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

 

Mindfulness

The Benefits Of Meditation — My Personal Journey

This article is split into two sections on meditation: how it changed my life and its scientific benefits. The first is a deeply personal explanation of my particular experience. I want to start with this because I’m hoping by sharing, it’ll give further insight than the dozens of other articles online that tell you why meditation is beneficial, without the necessary anecdotal explanation in support. After all, it’s useful knowing what studies have discovered, but it can be difficult to relate. If you have a thirst for science, you’ll be catered for; the second section summarises key findings.

Feel free to skip to the science if the thought of reading my personal journey bores you. It’s up to you. I won’t judge. Well, not much. But be warned — you’ll be missing out on the story behind the stats and the sensations and the worldview shifts that bubble behind the physical changes to the grey stuff between my ears. The brain. I’m talking about the brain.

Why I Turned To Meditation

The story has to begin somewhere. Growing up in a working class family in Bristol in the UK, like most Western societies, meditation was about as alien as, well, aliens. Other than one forward-thinking primary school teacher lighting incense and asking the class to sit still and relax (something I only realised was a form of meditation literally seconds ago as this popped into my head), meditation was engulfed by a myriad of false beliefs, all pointing one to a sign that said: Not for me.

I can’t say precisely when my mental health became a serious issue, but I was young. I can pinpoint the age of 15 being the first time anxiety and depression started to take control, although looking back I’d experienced panic attacks even younger. By 15, though, they’d become a regularity. I didn’t know what they were. The panic attacks coincided with an illness which left me bedridden through most of my GCSEs (couldn’t have timed it better), an illness that had symptoms closely resembling anxiety, close enough to obscure the true nature of my suffering at the time.

In truth, it took a number of years for me to understand and accept what I was experiencing was anxiety, a product of the mind. Labelling anxiety or depression purely a mental illness completely minimises the devastating impact it has physically. While the root cause is psychological, the instantaneous physiological response wrecks havoc on the fight or flight system. Such is the seamless link between body and mind, it’s not surprising many sufferers go to great lengths to find a physical cause before realising the issue is psychological. Certain physical illnesses can also instigate anxiety and depression, making this crossover even more confusing.

Once I’d accepted my fate, the process of managing symptoms began. I was around the age of 17 or 18 when I sheepishly ordered my first self-help book online. I’m writing this with a wry smile, looking back now, but such was the stigma and my own sense of shame, I even had a space in my room — out of view — to hide my collection. Forget the porn buddy, at the time I felt I needed a self-help buddy to remove my collection of self-helps books in case of an emergency. After all, no one could discover I was mentally weak. At least that’s how I felt at the time, such is the vicious prison of mental illness and, to a degree, perceived masculinity.

An Uncertain Beginning

While reading and understanding the intricacies of anxiety and depression, my intuition led me to meditation. The benefits were clear to see. Buddhist philosophy peaked my curiosity; everything I read resonated. Plus, reframing suffering as integral to spiritual growth was reassuring. However, my initial interest in meditation wasn’t spiritual. I was an atheist. Buddhism appealed to me because I didn’t see it as a religion, I saw it as a sense of principles that “made sense” as opposed to the restrictive dogma found in Western religions.

Eager to get going, I purchased — and I shit you not — Meditation for Dummies. Unfortunately, I faced a major hurdle. My anxiety was so intrusive at the time, my thoughts so visceral and attention-seeking, my mood so consuming, that I struggled to relate to any of it. Simply sitting with the dense fog of thoughts and feelings felt like a form of punishment, not liberation. So I stopped.

Returning With Direction

In the years that followed I continued to suffer from depression and anxiety and continued to educate myself to find a solution. It wasn’t until I was at university that I had a breakthrough. In an unavoidable plug I wish I was getting paid for — I discovered the Headspace app. This gave direction to my meditation, guided me through in a step-by-step process, and finally made this intimidating beast seem manageable by exposing the fact it was both incredibly simple and extraordinarily complex. I then began meditating daily, and that’s when changes started to happen.

How Meditation Changed My Life

Meditation benefits.
There are many benefits to meditation.

Uhhh, sensationalist subheading alert! I apologise, but it’s true. It did change my life. Perhaps not in the way I was hoping, or in the way you may be hoping it could change your life as you read through this article (don’t fall into the trap of “I’ll be happy when I start meditating”!). But it opened my eyes to the true reality of things, provided genuine insight into my inner-world and helped me witness how that inner-world shaped my outer-world, too. Crucially, it didn’t get rid of unwanted emotions. It got rid of my need to get rid of them.

And the most peculiar thing? The biggest benefit of meditation is that — when complemented with spiritual reading — it transformed me from an atheist to a “spiritual person,” the kind who talks of eternal love and God and consciousness and transcending time and The Now. The kind I’d raise my eyebrows at, the kind I never thought I’d be. Ultimately, it revealed to me that we’re not what we think (tagline plug alert, uhhhh!).

