My Journey on the eight week course
21st January 2017
by Naomi Kent
This is a blog from Radio presenter Naomi Kent. It is her own words about her experience of participating in the eight-week course.
Week 8 Bringing mindfulness to life and what next.
So that’s it. The eight-week course is over and now we’re left to our own meditative devices. Surya has imparted his wisdom, guided us through a bunch of meditations and been there to hold our hands en route to enlightened times. But now we’re all alone with this new knowledge and power, which is kind of scary and kind of amazing.
The amazing bit: I’m a bit different now. I’m getting to know myself, I’m kinder and more understanding of myself, and most important of all, I like myself. Me and myself are mates! Not to say I didn’t like me before, but I barely gave myself a chance to know me. I thought the good bits were alright, they’d do. I despised the bad and would do anything in my power to cover them up, from others and from me. Russell Brand does a sketch about ‘Black Eels’. He says, for example, at the start of a relationship we’re all so damn polite and polished and only put forward the nicest bits of us, and then down the line we start to relax and all the dodgy bits come swimming out of us like black eels. My eels were tightly netted away inside, I avoided them like the scary creatures they were – anger, sadness, fear, shame – and now I see them in there and barely flinch at the sight of them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not keen on them. I’d rather keep them tucked in. But if I see them coming out I say hello and know they’ll swim back to where they came from soon enough. I’m even making friends with the eels. For real.
Before I started this I’d describe myself as an anxious person. Others would describe me as a stress-head, worrier, control freak, and we would all laugh and joke like I was okay with that being who I was and the person I was defined as, but I wasn’t really. And I’m still all those things to a degree but I’m okay with it. And actually those traits have dimmed a notch since I started meditating. Throw stressy situations my way and I won’t revel in them, but I’ll be okay in them. My boyfriend says he notices me pausing in ‘heated’ moments, so I need to work on my natural “I’m not even practising I’m just always this zen” vibe, but there’s less drama. My closest colleague says I’m less of a pain in the arse to work with; glowing review right there! And most importantly of all, I feel happier.
I feel happy.
I like myself.
I feel like a massive plonker writing that here but I’m happy I like myself, okay?!
The happiness and the liking me and the other good stuff now override the bits I was less okay with, which they didn’t always. My one regret with meditation and mindfulness is a cliché but so true; I wish I’d discovered it sooner. I can think of so many sucky life situations I’d have dealt with a billion times better had I been handed these tools earlier. But the great thing is I have them now, and that’s sort of the scary bit. Keeping hold of them, not losing them, maintaining my practise and growing the goodness. But I’m a determined, stubborn one, ask my boyfriend or my closest colleague, so I’ll give it my best shot that’s for sure.
I can’t think of any single person who wouldn’t benefit from trying meditation. If even an ounce of you isn’t completely content, try it. If there’s a bit of space in your life for extra joy, try it. you’ve read any of these blogs and thought, ‘She sounds like a nutcase!’ TRY IT. Nutcase might suit you too.
Week 7 Compassion meditation and not being right
I’m always right. And even on those incredibly rare occasions that I’m wrong – and when I say rare I mean, the times I’m wrong are an endangered species. Practically extinct – I’m still right. My Dad has regularly said the most annoying thing about me is my tendency to be right. So when Surya tells us we have to let go of being right, I’m starting to think meditation is not for me. He’s taken it too far.
I was happy to commit to a sitting practise for 15 minutes every evening. I’ve readily added pauses to my day for moments of reflection before allowing any stressful situations to escalate. I’ve made a concerted effort to focus on my breathing when times of stress do escalate, bringing myself back to my breath, back to my body, and back to a more mindful way of dealing with those pesky moments. But asking me to give up being right in an argument. He’s lost the plot. He said I’d say that. I’m saying it. I jest…
So I mentioned I’m always right, right? I’m also unbearably competitive. I’m currently dealing with an ongoing ban from playing Family Fortunes on Christmas Day because I, “Take it too seriously,” apparently. Is there such a thing? I love rules. I love to win, fair. I hate to lose, fair or unfair. And I despise nothing more than being wrong. So giving up being right in an argument may just be my toughest feat yet. My boyfriend however will be incredibly thrilled reading this. As will my sister, mum, dad, grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins, cousins’ kids, friends, friends’ kids, colleagues, dog etc. etc. (My competitiveness knows no end.)
