve missed your stop. You’ve been ruminating on the event and you’ve been taken out of the present by the memory of what happened moments before.

In terms of the future, image you have to give a presentation at work in the afternoon. The whole morning, rather than focusing on the tasks you have to do in the hours running up to the presentation, your mental cinema is playing the “must see” premiere of the meeting before it happens. You’ve spent the morning mentally projecting to a perceived future.

Inner Dialogue

Occasionally, we may use our inner voice to motivate ourselves for certain events. “Come on you can do this!” Mostly, though, that inner voice isn’t being so supportive. Us humans are blessed with a negative bias, which means our monkey mind often has bad things to say about our past, our present, and our future.

Ever said something you regret, only to realise you’ve missed the next 30 seconds of conversation because the unhelpful dialogue is telling you that was a stupid thing to say? I’d hazard a guess all of us have at some point.

Tune in to your inner dialogue. It’s there all of the time, but most of us don’t pay much attention to it. When you do pay attention, you’ll realise that is had a profound affect on how you think and feel. Fortunately, we can manage or inner dialogue. Each time you notice your negative inner voice, try reframing with compassion and talking to yourself like you would a friend.

How It All Comes Together

I’m only touching the tip of the iceberg with these forms of thinking — there are many, many more. Suddenly, when you take into account how all of these forms interact, consciously and unconsciously, 70,000 doesn’t seem too much.

Here’s a quick experiment to prove my point. Take a look at the image below:

Traffic light.
Oh look, a green man!

Bear with me on this one, it’s going somewhere. When looking at the image, what did you think? The chances are you experienced a multitude of thoughts, visualisations and beliefs. Here’s what I thought when I found the image:

“Ah, a traffic light. That’s a nice example to use, it’s pretty indiscriminate. Wait, where is that? Is that the UK? No it’s not. It looks more like the UK than Germany though. Isn’t it weird how in Berlin everyone obeys the green man? Why am I thinking this? Wait is this thought experiment even legitimate? What’s the point? Is anyone going to understand what I’m trying to get at? No, come on Ricky, you can do this (deliberate inner-dialogue, bonus points).”

Then, I had a strong visual image of the green man in Germany (known as the Ampelmännchen) loaded with streams of thought about how patiently waiting (even though there is no traffic within miles) is part of German culture, and how I identify with waiting for the green man in Berlin as a sign of my acceptance of that culture.

All of this might sound a bit silly, but I want to try to illustrate how many thoughts one simple, inoffensive, innocuous image can have. Now, imagine how many thoughts, beliefs and images you have when meeting another living, breathing human being. Yikes!

Understanding and noting the multitude of the thinking mind also highlights why meditation is so important. We’re distracted much more frequently than we may believe. By focusing our attention on the breath and taking a curious, playful approach, we begin to see thoughts more clearly. Consequently, they lose their hold and we can bring our focus to the present.

Try this exercise today: I want you to note every time you’ve been distracted by thought. Then, label those thoughts according to the above categories. Note how many times this happens throughout the course of the day.

I’d love to hear what you discover in the comments. Make them good, you have 70,000 to choose from.

 

Psychology

Lacking Motivation? Abolish This Common Fallacy And Achieve Anything

I don’t make promises lightly, but I promise you, by the end of this article you’ll be ready to begin a task you’ve been delaying. Big or small, it doesn’t matter. You’ll do it. Why am I so sure about this? Because most of us share a common misconception of that fabled M word — motivation. That misconception causes us to look in the wrong place for motivation, as if it were a tangible element necessary for making a start. This error in approaching motivation causes us to get stuck in a cycle of procrastination prevents us starting the things that matter.

What is this misconception? It’s time for a fundamental truth…

You don’t need to be motivated to get started.

Wow, groundbreaking revelation there Ricky! It sounds so simple. It sounds too easy. It sounds so obvious. But the fact is, most of us don’t adhere to this simple fact. We wait for motivation to come to us, hold us aloft and carry us past the starting line of our most urgent “to-dos.”

If you’re doubting how common it is for us to behave this way, I want you to bring to mind a task you’re yet to start. How many times have you thought of this task? How many times has it entered your mind, only for you to dismiss it?

Now, I want you to think about the thoughts and feelings associated with this delayed task. Let’s say your task is cleaning the kitchen. You think: “I don’t feel like cleaning it now, I’ll do it later” / “I never enjoy cleaning the kitchen, I’ll wait a bit” / “I don’t feel like cleaning.”

