I see meditation practice as like going to the gym for the mind, it does not have to be more complicated than that. If we expect to be fit enough to run a marathon with only a few sporadic runs under our belts it might not go too well. But with consistent training and self-encouragement, there is a better chance. In the same way, if we would like to have less anger, kinder self-talk or more confidence, then a persistent and wisely focused effort has to be made to sow the seeds to get there. This is how I see meditation working for me, slowly, gradually over time, 3 steps forward, 2 back, a challenging and rewarding practice of accelerated and purposeful maturity.
It is just over a decade ago, during a year of travelling, working and volunteering around the world, that I found myself in a 10-day silent meditation retreat on a Thai island. My intention had been to do one retreat as an “experience” and leave it as an interesting story for dinner parties. But, the down-to-earth approach, practicality of the tools learned and the peacefulness uncovered, stayed with me and encouraged me to continue. Ten years on I have a regular daily meditation practice, have spent extended learning periods in Asia and can say that there is not a part of life that has not been touched and benefitted as a result.
Importantly, I had to start from where I actually was, not from where I would have liked to have been or even where I thought I was, including all the character traits I liked to keep hidden. So, even though my patience has greatly developed through meditation, for example, those that have lived (or driven!) with me know that there is a still more work to do there!
Today, my practice includes a strong component of daily mindfulness techniques as well as a variety of reflective tools. Without going into too much detail, mindfulness means being aware of the body, activities, mind-states, thoughts and emotions with an open, exploring attitude of neither suppression nor indulgence. It allows everything just to be as it is without grasping it as a personal identity – “there is hunger” is a different and wiser experience compared to “I am hungry”, for example.
The reflective meditations develop character qualities more directly (because it doesn’t have to be left to chance) and can be as simple as spending 10 minutes in a good seated or standing posture considering all the ways I am fortunate – over a long period of time the mind begins to naturally incline this way and any self-pitying tendency is diminished. Developing a kinder approach to myself and others was a key driver for me in becoming an osteopath, from a sincere wish to be of benefit to others (although clear in the understanding this ultimately helps me, a wiser form of selfishness!).
Meditation has continued to be of great benefit to my osteopathic practice ever since. For example, a large part of assessment and treatment of a patient in pain requires me to fully listen and observe, staying open to the clues that may be present in a stiff hip, painful shoulder or aching knee. This is hugely helped by the mindful, non-judging approach that regular meditation brings.
As I comprehend it, osteopathy was so named by its founder, A. T. Still, because we are meant to understand our patients deeply, down to the bone. With a keener appreciation of my own mind through meditation I am perhaps in a better position to work in this way.
Osteopathy supports and feeds my practice of meditation and meditation supports and feeds my practice of osteopathy – I find the two are mutually beneficial. Given the plethora of research showing wide ranging physiological benefits of meditation including reduced inflammation (Black et al., 2013), a strengthened immune system (Davidson et al., 2003) and a greater ability to cope with chronic pain (Ussher et al., 2012), I am also keen to explore how it can be utilised more directly to help patients.
There is so much more that could be written on some of the topics touched on here and more may follow in future blog-posts. In the meantime, did you know that the Centre for Complementary Health runs regular courses in mindfulness run by a highly experienced teacher? Why not give it a try? I heartily recommend it…
Black, D.S., Cole, S.W., Irwin, M.R., Breen, E., St. Cyr, N.M., Nazarian, N., Khalsa, D.S., Lavretsky, H., 2013. Yogic meditation reverses NF-κB and IRF-related transcriptome dynamics in leukocytes of family dementia caregivers in a randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology 38, 348–355. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2012.06.011
Davidson, R.J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S.F., Urbanowski, F., Harrington, A., Bonus, K., Sheridan, J.F., 2003. Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation. Psychosom. Med. 65, 564–570. doi:10.1097/01.PSY.0000077505.67574.E3
Ussher, M., Spatz, A., Copland, C., Nicolaou, A., Cargill, A., Amini-Tabrizi, N., McCracken, L.M., 2012. Immediate effects of a brief mindfulness-based body scan on patients with chronic pain. J. Behav. Med.