I appreciate for those completely new to meditation, you may need a bit of time before jumping headfirst into the vast ocean of consciousness and eternal bliss (I’ll stop with the metaphors now) you may be thinking: what are the benefits of meditation that I can relate to? You asked for it, so here it goes:

1. It helped me to understand anxiety and depression.

Meditating on thoughts and feeling associated with anxiety and depression helped me to break down the mental concept of what “anxiety” and “depression” is. Rather than seeing both as some kind of life-sucking Demogorgon, I began to observe the individual components of them. Instead of one label encompassing all the unpleasantness, I saw the physical symptoms, the emotions, the chains of interlinked thoughts, the erroneous beliefs. All of this while I simply sat and focused on my breath.

By shining awareness on the true nature of “anxiety” and “depression,” it helped me stop seeing the way I was feeling as anxiety and depression. To be clearer — I stopped identifying with it. It wasn’t “my” depression, or “my” anxiety. In moments away from meditation when these symptoms were present, I began to note: “Ah, I’m experiencing a wave of anxiety in my chest, my heart rate has increased, I’m thinking x, y, z.” As soon as become a detached observer of the symptoms and the thoughts, you stop resisting.

This is key: resistance to negative thoughts and emotions gives them power. Accepting them reduces their power and they lose their hold on you. This is also key: meditating doesn’t mean those thoughts and emotions disappear. Instead, you avoid resisting and fighting against them.

2. Meditation reduced the frequency of “my” panic attacks.

Nothing screams resistance like a panic attack. For those of you unfortunate enough to have experienced a panic attack, you’ll know what I mean. For those who haven’t, they’re often described as the sensation of losing your mind, losing control or feeling like you’re about to die. It really is that grim. The imploding, explosive wave of sinister energy that motors its way through the body, the sensation of not being able to breathe, the palpable, grotesque sense of danger… Panic attacks aren’t fun, and a lot of sufferers, myself included, feel anxious at the prospect of an anxiety attack. It’s the cruellest catch-22 of anxiety.

Meditation helped though, in particular the focus of present awareness. At their core, panic attacks are linked to a need to “escape.” In the moment of panic, the sufferer doesn’t want to be where they are, they want to escape to safety, mentally or physically. The “attack” is a strong resistance to the present moment, whether situational or emotional. By habitually sitting with the breath, I became more in tune with my mind’s tendency to mentally attempt to escape when faced with troubling emotions. This is important because we can never escape the present, it’s all there is and all there ever will be.

When I experienced the onset of panic away from the time spent meditating — as with step one — I noted the physical properties, focused on my breath, and stopped resisting. Doing so drastically reduced their impact. I still get waves, now and again. But when I do, it’s less “OH SHIT THIS IS HAPPENING” and more “ah, I’m experiencing a strong wave of anxiety, my heart’s racing, but everything will be okay.” Again, I can’t emphasise enough, when it comes to anxiety resistance really is futile.

3. It helped me embrace sadness.

There is no such thing as a “bad emotion” or a “good emotion” — there are only emotions. But most of us label emotions as positive or negative. Looking back, I feel that my own emotional perfectionism exacerbated my suffering. I ran away from negative emotions. Sadness, unlike irrational anxiety, is a valuable and healthy emotion, one I was fleeing from. I mentioned masculinity above. Well, “boys don’t cry.” Men are encouraged to be stoic, to be strong. Anxiety by no means is exclusive to males, but I feel social conditioning makes men more inclined to resist such emotion. No wonder I was running away from sadness. Life is rich, it’s full of ups and downs, joy and suffering. Resisting half of the equation, the sad side of life, is resisting life itself.

Meditation helped me to sit with sadness, examine it, appreciate it. Sadness is a useful tool. It comes in many forms, and you can learn from any of them. It’s important to note, in spiritual terms, the deepest sense of compassion and love comes with a sense of tenderness, of sadness. We live in a society that likes to emphasise happiness. No one likes a grump, after all. But this isn’t healthy. Embracing sadness and the whole emotional spectrum with the same respect is one of the key processes of spiritual growth.

How do I embrace sadness? As mentioned above, I respect and “sit” with it. From my own personal experience, I believe that some forms of depression are due to consistent resistance to sadness, resulting in an “energy block” of that emotion. Consequently, when I feel sad, I let the sadness come to the surface in a process that is both humbling and cathartic. You can try and run from your emotions, but they’ll always catch up with you.

4. It helped me embrace death.

Did you just read the word death and recoil, even slightly? The odds are you did. In the West we have an odd relationship with death. Odd in the sense that we rarely talk about it, instead choosing to ignore it until it confronts us and catches us off guard. But we all die. All our loved ones will die. And not talking about that won’t make that prospect any less scary.