You may also have emotions tied up with these thoughts; perhaps a sense of shame for not having done the task sooner or a sense of anxiety at the thought of cleaning the hob, chiselling dried porridge from your favourite ceramic bowl (“why did I let it dry, it’s oat-based cement!“) or sweeping the bread crumbs and broken dreams off the floor.

All of these thoughts and emotions are linked to a perceived lack of motivation. This is a trap. You’re waiting for motivation to arrive and give you permission. You’re waiting for your thoughts to finally give you the green light: “Yeah, I’ve put this off for long enough! Now’s the time! Hand me the rubber gloves and the Mr. Muscle this kitchen is gonna be PRISTINE!”

This leads us on to truth number two…

You are a slave to the motivation paradox if you wait for motivation to begin any task.

motivation
Don’t wait for motivation to give you the green light.

We’ve all got a million and one things to do every day, so what if I don’t clean the kitchen? Take out the bins? Call the doctor? Delete my emails? Check the post? Go to the grocery store? Walk the dog? Write a complaint letter to Adidas’ CEO for sending me the wrong colour shorts twice in a row (seriously how difficult is it to not mistake light grey for navy blue?).

It matters because we are creatures of habit. The habit of being enslaved by a lack of motivation will spread into every area of your life. You know what that means? It means you are delaying on getting started on the things that count, too. You’re delaying taking that course. You’re delaying reading that book. You’re delaying contacting that person who can help you start your new career. You’re delaying telling someone how you really feel. You’re delaying following your dream.

Which leads me on to a slightly somber truth number three…

If you wait to be motivated to start the big things, you’ll probably die before you get the chance to begin.

Shit. Bit dark, isn’t it? But I want to highlight the significant impact procrastination can have on your life. All of us have ideas, have dreams, desires. But only a small minority manifest those ideas, dreams and desires in the material world. The majority leave them in the mind, putting them off for a future space where motivation drives us forward. Why? Because of fear. Fear of failure or fear of stepping outside of our comfort zone. Considering how hard it is to get motivated to take the bins out, it’s no surprise it’s almost impossible to find the right time to start pursuing a dream.

Time for truth number four…

Mentally bookmarking tasks for an imaginary future is a common fallacy.

The only time is now. Both the past and the future are constructs of the mind. No task has ever started in the future. No dream fulfilled in the future. Only in the present. Mentally bookmarking a task to begin the future is one of many cunning ways your ego deceives you into not starting until IT is ready. The time-constrained ego also convinces you happiness awaits in the future.

You may be thinking of a time you’ve mentally bookmarked a task and then fulfilled it at a later date as proof this works. But that’s all part of the illusion. You didn’t do it in the future. There was a point in the present when you finally decided to take action, with or without motivation.

Of course, this doesn’t mean all decisions need to be made immediately. Certain decisions need time and contemplation. There may be circumstances outside of your control, preventing you from acting. But the truth is, 90% of delayed tasks could begin. Now.

Which leads us onto a final, more promising point five…

When you take the lead, motivation will follow.

After spotting the mind’s tendency to wait for motivation, you break the cycle. You ignore it and act. Once you’ve started, you’ll find that motivation follows. Like an attention seeking child, when it realises you’re moving on without it, it’ll catch up with you, eager to join in on the action.

Let’s call this act-first-don’t-wait-for-motivation mindset the Mind That Ego Motivation Model. Egotistical, yes, but it sounds nice and I made this special illustration ad I’m quite pleased with it (Neil Buchanan eat your art out):

motivation-model
I drew this. Really.

What spirituality tells us about delaying decisions…

On a spiritual level, a lack of motivation illustrates an interesting meeting point between the irrational monkey mind (ego) and subconscious desire. Generally, your intuition gives you a signal to act in any given situation — think of the fleeting spark of enthusiasm that you feel in the precise moment when the thought of performing an action first comes to life in the mind. However, the monkey mind then extinguishes the initial spark with thoughts and feelings of self-doubt, fear and anxiety.

So here’s one thing I ask of you: act. Today. Don’t delay or find excuses or wait passively for a time when you feel like it. Just start. All it takes is that first small step.

Then the motivation will follow.

