First published by Positive Health Magazine, August 2004
‘It’s about coming back to yourself as a human being rather than a human doing’.
My first memory of meditating was in the Seventies sitting crossed legged on a low wall alongside the canal running past Kingston-Upon-Thames Art College. Inside the canteen was busy and noisy as usual. In my late teens, a sensitive young painter, I felt the need for some personal space. Sitting a little apart from the others, with my back upright, hands resting gently on my knees, breathing evenly and slowly I created a pocket of calm for myself and things began to feel alright again.
Looking back even further to my early days I devised my own way of meditating through play, as we all can in childhood. Customising our garden trolly, trundling very slowly round my parent’s garden on the level with the flowers and insects, I entered an altered state, aware of everything around me: scents, shapes, colours, textures, movement; observing in a quiet reverie of wonder and calm.
Years later in my early twenties, my mother gravely ill with cancer, I would walk our family dog in the quiet of the evening allowing my mind to open to the velvety darkness, sensing the shape and feel of the trees, sounds of birds calling, the indigo sky above, my foot fall creating a reassuringly ordered pattern. In these moments I felt part of something bigger and less alone. I believe it helped me begin to come to terms with her eventual loss.
As a painter, at work I often entered a meditative state, my senses heightened, allowing my creative subconscious to surface and my busy mind to recede. Opening to the sea of intelligence in the cosmos, I merged with a timeless source of inspiration.
So meditation was something I had done quite naturally from childhood; a way of finding balance and seeing through the darkness, long before I adopted a more formal approach to it.
Work after art
Almost two decades later, no longer a practising artist I’d adopted a driven lifestyle, forgetting how to relax within my body or feel at peace in my soul. Pushing myself hard during the day and fuelled with one drink too many at night I filled time rather than used it. I had been a craftsman picture framer for ten years. It was punishing work. My body hurt at the end of a twelve-hour day, sometimes the skin on my hands wearing so thin that they bled and I was developing chronic back pain from ‘workbench stoop’. It was a lonely occupation and I felt something missing in my life. A decision to change my career was to put me back in touch with my own needs.
I craved intimacy. I knew I needed to treat myself with a little more kindness so I decided to eschew the isolation and drive for perfection of a craftsman for a softer, more rounded me. Used to expressing myself through my hands from an early age, I now kept faith in them. I wanted to practise therapeutic massage. Choosing the Massage Training Institute, a leading organisation teaching an holistic approach to bodywork, I began training for my diploma. It was through this training that I learnt to respect the relationship between body, mind and spirit and to experience myself in a more integrated way. I don’t remember an exact start to my meditation practice, it just grew naturally from the process of centering and preparing myself for my clients. Focused massage itself induces a meditative state in the giver as well as the receiver, taking brain wave patterns into alpha.
During this time I began to sense the subtle energy that flows through and around us, a connecting matrix underpinning all life. It felt natural for me to explore this further and I undertook a two and a half year healer training with the McNeil School of Healing. I found myself rediscovering what I had naturally experienced in childhood and later as an artist: an ability to listen to my inner self and to open outwards to a bigger reality. It satisfied my yearning for balance, and to become part of a greater whole whilst retaining my individuality.
Meditation gently found its way into my every day. From puberty onwards I had been something of a natural philosopher, occupying my mind with the deeper meanings of life, and meditation fitted well here. Expanding my self-knowledge, it opened the door to wider, existential perspectives. It also afforded me a sense of inner space and my body and mind drank this in. Over the years as my practise slowly deepened I took one-to-one Buddhist meditation tuition, started using sound and enjoyed belonging to a wonderful movement meditation group led by Elizabeth St John, of the Association For Therapeutic Healers.
I continued adding colours to my palette, taking inspiration from both Eastern and Western teachings and not aligning myself with a religious source I drew solidly from my experience as a massage therapist and healer. As well as using the breath for centering and awareness, I worked with the subtle energy system in the body through the chakras and also used visualization and positive affirmations. I began to develop my own dynamic form of meditation that suited my individual makeup. I loved the ‘active’ passive aspect of it. How simply focusing on the breath and being in the present moment, coupled with an attitude of allowing, enables a process of awareness to blossom, starting with the body, spreading to the emotional and mental, connecting outwards to universal consciousness.
Learning from poor health
In my late forties my health became seriously impaired, partly due to a legacy of driving myself too hard earlier, and to the effects of mercury poisoning from a mouth full of amalgam fillings. My system became overrun by candidiasis, an opportunistic yeast overgrowth in the body. This lasted several years, bringing digestive problems, leaky gut, chronic fatigue, mental fog, asthma and depression; to make matters worse, I was going through a difficult menopause. It was a painful and challenging time. Adark night of the soul. Here my meditation practise became my rock, providing the support I needed to face my fears and be with my limitations without resorting to mood altering medications. Helping me to grow with and from the experience, it confirmed my long held belief that we have the capacity for self-healing if we give ourselves the opportunity.
I began to see meditation as a form of self-healing, on every level from the physical to the auric – a natural ability, inherent in our basic makeup, as a coping strategy for stress, an aide to recovery, a way of finding sense of the bigger questions of life, without using words, as an illuminator of our psyche.
A universal doctrine
I now teach meditation and am passionate about it. I want to educate people to see it as a natural resource they already have, not a rarefied practice that takes years of discipline. You don’t have to take on a new spiritual belief system in order to meditate. All it takes is a willingness to be with yourself consciously in the present moment and to open to the experience of being part of a greater whole.
Meditation is something we can all do – our bodies naturally know how – it’s just that they get hijacked by our busy minds for most of our waking hours. In the West, where we seem to have long lost the balance between action and contemplation, meditation gives us an opportunity to understand on a knowing rather than a thinking level about how we operate in the world. By learning to observe ourselves as the moment unfolds we are developing a valuable life skill. I encourage my students to take what they learn in their practise into their daily life. It’s a way of releasing physical tension, stored up emotions, mental stress, and a means of being with yourself at deeper levels. Meditation can teach you how to draw support from within and facilitate a more mindful and positive approach to life; taking time with yourself, for yourself makes for good all-round preventative health care.
In my groups and workshops I introduce different approaches to meditation, encouraging the individual to find their own way. A broad cross-section of people come along; some are surprised at how easily they can be guided through meditations. Practising on your own requires genuine intention and focus. It’s a bit like the difference between driving your car, and someone driving you… it takes time. The rewards are worth the effort. It’s something you keep returning to because even when it leads you to places within yourself that are not easy to be with, meditation holds and supports you in the process.
A window on the soul, a coping strategy for modern day stress, whatever your belief system meditation provides a means of expanding and exploring your experience of being alive. This aliveness can embrace a spiritual perspective, which I believe to be a fundamental need of the human race. The ability to meditate is something essentially natural to us, which we lose touch with when we adopt the busy, goal orientated, distracting life style of the 21st Century. So much time is spent living in the relative dream worlds of the future or the past, we would do well to remember that both come from the present moment. The more we are able to live mindfully in this moment, the richer our future and our past are likely to be. It’s about coming back to yourself as a human being rather than a human doing.