So the science bit; if we cling to being right in an argument, we extend the argument and instead should, for the greater good, drop the notion of right or wrong, agree to disagree and swiftly march our pride and our ego back to the naughty step. It’s not a new notion, but for me it’s a painful one. I can feel my fingers physically wincing typing this: Not being right?! The hideousness of the concept! Maybe I haven’t given my pride or my ego enough time on said naughty step.
Now why, why, WHY do I have such a desperate need to be right? Why would I rather win than be happy? I actually don’t know the answer. I think I think winning is happiness. But if in the process of an argument I win by making the unlucky recipient of my wrath feel terrible, it’s not winning at all. If I hit an endangered species moment of being wrong in an argument – God forbid! – and I fight to win by just throwing in a bunch of additional cutting insults, that’s not really winning either. If I dish out the silent treatment to the offender until they realise the error of their way, guess what? I also don’t win as silence is almost as hard as admitting defeat for me.
So in the process of writing this blog I’ve realised how ridiculous I am for caring to the giddiest of heights about being right, which is a shame because I’d gotten so good at it, if I do say so myself! But I’m off to put Pride & Ego on the naughty step for a bit, and will in future ding dongs, take a step back and try to keep them there.
Mum, Dad, can I play Family Fortunes again now?
Week 6 The ABC of mindfulness, aka the contents and the container
Half full, half empty?
Are you a cup half full or a cup half empty kinda person?
I’m a cup quite full, looking to be a vase quite empty.
This is the secret to life. Seriously. Stick with me.
So, week six on the course and Surya finally starts to tell us what we all signed up to this meditation stuff for: The secret to a life of joy, contentment, fullness, etc.
Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Eagerly anticipating enlightenment, Surya tell us, “The secret to life is ABC”. He shares this with our group of meditation newbies, as we rack our brains for the words to fit the letters.
Awareness? He likes that one.
Body? He likes that one too.
Confused. Can’t think of a C.
Turns out it was none of the usual words he likes. Nope. The secret of life is… ‘A Bigger Container’.
We’re full of stuff. All those thoughts and emotions and feelings, all ready to brim over the edge. So if we think of ourselves as the cups and all that emotion stuff as the water within, when our cups are full, it means we’re more likely to get upset or angry or ashamed – whatever your go-to emotion is – over a difficult situation, more quickly. There’s no breathing space for the emotion so even when a tiny thing triggers those feelings, out they pop, flooding all over the shop.
The idea of mindfulness and meditation is that we increase the size of our cup to a vase. The contents are exactly the same. We still experience all the same emotions and still have all the same feelings, but in a bigger container with more space, they’re less likely to spill straight out and they don’t feel quite so overwhelming any more.
Real example of my nearly full cup: My boyfriend drove over the speed bumps too quickly. I had my dog Troy on my knee, who gets his little knickers in a twist at the mere thought of going in a car, and we were on our way home from visiting my parents who live on a housing estate riddled with speed bumps and sharp bends. I told him he’d driven over the speed bumps too quickly. I told him Troy was scared. He made a sarcastic joke. I ignored him. Then I came home and cried at the boyfriend.
It was about 5% because of the speed bumps. 95% because it was Sunday night, the boyfriend was headed back to Bristol for work, I’d miss him, I’d be sad without him, how would I cope without him? Especially when tomorrow I have to go to work at 4am – the very real pain of that alarm! – not knowing if my co-host will be there or if he’ll be off with his 9-months-pregnant wife having a baby, and if he was off work having a baby then I was going to have to do the show alone and despite 12 years of experience as a radio presenter HOW COULD I POSSIBLY DO IT ALONE? I WILL BE FOUND OUT! THEY WILL REALISE I’M TERRIBLE AT MY JOB. My poor boyfriend. Those poor speed bumps. Oh what a spillage from this small cup.
Since I started the course I reckon my cup is a bit bigger and therefore its contents are a bit less close to the brim. With more and more meditation practise I’ll apparently become a vase, although I’m aiming for a Dam, for the boyfriend’s sake.
Week 5 Dancing with Dragons/Self Compassion
More than half way through the course, I’d describe meditation as my Frienemy. Sometimes we are total chums, best buds, BFFs and other times, we are arch rivals and frankly I can’t wait to see the back of her. But there’s a definite shift from when I started the process.
Think back to starting a new job, or your university days when you’re so desperate to do well. In week one I’d say I was that slightly needy student at Freshers’ Week, beyond keen to make friends with meditation. In week two, we’d made friends but she wasn’t all she seemed; some days she was nice, others she made me cry. Week three, we got drunk together, and I shared with her my deepest darkest emotions. Week four, she threw them back in my face. By week five, I’m a better person for knowing her. My relationship with meditation has been – and continues to be – an emotional roller coaster, but I think to my benefit.
