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20 June 2018

Learning to Meditate

Charlotte follows the Overcoming MS Program but initially struggled with the stress-reduction aspect of it. Here she writes about learning to meditate.

Before I began following the Overcoming MS Program, I had never practiced meditation and mindfulness, thinking it was mainly for Buddhist monks! I imagined it was really hard, and that you had to be able to clear your mind completely whilst sitting for long periods in the lotus position. 

Myth-busting meditation

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, when I began Overcoming MS I did try learning to meditate but I really didn’t like it, and thought I couldn’t do it. It felt stressful, and I gave up easily each time I tried because I didn’t understand the point of it, or what I was really supposed to do.

The first time I began to see where I was going wrong was when I mentioned to a friend, who meditated regularly, that I was trying to learn how to do it. I told her that I didn’t enjoy it, and she said, “Oh I LOVE meditating!”

This was the first time I realized that my attitude to it (this is something I have to do, I don’t see why, I don’t like it) was not helping me at all, and that it if I could change my approach to learning to meditate, then maybe I could begin to enjoy it.

After this, whenever I tried to meditate, I felt a lot lighter towards it – I couldn’t say I enjoyed it, but at least I didn’t hate it. However, I still only did it occasionally, and nowhere near the 30 minutes a day recommended by Overcoming MS.

Learning to meditate

A while after this I went on an Overcoming MS retreat where we learned in a lot of detail about the benefits of meditating. I discovered that there was lots of science to prove the effects that meditation can have on your body, including increased neuroplasticity, lengthened telomeres and denser grey matter.

These benefits seemed very powerful reasons to meditate and this, combined with doing meditation twice a day with the group at the retreat and really enjoying it, inspired me to finally start a regular practice. I began using the Headspace app every day, and quickly discovered my favorite part of the meditations on there.

At the end of each one, there is a part where the man guiding the meditation says, “And then, just for a moment, I’d like you to let go of any focus at all. Just let your mind do whatever it wants to do.”

And in the moments that followed this, every time, my mind went completely blank and I stopped thinking! I don’t think that my brain had ever stopped thinking in the whole of my life before.

It was a wonderful feeling, so freeing, and I really cherished those few moments every day. From here I began to explore lots of other types of meditation, mainly breath-based and guided meditations.

I found loads on YouTube, and also on a brilliant app called Insight Timer where there are hundreds of guided meditations available for free, plus a really useful timer that you can set with bells at regular intervals if you want to do your own thing.

I also participated in an eight-week Mindful Self-Compassion course, which is similar to the eight-week MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) course, but the focus is using mindfulness to practice being more compassionate towards yourself and the thoughts and emotions you have.

My favorite types of meditation to do now are Metta meditation, a Buddhist practice that involves sending loving kindness to yourself and to others, and Adyashanti’s meditations that involve realizing that you are not your thoughts, feelings or emotions, but the consciousness that is aware of these things.

I normally meditate first thing in the morning when I have some time before anyone else gets up. When I meditate my mind still wanders a lot, and that’s OK.

Paying attention to our thoughts

As I learnt on the Overcoming MS retreat, meditation is practice for being mindful during all of your other activities each day. I now see it in the same way as I see following the Overcoming MS diet.

Before I was ill, I used to eat whatever I wanted, with little regard to the nutrition, ingredients or cooking methods used to produce that food. Now I am mindful of everything I put in my mouth because I understand the impact that not being mindful about this can have, and I know how much better I feel by taking care with what I eat.

At the same time, I used to be completely unaware of the things that were happening in my mind, and now that I’m more aware, I can spot thoughts that may be having a negative effect on me, and then choose thoughts that make me feel better. For example, I was sowing some seeds in the garden this morning and after a while I noticed that I wasn’t really enjoying it.

Living in the moment

I began to pay attention to my thoughts, and realized I was complaining to myself (in my head – not out loud!) about slugs, and how I can’t grow what I want because they eat everything.

I then chose to notice some things that I appreciate about my garden instead, and really quickly felt so much better! I’m so glad that I persevered with learning to meditate; I have received so many benefits from it, and can’t imagine not doing it now.

If I have a day when I don’t get the chance to meditate, I don’t feel as good and really miss it. When I began to write this blog post, and was remembering about the conversation with my friend when she told me that she loves meditating, it made me realize that I have now joined her and can also say ‘I LOVE meditating!’

Charlotte Ellis