A big part of meditation is understanding the impermanence of the present moment. There’s no greater illustration of impermanence than death. Personally, a lot of my anxiety was a symptom of my resistance to accept death. By that, I mean on a deep, subconscious level, I wasn’t willing to fully embrace that fact we die, and it caused me to fear the future because, guess what, the future is guaranteed to contain death. I suspect my resistance was triggered by a string of deaths of loved ones I experienced over a short space of time, and the unresolved grief arising from my lack of acceptance.

There are lots of theories on how the fear of death trickles down into everyday fears. But for this article, it’s important to note that a big benefit of meditation was alleviating my fear of death. I worked on my relationship with life and the belief systems and attachments to it. My perspective changed and death became the key component responsible for injecting life with its ephemeral beauty.

Scientific Benefits Of Meditation

This is an area I will eventually explore in greater detail. For now it’s worth noting a few key studies to illustrate that my experiences have a grounding in science. Meditation causes measurable changes to the brain. There’s a whole wealth of benefits to meditation, but some studies that stand out for me personally include:

  • Electrical brain waves are different during meditation than they are when we’re awake or asleep. This is deeply significant. The study by The Norwegian University of Science and Technology discovered that our brains are in a different state when meditating, a state that is neither awake or asleep. As well as being a key tool in accessing this state, does this prove meditation is a natural process our ancestors would practice?
  • Meditation reduces the tendency to ruminate thoughts in those who suffer from depression.
  • Meditation changes the physical structure of the brain. A study revealed those who have been meditating over a long period of time had more grey matter in the obrito-frontal and hippocampal cortex of the brain. Curiously, these areas deal with emotional regulation and response control. My “Been There, Meditated, Increased My Obrito-Frontal And Hippocampal Cortex” T-shirts will be available to order soon.
  • Meditation has been proven to be effective in reducing stress and anxiety.
  • And it even increases immune function.

Well This Is All Fantastic, How Do I Start?

As mentioned above, I highly recommend trying the Headspace app to start experiencing the benefits of meditation. It’s a guided mindfulness meditation that can steer you through the basics. However, if you want to get started without downloading an app, the process is simple. If you want to go alone, follow the below instructions or play the guided video.

  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 to your body. From head to toe, mentally “scan” your body. Notice the sensations and emotions within you.
  6. Turn your attention to your breath. Each in breath. Each out breath.
  7. Whenever you become distracted by thought, return to the breath. Note that the moment you notice distraction is the moment you become “aware.”
  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, etc. Notice sounds and smells around you.
  10. Open your eyes.
  11. Smile (optional).

It seems incredibly simple, and it is. I will eventually give more instruction and guidance on meditation. But for now, I hope my story has helped to inspire you to try and experience the benefits of meditation for yourself. I don’t want to mislead, however. This is an article focusing on the benefits of meditation. There has been, and will continue to be, frustration and mishaps along the way in my journey. There are days where I feel completely out of touch. Disenchanted. Lost. Days of clarity are followed by days of confusion. But it’s all part of the learning curve, and every bend and bump along that curve gives an opportunity to learn.

One last thing — good luck!

I’m keen to hear your experience of meditation, share all in the comments. If you have any questions about my experience, ask below.

Happiness

A Winter Blues Busting Morning Routine

A standard morning routine consists of a quick bite to eat, a shower and a brush of the teeth before hurrying out the door. Non-standard morning routines are often linked to enhanced, near superhuman productivity. They’re framed through stories of awe focusing on high-profile people such as Steve Jobs, Winston Churchill or Benjamin Franklin. They advocate reduced sleep. Rising early. Smoking a pipe. Saving the world. They’re well intentioned and nice in theory, but starting such a routine — let alone sticking to it — is a difficult task.

That’s because — for most of us — the reward of increased productivity isn’t enough to entice us out from under the sheets when not completely necessary. If we’re not a Silicon Valley extraordinaire of high-flying politician, the incentive isn’t enough; we don’t have to rise early to get to work on time. However, there is another incentive. As the clocks fall back and the nights draw in, our morning routine can have a surprising impact on reducing the low mood and low energy that accompanies winter blues.

Before we begin on exploring how and why a change of morning habit can increase your mood and wellbeing, it’s first important to note the difference between so-called winter blues and Season Affective Disorder (SAD). Naturally, as sunlight reduces, so do vitamin D levels. As does the amount of light that reaches the pineal gland (responsible for regulating the body clock). Consequently, the majority of us will feel more lethargic and less sprightly as our cardiac rhythm slows. However, those who suffer from SAD experience symptoms commonly associated with clinical depression (loss of pleasure, feelings of worthlessness, irritability, anxiety) during the winter months.