Meditation

Beginner’s Guide To Meditation And The Monkey Mind

There are two levels of distraction: external and internal. The outside world is full of sensory stimulation — sights, sounds, smells, tastes. These are the external distractions that constitute the material world. Due to the increasing reliance on technology, the material world contains a secondary level of “unnatural” external distractions that divert attention from our immediate environment. These are technology induced distractions. They include social media notifications, on-demand television, the internet and, sooner rather than later, virtual reality.

It’s no surprise then that for beginners, meditation seems so foreign. Switching off from external distraction and focusing on the breath is so simplistic and devoid of stimulation that it may appear futile. Even pointless. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. As I’ve detailed in my personal journey with meditation, the impact can be profound.

By sitting down and focusing on the breath, you become increasingly aware of internal distractions. Some internal distractions are physical, such as aches and pains. Others are mental, from emotions to spontaneous thoughts running through the mind. In Buddhism, those spontaneous, impulsive thoughts are referred to as the monkey mind.

Beginner’s Meditation And The Monkey Mind

Becoming aware of the monkey mind (or the spiritual ego) and your inner-world is one of the most powerful and life-affirming things you can do. Why? Because it’s the first step in taking responsibility for your self-fulfilment and happiness. See, the problem with the monkey mind is that it’s nature is hyper-critical and unfulfilled. It seeks fulfilment in the “I’ll be happy whens” of external distraction. It takes hold of your emotions and causes feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, depression, paranoia… the list is endless.

By meditating, and turning awareness inward, the monkey mind is exposed as the neurosis that holds us back, closes our hearts and leads to fear-based decision making.

I’ll be honest — when I initially sat down to write a beginner’s guide to meditation, I wasn’t going to mention the monkey mind/ego at all. I was going to tell you that this practice is an effective way of becoming more relaxed, more insightful, more compassionate. But here’s the thing — in the West, meditation has been rebranded. Many people who become familiar with specific techniques are accessing a distilled version, a “mindfulness 2.0” if you like. I strongly believe that meditation without a spiritual purpose is a commodity. It’s another self-improvement tool adapted by an economical system to increase productivity.

As I’ve highlighted before, Mind That Ego‘s ethos isn’t to increase productivity. It’s to help direct you towards self-fulfilment. Consequently, I will be left personally unfulfilled if I introduce you to this fascinating, fruitful and ultimately life-changing practice without framing it through a spiritual perspective. I’m not saying those who practice mindfulness or meditation without the added spirituality are doing anything wrong — after all, any form of self-improvement or increased self-awareness can only be a good thing — but there’s a rising trend in the West of removing meditation from its source as a spiritual practice, thus reducing its impact.

Right, rant over, back to it. Basically, your monkey mind makes you sad. It prevents you from experiencing life fully by distracting you from the external world and obscuring positive emotions. Fortunately, meditation and spiritual practice helps you realise that you are not what you think. You are not the thoughts, or the emotions — you are the observer behind thoughts and emotions. Considering these thoughts and emotions have a negative impact, this is liberating news!

monkey-mind
Meditation transcends the ‘monkey mind.’

Within your inner-world, there is a rich and vibrant source of contentment, peace, tranquility and even bliss. These are natural states that we all have inside of us, drowned out by the sound of the monkey mind’s chatter. That’s why, with habitual practice, those who meditate are able to move beyond that blockage of self-criticism and access the inner states mentioned only seconds ago.

Meditation Is Not About Attainment

Now, you’re probably rubbing your hands together at the prospect of accessing these states. Necessary reality check time — meditation is not about attainment. It’s not about goal setting. It’s not about run streaks or meditating longer than others or being zen in any given situation (even the Dalai Lama gets angry at “small things”). It’s about accepting everything the monkey mind throws at you in a relaxed, non-judgemental manner. The paradox is that by not attempting to reach any goal, by not seeking to silence the mind, it tends to happen naturally. But for those just starting out, heed this warning: meditating with the aim to silence the mind will not silence the mind.

I’ve spoken to people who try to meditate with this expectation, which is a common misconception many beginners have. It’s safe to say they don’t stick with the practice for too long. This is for two reasons. The first is that resistance to thought only increases the significance of thought and the likelihood of it returning. In psychology, this is known as the “ironic process theory,”¹ or more commonly, the “don’t think of a pink elephant” phenomenon.

When you sit down thinking: “I am going to silence my mind,” you’ll swat away at thoughts like a mental Whac-A-Mole. That’ll only make you feel more anxious, agitated, and likely to give up. Meditation silences the mind only after you accept and let go of thoughts and emotions, and let them arise without judgement.