At this point I feel I’m meant to impart some profound wisdom to explain what magical shift has happened in me, but I can’t think of anything profound, or even that wise. What am I doing now that I wasn’t doing before?
I give my emotions the chance to be heard. Before I started the course I’d see sadness creeping in and think “Don’t even think about it, Sadness! Do one!” I’d find all the jobs in the world going to keep myself insanely busy before I’d even consider acknowledging that I might be sad about something. It would then pop out later, often not as sadness but all round agitation, maybe a bit of anger and definitely a lot of mardy cow. Now I sit in my meditation, or I take a pause from a particularly stressful moment to just breathe, and stop, and have a little look at the emotion, allow myself to feel it, and maybe even treat myself to a little cry. To someone who a few weeks back had never done any of this mindfulness malarkey, I’d read that and think I was a right wet lettuce. Perhaps I am, and maybe it does sound a bit hippy, or a bit airy fairy, but it works. If you don’t need it, great. If you do need it and don’t try the wet lettuce approach, more fool you.
I’m becoming aware of how my mind plays tricks on me and regularly works against me. “There’s no point worrying about something that hasn’t happened,” is something I’ve been told time and time and time and time and time (etc. etc. etc.) again, but it has never stuck. Watching my mind at work though – playing out scenarios of bad things which I invent will happen, or conversations I should have had differently, or conversations I will have when that scenario with the bad things happens – means I’m starting to see which thoughts are destructive, meaningless and harmful, and which thoughts are constructive, meaningful and helpful. And the more I practise mindfulness and meditation the more I filter down the bad bits making room for more of the good.
I don’t fear the meditation any more. I don’t fear the silence. I don’t fear hearing my own thoughts loud and clear. I don’t fear feeling my emotions in my body. I still dislike it sometimes, on a bad day, when the emotions aren’t zen, cheery, ‘Good’ emotions. Would I rather be happy than sad? Yes. Every time. Would I rather park any negative feelings to one side and never have to see them again? Absolutely. Is that possible? Try it, let me know how it works out for you. Meanwhile, you’ll find me meditating…
Week 4 Calming the Chattering mind
My Brain is Evil
You know in the cartoons where a character has a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other? Well, that. That stuff is exactly what’s been happening in my head this week. Who am I? Which one of me am I? Why is meditation so confusing, conflicting and, can’t think of another ‘con’ word so I’ll go with, an all-round mind screw.
As part of this week’s class we discussed real emotions versus created emotions. Real emotions for example; something bad happens, you feel sadness, anger, fear etc. as a result of that. They’re the real emotions. Created emotions are the naughty little suckers our brain has us believe are things we should be sad, angry, fearful over, but are likely things that haven’t happened, will never happen and may be wildly untrue to begin with. However, our brains have become so bossy we trust all our thoughts and therefore our bodies are often tricked into experiencing these negative feelings when we don’t need to. The game-changing/mind-screwing bit for me was Surya encouraging us to sit with a recurring thought we may have that is causing us unnecessary stress, or created emotions, and to say in our heads, “Having a thought” beforehand.
For example, instead of, “I’m a terrible person because I forgot my friend’s birthday,” you’d say, “Having a thought… that I’m a terrible person because I forgot my friend’s birthday”.
It happens. We’ve all been there. But the idea of this is to disconnect ourselves from the negative and unhelpful thinking, and instead to see when our brain is tricking us. The reason I’ve had a mare this week is because MY BRAIN IS EVIL.
Before I started the course I was acutely aware of the fact that I’m a perfectionist. A control freak. Highly self-critical. But OH MY God when I had to start labelling these thoughts I realised what a horror I can be to myself. If I knew me, I’d hate me. But I am me! And I’m a nice person damn it! I won’t bore you with my inner demons and perhaps I happened to be having a bad day the day after this new thinking game was flagged in my mind but that particular day there were multiple situations and occasions where I thought that I wasn’t good enough, at lots of general stuff in life. And when I started to realised all these horrible thoughts I was creating in my mind I felt so sad for me. But, again, I am me! The confusion!!! So I cried at myself telling myself things in my head. Do I sound like a mad woman? For 24 hours I definitely felt like one.
Now here’s the good bit. I’m aware of this little devil brain now. So when she concocts a fairy-tale scenario of why my boss might fire me for saying “Erm” too many times on the radio, or why my boyfriend might break up with me because I found a beard hair on my chin – A BEARD HAIR! I’M 33 FOR GOODNESS SAKE! – or why I’m failing at life because I only did yoga once in one whole entire week, I call bull shit on her game. I add a, “Having a thought,” in front of it, and am learning to laugh in the little devil brain’s face.
