Today we welcome poet Stephen Whiteside to Tuesday Writing Tips. In this two part series, Stephens going to talk about meditation and writing.
I was tricked, really. Conned. Good thing, though.
I write poetry, rhyming poetry, principally for children. I actually write it for myself, but it turns out that children enjoy it more than adults. I am also a doctor.
In 1994 I signed up for course in ʻStress Managementʼ. It was sponsored by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, and offered plenty of points towards the mandatory professional development programme. I was in a stressful job at the time, most of my patients were also pretty stressed, and I needed the points.
Only when it was too late did I realise what I had got myself in for – a course on meditation! I have never been a great fan of all this ʻtouchy-feelyʼ New Age stuff, and if I had known in advance that this is what the course was, there is no way I would ever have signed up. (Clever marketing!)
As I say, though, it was too late to pull out. Besides, the physical environment where the course was being held was comfortable, the presenter calm and reassuring, and my fellow students all quite genial. So I committed myself to the course…and Iʼm oh, so glad I did! Not only has it been good for my life in general, itʼs been great for my writing.
I donʼt know a lot about the various types of meditation, but this was quite simple. We were given three exercises, which we slowly worked our way through over the weeks. The first was to simply let our attention rest on a body part, starting with our feet, then progressing up our bodies to our legs, abdomen, arms, shoulders, neck and head.
The second was to concentrate on our breathing – the movement of air past mouth and nose, the action of our chest and our diaphragm. The final exercise was one of listening, to both the nearest and the furthest sounds. It sounds very simple, of course – almost trite. In fact, I was to find it very confronting.We were advised to meditate for five minutes a day. Looking back now, that seems a laughably short period of time. Back then, though, it was my personal Everest. For quite a while, three minutes was the best I could do. After that, it got too scary. I started to panic, and had to stop.
Certainly, if I had been left to my own devices, that would have been the end of it. It wasnʼt that simple, though. I was committed to the course, wanted the ʻcontinuing educationʼ points, and had to face the presenter and my colleagues.
I donʼt recall exactly when the breakthrough came, but it did come. Suddenly I was going five minutes, and then a lot more.
To the dismay (I think!) of my class-mates, I was reporting meditation sessions lasting up to two hours at a time! A woman asked me rather hostilely how my wife felt about that. I replied that she didnʼt know. I was waking at five, and meditating for two hours while lying in bed.
Of course, this was not strictly in accordance with the guidelines. We were advised not to meditate while lying down, and not to do it first thing in the morning or last thing at night. So I was breaking a couple of rules. It didnʼt seem to really matter, though. I tried meditating sitting up in the middle of the day, and that worked fine, too, but time was short then. Meditating in bed also worked well. The only thing that could go wrong was that I might fall asleep, and that was not a bad thing, either.
So what were the benefits of meditation? Why did I find it so attractive? Why was I devoting so many hours to it? There is no easy way to put this into words, and I was as surprised by the benefits as anybody could be, really. It felt like I was ʻwashingʼ my brain. In much the same way that my hands feel better after being washed, so did my mind. It was cleansing. It felt like a grease and oil change, as though the component parts of my brain were now cleaner, and running more smoothly. There were no moments of epiphany, just a general feeling of well-being, as though I was thinking much more sharply – and cleanly.
Why, then, did I initially find it so frightening? Itʼs now over sixteen years since I commenced to meditate, and Iʼve scarcely missed a day in all that time, so Iʼve had plenty of time to ponder this question. Hereʼs a model Iʼve come up with that seems to best explain the process.
During the course of the day, as I see it, the conscious mind takes all the ʻnegativeʼ (perhaps ʻpainfulʼ is a better word) emotions that it cannot handle, and secures them tightly in a box that it cannot access. They are thus safely locked away! During the course of the meditatory process, this box is accessed and opened. All of these painful emotions are revealed once again to the conscious mind. In being so experienced, they are dissipated (well, up to a point, anyway).
My meditation experience falls roughly into three stages. In the first stage, I feel nothing much at all – no fear, but also no joy. Just an emotional numbness. Gradually, however, the ʻboxʼ is opened, and a variety of painful emotions are released. This is the scary/painful second stage of my meditation. It can be frightening, but it is in many ways preferable to the nothingness of the numbness that precedes it. This lasts for a long time. I sink deeper and deeper into my ʻbox of painʼ, and begin to develop quite powerful physical sensations. These often take the form of a feeling of pressure against my lips and teeth, as though I am ʻleaning intoʼ my subconscious.
If I persist with the second stage long enough, though, a third stage can often be reached. This is where the pain gradually dissipates, to be replaced by a sense of pleasure. However, I donʼt always get this far. Sometimes I get ʻstuckʼ in the pain, and realise Iʼm not going to get past it, no matter how long I try. An exponential law seems to operate here. After some initial substantial gains, progress can slow right down. Having said that, no matter whether I meditate for five minutes or two hours, and no matter whether I move beyond the pain or not, at the end of the process I always feel much better for having meditated at all.
I think it is important to understand that, while meditation does lead to relaxation, the road is quite a tough one, and can be quite rocky. ʻNo pain, no gainʼ, as they say. It applies as much to meditation as to anything else.
I recently read a medical account of the side effects of meditation. While the list of potential symptoms was undoubtedly true enough, the writer seemed to have no understanding of the process of meditation. Sure there can be painful feelings, but these are not an end in themselves, and must be experienced before the benefits can be realised.
Like anything, meditation gets easier with practice. For me now it is not something I have to think about. It comes to me automatically, just like breathing, or scratching an itch. I often find I have drifted into a meditative state without having made any conscious effort to do so.
© Stephen Whiteside 21.06.10
Stephen will be back at DeeScribe Writing on Thursday to talk about how meditation has helped him with his writing.