The second reason beginners stop meditating is that many of us have lived our entire lives without turning attention inward on the hustle and bustle of thoughts and emotions. When starting with meditation, it can be overwhelming to witness just how frequent and frantic these thoughts and emotions are. It’s also disarming to see how self-critical the inner chatterbox is. This causes the misunderstanding that meditating increases anxiety, or makes you more depressed, or more restless. It doesn’t. It uncovers thoughts and feelings that were there all along, unnoticed due to external distractions from the material world.

I know this because I’m also talking from experience. In my personal journey, I note that I initially tried meditating but gave up because my mind was too frenetic. Closing my eyes opened the floodgates of thoughts, beliefs and emotions that’d be motoring away outside of my control, as if my mind were Times Square on Christmas Eve, and the shoppers neurological impulses. Had I known then that meditation wasn’t about attainment but about acceptance and letting go, I probably would’ve stuck with it longer. I would’ve got a mental coffee and enjoyed people-watching as those impulses went about their journey.

The Different Types Of Meditation

If you’re ready to accept the nature of mind, and the necessity of being a non-attached, relaxed and non-judgemental observer, great! It’s time to pick a technique. There are different “styles” of meditation, the main ones being:

  • Mindful meditation. This is what I practice, and is most popular in the West. This meditation focuses the attention fully on the present moment, anchoring oneself on the breath.
  • Mantra-based meditation. The focus here is on the repetition of a mantra. One kind, Transcendental Meditation (TM), gained popularity in the ’60s with high-profile practitioners, including The Beatles.
  • Loving kindness. A Buddhist practice that cultivates love and compassion towards the self, others, and the entire universe. That’s pretty great isn’t it?
  • Visualisation. Meditation focused on visualising a shape, spiritual guide or many other interesting things.

Beginner’s Guide To Meditation

  1. Sit in a comfortable position, upright and alert. Using a chair is fine, but make sure your back is supported.
  2. Take a few deep breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth.
  3. After a few minutes, close your eyes. Focus on the sensations of your body. The feeling of your feet on the floor, your hands in your lap, your legs on the chair beneath you.
  4. Next, pay attention briefly to the sounds surrounding you. Don’t judge them, just observe.
  5. Bring your attention back to your body. Mentally “scan” from head to toe. Notice the sensations and emotions within you.
  6. Turn your attention to your breath. Each in breath. Each out breath.
  7. You’ll begin to notice the inner distractions of the monkey mind. Whenever you become distracted by thoughts or emotions, return to the breath. The odd thought or trail of thought is fine, but when you realise you aren’t focusing on the breath anymore, bring it back. You become “aware” the moment you notice you are distracted.
  8. When you are ready, stop focusing on the breath and give yourself some time to let the mind be completely free. No focus. No attention.
  9. Then return your attention to your body. The feeling of your feet on the floor, hands in your lap. Notice the sounds and smells around you.
  10. Open your eyes.
  11. Smile (optional).

Some Final Tips

  • This sounds a little bit serious, Ricky? And that wasn’t a question so why the question mark? It’s important to note meditation isn’t serious. It’s a playful, lighthearted practice. Enjoy it! And this is my blog and I’ll leave question marks if I want to??
  • How long should I meditate? Like that annoyingly smug secondary school teacher, I’d respond, how long is a piece of string? Anywhere from 5 minutes, to 10 minutes, to 20 minutes or more are common. Start off and see how you get on. The main aim is simply taking the time, any time. Try not to see it as a “set slot” where you “should” meditate. Following “shoulds” sets an attainment-based framework of success and failure. Meditation is not about attainment. You can’t fail.
  • Do I need to meditate every day? What if I forget? When I first started meditating I became militant about it. I’d force meditation into my day, feel stressed if I didn’t meditate, think about how I should be meditating when not meditating. Life’s busy, some days you’ll forget. Don’t make yourself feel bad for skipping in a practice aimed at your wellbeing. Now I see meditation more as exercise. I try to every day, but if I skip a few sessions, I won’t allow myself to feel bad about it.
  • Do I join a group or meditate alone? Again, up to you. I’ve used meditation as a personal practice. However, a close friend has benefitted hugely from meditating at the local Buddhist centre. Different strokes, different folks.

  1. Wegner, Daniel M. (1989). White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession, and the Psychology of Mental Control. Viking Adult. ISBN 978-0670825226