I’ll try to sound less insane next week. I unleashed it just in case anyone else had a nightmare with their little brain devil. All together now, “Having a thought…”
Week 3 Living in the Present
Silence is Powerful
Silence is a very powerful thing. As a meditation newbie, it’s tricky enough sitting in silence alone, but sharing that silence with thirteen strangers is a very disconcerting experience.
Firstly, because bodily noises happen. I never knew my eyeballs made a weird sound when blinking. I do now. I’ve also discovered I have a loud swallow – I blame having my tonsils out circa 1990. Should’ve been ’91 but I got a KitKat wrapper stuck up my nose and was fast-tracked to the front of the tonsillectomy queue. Long story. I digress – More noise throughout the very silent group meditation, from rumbling tummies to heavy breathing, coughing, sniffing, nose blowing, scratching, fidgeting, the list goes on. The fear of the fart is also very real, but so far we’ve controlled ourselves because we’re all ever so polite and British, and in a confined space, and we didn’t need one anyway. Honest.
Secondly, the group meditation is disconcerting because we are very polite and British and we don’t sit well with silence, at least I don’t. Surya starts the class with “A brief pause” as we’re all making polite, British small talk with one another having arrived a little early, also because we’re polite and British. So during the ‘brief pause’ the room is empty of noise but rife with tension and a general feeling of discomfort. Sitting in silence with strangers without a mobile phone to hold or a magazine to read or something/anything to look at is weird. Everything in my nature tells me to fill a silence. Ask anyone who knows me, they’ll tell you I’m the chatty one. Surya even says towards the end of the class, “You’ve been quiet today Naomi, haven’t you got any comments?” And I had but I was doing the other polite, British thing of biting my tongue and giving somebody else a chance to talk for fear of being seen as the gobby one! See how much we sweat the small stuff?! See why I’m here?!
Once we’ve all settled in to our guided meditation in the group session, and once I’ve settled into my sitting and breathing and weird blinking and loud swallowing, I’m fine. And I’ve actually started to almost enjoy meditating. Not every time. But sometimes it’s quite nice, which may not be the glowing review you were here for, but feels like a big triumph compared to week one. I’m less inclined to think about the time. I’m less inclined to think about whether the thoughts I’m having are the right or the wrong ones. I’m less inclined to be planning what exactly I’ll do when the alarm goes off, marking my return to freedom. I’m just doing it. Just hanging out with myself. Just meditating – so blasé! – and I’m warming to it.
I’ve also noticed a difference in my general feeling of contentment compared to my usual (dominant) feeling of anxiety. I still stress about the sublime and ridiculous crap of everyday life, but it’s like somebody set a dimmer switch on my stress levels, and the meditations and mindfulness have given me access to this switch I could never find before. And by dimming the stress I can see and feel a bit more of the good stuff. Which again might sound like a tiny win, but a wins a win, and as a hugely competitive soul, I’ll take that.
Week 2 Keeping your body in mind
Meditation for beginners is hard work.
You might not like it.
You will likely think you’re doing it wrong.
You will unlikely, despite your best intentions, feel ‘zen vibes’.
You will persist.
Homework for week one of the course was to meditate daily for fifteen minutes. It looks easy. Sounds easy. Surya regularly reminds us that what he’s telling us is incredibly simple. I mean, how difficult can sitting with your thoughts for fifteen minutes a day really be? Excruciatingly hard for some of us, it would seem. And it would also seem there are two reasons why: Expectation versus reality, and extreme impatience.
Sitting with your thoughts sounds like a relaxing thing to do, taking a break from the mayhem of life with just yourself for company, and we’ve all seen those pictures of people meditating who look like they’re having the most wonderful time. But the truth is that we often don’t stop to think about what we’re thinking, so when we do, we think the thoughts we’re having are the wrong ones.