Wherever you fall on the spectrum, this routine is designed to help. Following the five below habits won’t only allow you to survive winter, but to thrive in winter:

1. Wake Up Earlier Than Necessary

The way you start the morning frames the mental approach to the rest of the day. Wake up with just enough time to quickly shower and run out of the door, and your cortisol levels increase, you feel rushed, you feel stressed, and you carry this into the day. By waking up with the intent to put aside some time to focus purely on your wellbeing, you’re starting an important habit of self-compassion.

To perform the tasks on this list, you’ll need more time. Depending on how quickly you usually get ready in the morning, set your alarm 30 or 40 minutes before your usual time. I personally give myself at least an hour and a half before the time I need to leave the house. If you find that it’s practically impossible, you may need to go to sleep earlier the evening before. Scientific studies have revealed that, thanks to our body clock, we perform better at various tasks at different times. So it’s beneficial to replace the sluggish hour or so of before bed with an extra hour in the morning, a time when our minds are most alert.

2. Make A “Winter-Blues-Busting Breakfast”

Our diets have an important role to play in all aspects of our health, including our mood. The “Winter-Blues-Busting Breakfast” (as I call it) targets three areas linked to winter blues: carbohydrate cravings, omega-3 and vitamin D. It’s important to start with a meal that satisfies these areas and keeps you full, in turn keeping your blood sugar levels steady.

Studies show that those who have a high-protein breakfast stay full for longer with reduced feelings of hunger. A study by Heather Leidy, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology at the MU School of Medicine, discovered that, in overweight teens, a high-protein breakfast also reduces weight-gain and stabilised glucose. Combine this with a complex carbohydrate, and your first meal will provide you with plenty of energy to start the day right and stave off cravings (this applies to later meals, too).

3. Consider Supplements

Studies have also shown that both omega-3 (an essential fatty acid our body doesn’t produce) and vitamin D have a role to play in our brain’s production of serotonin. A deficiency in either has been linked to genetic pathways crucial to brain development. Both can be found in foods; the former with fatty fish (or avocados for non-meat eaters) the latter with eggs, cheese and mushrooms.

Vitamin D is, of course, also found in sunlight. However, especially in winter months, our levels can drop to a deficiency, especially with modern lifestyles that see most of us working inside for the majority of the day. Considering a lack of vitamin D can cause depression, it’s worth being vigilant on how much you consume via your diet.

I’d advocate supplements for both omega-3 and vitamin D, at least as an insurance policy. You’ll hear people argue that vitamin D deficiency is overhyped, however, one study found that one in four Americans were found to be deficient. Plus, a major global study advised the British government to fortify foods with vitamin D due to the number of Brits with low-levels. The same study also revealed that vitamin D can reduce the chances of colds and flu.

4. Try Light Therapy

As mentioned above, our cardiac rhythm slows in winter. Our ancestors would’ve simply slept a lot more, entering a mini-hibernation. It’s not viable to do that in the modern world, unfortunately. The link to such energy levels and seasons is down to the amount of light, and is widely regarded the key factor in SAD. Fortunately, light therapy (also known as phototherapy) has been proven to be a highly successful form of treatment. A 1998 study of 96 patients showed significant improvement when using light therapy.

morning-routine
Your morning routine can help bust winter blues

Light therapy involves sitting in front of a particularly bright light for 30 minutes per day. Such light boxes contain 10,000 lux, which is around 100 times brighter than standard indoor lighting. The beauty of using one of these lights is it gives you no option but to sit and read in front of it for the allocated half an hour. What that means for the benefit of the wellbeing morning routine is that you can use this time to read (I’d opt for either spiritual text or something light-hearted), journal, sip coffee and eat your “Winter-Blues-Busting Breakfast.”

It’s important to note light therapy should only be used in more serious cases. Before considering whether to invest, if you have a mild form of winter blues, simply getting out and about, taking a walk in the sun (when it’s there!) may be enough to instigate noticeable improvements.

5. Avoid Your Phone In The Morning

Over 40% of Americans check their mobile phones within five minutes of waking up. Such is the attachment to smartphones in modern society, there’s even a name for the fear of being without one — nomophobia. There’s more and more evidence that our constant state of “connection” is making us depressed and anxious. We’re always “on call.” We’re always “checked in” or “online.” That means that to truly dedicate yourself to this morning routine, to really take some time for yourself, you need to avoid checking your phone. In any capacity. No Facebook. No emails. Buy an alarm clock and use it instead of your phone. Choose to connect on your terms.

5. Meditate

Last but by no means least… The reduced levels of anxiety and depression that come with daily meditation can only be beneficial in dealing with feelings of low mood and lethargy. I won’t go into those details just yet, as there’s more to come later, but even taking 10 minutes in the morning to sit quietly with your own thoughts can lighten your mood.

It may also shine a light on the belief patterns and interconnected thoughts linked with winter blues.