As a practicing witch I thought I was broken when I couldn’t meditate. I didn’t really know what meditation was to be fair, only that it seemed to be a corner stone of magical life. Sitting crossed legged on the floor, chanting? Maybe it was about incense burning, crystal holding, flame gazing? Om? What does Om mean?
I longed to join my magical family who would talk about meditating for answers, help with issues from guides and universal beings or to simply relax. I would read and hear stories of how my friends could sit for 10-20 minutes in silence with answers coming to them – of course if I had something to listen to in the form of a guided meditation, there was a chance! Those times when I would record meditations and listen to them back were joyous and (third) eye opening.
I must admit I ran for the hills from meditation all together as a result of one particularly frightening/nightmarish session where I did manage to walk the hedge and leap over the other side without listening to a recording.
I’d experienced what some might call the beginnings of a “dark night of the soul” to steal the phrase from the Christian mystic Saint John of the Cross. I’m aware that like thousands of other people I have a generally anxious, overly chatty mind and haywire emotions at times and my coping mechanisms at the time of this experience were less than healthy, it triggered a period of darkness which in all honesty I wasn’t prepared for but even I can admit now has led to amazing growth and learning.
I realise now after many moons of exploration of self that this “dark night” isn’t necessarily a bad thing and appears to be a natural part of any spiritual journey or perhaps in our current climate an unfortunate symptom of modern times for a lot of people, I only make that observation given the shear amount of people younger, older and all the in between reporting mental health issues.
By learning that meditation isn’t traditionally about relaxation - I heard from an old Vedic traditionalist from India that it was supposed to be about gaining insight and wisdom in both light and dark realms, by hearing that many Zen teachers were discouraging people with psychological issues from meditation as “properly practiced it can cause hallucinations” and these frightening edgy experiences could exasperate mental health conditions or trigger long buried issues in my case, I came across Mindfulness.
Mindfulness comes under the meditation bracket but not all mindfulness is meditation and not all meditations are mindful.
It can be really easy to rush through life without noticing a lot, it can be really easy to get caught up in our thoughts and feelings, emotions and experiences, living in the past and/or looking to the future constantly. Stress, anxiety, low mood and low motivation biting at our heels… as a witch I have awareness of energy and especially when the Universe is telling me to slow down and take care of myself, but I didn’t really understand that until I came across mindfulness as a practice.
Mindfulness is the art of concentrating on the present moment, on noticing thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations as they come but not getting caught up in them, allowing them space but letting them go as you learn to concentrate and regulate the mind. Paying more attention to the present moment – to those thoughts and feelings, and to the world around, can improve mental wellbeing, it can also improve the connection to the divine and practice of honouring self. In the context of Buddhism where Mindfulness sits, it’s one of the eight folds of the “Eightfold Path” which is the framework of all of the Buddhist practice.
It’s not wrong to practice Mindfulness on its own, especially if it’s 10 minutes or so at a time, from a Buddhists perspective uncoupled from the other parts of the Path that teach about releasing greed and anger and developing loving kindness, compassion and empathy mindfulness could reinforce negative qualities.
“It’s easy to stop noticing the world around us. It’s also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living “in our heads” – caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour.” – Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre.
Imagine that cup of tea where you focus completely on drinking it rather than watching the TV as well! You take in its scent, warmth and taste, the feel of the mug in your hand, and steam on your face as you blow to cool it down. In the time that you are busy focusing solely on your cup of tea, you’re removing overpowering emotions from the mind, allowing you to really see how you can become entangled in the stream of thoughts. You’ve given yourself space to stand back from your thoughts for just a moment, enabling patterns to be noticed.
Gradually as you feel the cool, smoothness of the banister as you climb the stairs and feel the slight pull in your calves you train yourself to notice when thoughts are taking over, and you start to realise that the mind is often on a futile mission to problem solve all the time. “Is trying to solve this by brooding about it helpful, or am I just getting caught up in my thoughts?”
It’s useful to remember that mindfulness isn’t about getting rid of thoughts, but rather seeing them as what the professionals call “mental events.” I like to think of them as buses, because I catch the bus I resonate with this, so I’m stood at the bus station, the buses are “thought buses” coming and going all the time all over the place, it’s busy, crowded, confusing… but guess what? I don’t have to get on them and be taken away. It was hard at first and still can be, but with gentle persistence it’s possible to not get caught on a thought bus or many thought buses.
Awareness of this kind helps us notice signs of stress or anxiety earlier and helps with dealing with them better, in fact “…Mindfulness is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a way to prevent depression in people who have had three or more bouts of depression in the past” (www.nhs.uk)
Mindfulness is a type of meditation where you bring your full awareness to something, being mindful of your breathing is a common form of mindfulness during meditation and known by many Buddhists as shamatha. Following your breath - how the coolness and warmth of air passes through the nostrils and how the chest and stomach rises and falls for example improves your awareness of being in the present.
Imagine you’ve created sacred space mindfully, you’re intuitively placing items where your heart is being drawn. Candles, colours, crystals etc. You focus on your breath, how it feels to breathe fully throughout the body and suddenly that yoga practice that’s been disturbed by thoughts of “I can’t do this” or “why can’t I focus?” just happens. The dog barks or the kids are shouting. STOP. Breathe. Notice (trying naming it as “kids” or “dog”) and then bring yourself back to your breath before returning to your yoga – that is an act of mindfulness.
Perhaps you’ve created a spell, you’re not thinking about the end result, you know the universe will take care of that, the intent is already out there. You strike a match for the candle, you hear the crackle of the wick as it catches it alight, you feel and smell the herbs you’re grinding and then sprinkling over your candle. Suddenly you’re paying attention to each step as you take it. Your words come from the heart. Your mind wanders to “Am I doing this right?” or “Will this be successful?” STOP. Breathe. Notice (you could name it as “worrying”), bring your attention back to the sights, sounds and smells in front of you – that’s an act of mindfulness.
You’ve sat down to eat, maybe the TV is on, your thoughts are drifting to what you need to do once dinner’s over and done with, what’s on the agenda next? Tomorrow? STOP. Breathe. Do you need to turn the TV off? Now focus on truly tasting the food. What does it look like? Feel like in your mouth? Taste like? Smell like? When you drift off into all sorts of thoughts again, because you will. STOP. Breathe. Notice (you could say “thinking”) and then return to tasting your food – that is an act of mindfulness.
Mindfulness isn’t the answer to everything, and it’s important that you understand that my enthusiasm for it doesn’t run ahead of any evidence gathered for its benefits. It works for me, doesn’t mean to say it’s going to work for you.
“There is encouraging evidence for its use in health, education, prisons and workplaces, but it’s important to realise that research is still going on in all of these fields. Once we have the results, we’ll be able to see more clearly who mindfulness is most helpful for.” Prof. Mark Williams.