I expected to sit down next to a scented candle, cross-legged, eyes closed, and see rainbows and doves and sunshine and light and happiness and joy and peace etc. but instead I saw stress. Well, some. It was a bit like the stressy bits went shy and tried to hide themselves away to start with, but I always saw internal busyness. I saw external busyness on the carpet, bits that needed vacuuming. The dog kept putting his toys in my lap. And no matter how hard I tried to see all these thoughts, label them as thinking, and let them float away, soon enough I’d be back to finding more bits on the floor that needed vacuuming and thinking about checking the clock to see if the fifteen minutes was up yet because CRIKEY fifteen minutes in your own head is a long time. And then I’d think, ‘God I’m doing this wrong because I’m thinking all the wrong thoughts and I don’t feel at one with nature etc.’ and yet the rules say there are no right thoughts or wrong thoughts, just thoughts. And that is what daily practice will eventually teach us; to sit more comfortably with our thoughts. Surya tells us it will get easier and when we start to notice the small changes it gradually makes in our everyday lives, we’ll get through the initial pain of doing it. So we persist.
The height of impatience in the hunt for meditation-based enlightenment is also a hindrance. In life now everything is so instant. You can shop online and get same day delivery, so why can’t you pop to a mindfulness class for instant spiritual awakening? Simply put, you have been around for – insert number of years you’ve been alive here – which means that for all that time you’ve been living less mindfully, sometimes without being mindful at all. Our brains have been producing all these thoughts, some productive and some counter-productive, but we’ve started to believe them all equally. So we’re undoing years of potential bad brain practice. Reaping the benefits of meditation feels like waiting for a bespoke suit, custom-made entirely to your lumps and bumps. It takes a lot longer than the instant purchase, with many irritating backward-and-forward trips to the tailor, but fits way better in the end.
So later you’ll find me sitting on the floor, thinking about thinking again, practising at just being, and possibly noticing more crumbs on the carpet. But being ever-so-patient with myself, and the process. Or at least trying…
Week 1, The Jewel in the Ice
Thinking about thinking.
Thinking about thinking is a funny one when you feel like you’re not supposed to be thinking about anything at all. Thinking about eating Halloumi, thinking about doing my online Asda shop, thinking about pinot grigio, thinking about getting a dead leg in this kneeling position, thinking about whether I’ve run out of pinot grigio and do I need to add that to my online Asda shop etc. etc. I’d say this pretty much sums up how I felt during my first proper go at meditation under the kind and watchful eye of Suryacitta on day one of an eight-week mindfulness course.
Why am I here, thinking about cheese and wine, when I should be thinking about my breath, and my body, and some other zen concepts (which FYI don’t truly exist, apparently)? I’m here because I’m useless at switching off. I’m so constantly busy, both physically and in my head, I don’t think there’s any point in my life where I’m solely focused on one thing, which Surya raises as a concern about our modern world. He reminds us of the good old days when records – proper records – had pauses between the songs and all you’d hear at that point between the tracks was maybe a spot of fluff on the needle. Nowadays streaming music has no room for pause, and neither do our lives. So I started the course, unknowingly, to find the pauses again. Knowingly, to stop my anxious brain from running around and around and around and around, all day, every day.
I’m a breakfast radio presenter so from 4am my brain is on and it rarely pauses before 10pm when sleep takes over. I work. I yoga. I walk. I swim. I shop. I see friends. I see family. I do extra work on the side. I worry. I worry that I don’t have time to do all these things so I rush. I rush to stop myself from worrying but then I worry that I rush too much. Surya talks about “Nexting”, which would appear to be another previously unidentified hobby of mine. We’re always concerned about the next thing. We need to finish ‘this thing’ to get to ‘that thing’. We’re never content in the moment, because we’re never in the moment. So when do our brains get chance to have a tea break? Not even during our own tea break. Because at that point we’re probably emailing someone about ‘this thing’ whilst having a separate conversation with someone else about ‘that thing’, and our lives just become a lot of doing, or thinking about doing. Aimless, constant, relentless buzzy thoughts. I’d like them to chill the heck out.
So that’s why I’m here, among many others in a similar busy boat. And that’s why during our meditation practise, Surya tells us, we need to be thinking about thinking. Reminding ourselves when we’re thinking, that it’s only thinking. Thoughts are very powerful. We let them dictate our behaviours and feelings and actions, but as Surya points out, they’re just thoughts. Teeny, weeny creations of our brains, but with the opportunity to be incredibly powerful, in both good and bad ways. I’m forever convincing myself I’m not good enough. At my job. At being a friend, girlfriend, daughter, sister, mother-to-my-dog Troy the Yorkshire Terrier. Not good enough at life in general. But it’s all thoughts, so I’m here to get a hold of those pesky things and remind them, they are small, and often completely concocted by my over-imaginative headspace, so let’s free up some of that headspace.
Surya has set homework for week one; to meditate for 15 minutes daily. And each time a thought pops into our head to remind ourselves, it’s just thinking. Let’s see how we get on…
Tagged as: Naomi Kent
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