Championing the benefits of meditation has become the norm at this point, when everyone – from UK schoolchildren to hotshot CEOs – seem to be doing it. But that doesn't mean they're not worth repeating. Meditation has been linked to reduced stress and anxiety, increased focus and concentration, lower blood pressure, better mood and even stronger relationships.
Nonetheless, it's easy to discount the practice if you don't consider yourself a Meditation Person. Maybe you're a Type A who thinks it's self-indulgent to dedicate time that could otherwise be spent working or caregiving to breathing deeply. Maybe you're scared of being left with your thoughts for too long, preferring to fill your mind with music or podcasts. Or maybe you're just too sarcastic and sceptical to bother trying.
This was ABC News anchor and New York Times bestselling author Dan Harris, before a nationally televised panic attack prompted him to reexamine his life and begin an odyssey of self-help. Meditation was crucial in helping him tame his internal monologue and his new book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, promises to convert even the most dubious and restless among us.
A big reason why many people shun meditation is the view that it is self-indulgent, like many rituals that fall under the self-care umbrella, Harris argues. Too many people believe "the most self-indulgent flavour of self-care imaginable is sitting with your eyes closed, doing nothing". But Harris aims to stamp out this perception, which is pervasive in a world where being overworked and underslept are status symbols – despite the renewed importance placed on self-care.
If you want to care for others, it's impossible to do so effectively if you're not taking proper care of yourself, he says. "It’s the old cliché from the airline safety instructions: put your own mask on before assisting others. In fact, neglecting to engage in a little bit of smart maintenance may leave you so bedraggled and resentful that it ends up having a negative effect on the people you are ostensibly trying to help."
Here is an easy meditation practice, extracted from Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, anchored in self-compassion and the belief that you deserve to give a shit about yourself, no justification required.
Giving A Shit About Yourself Meditation
One to 15 minutes, can be done in a few moments or as part of a longer practice
Start in the usual way: eyes closed or half closed. Relaxing into the posture as you breathe out, straightening up the spine as you breathe in. Setting an intention here to not get too uptight about things, to go along with the experiment. Take a few breaths to get settled.
Get curious about what’s going on with you in this moment. Is there any way in which you aren’t totally fine? Maybe there is some rushy anxiousness, or a dull heartache, or a feeling of stress. Or maybe there is some clear physical discomfort happening. Or maybe there is nothing like this at all. Sometimes we’re just idling along in neutral. All of these states are fine. All we need to do here is sit with exactly what’s happening inside us, not trying to fix anything. The beginning of compassion is allowing: allowing ourselves to feel what we feel, to be this exact person at this exact time. Just breathing into our bodies and sitting in this accepting way with ourselves.
Now for the self-compassion part. Start by connecting to a simple intention inside yourself to be well. There’s nothing necessarily sentimental here – we’re talking about the extremely reasonable desire to be healthy and not in pain. A short phrase here can help: May I be well. This is different from noting or using a mantra; it’s using a short phrase to highlight your intention. If that language sounds lofty or artificial, use a different one: It’s okay, or Feel better. Choose words that feel natural to you. The key is to connect to your own sensible aspiration for your discomfort to pass. You are not trying to fix the problem or think about all its permutations. Put that all aside. You are going below it, to the most simple and uncomplicated intention: Obviously, I’d prefer not to suffer. Who wouldn’t?
Some people recruit an image to help with this, for example, the image of themselves as a little kid. This can help kick in some nice warm feelings, although warm feelings aren’t required. You can imagine yourself as a four-year-old running around in a park with ice cream smeared all over your face and then you wipe out and start bawling. "Oh, man! May you be well, little lady/dude/gender-nonbinary kiddo." Can you connect to the reasonable feeling of wanting that kid – you – to be happy, to no longer be in pain? You can use any scenario, real or imagined, that works for you. And of course you can use an adult version of yourself too, because that kid is still inside you, nested like a Russian doll inside your years of learning and living.
May I be well. The practice is returning, again and again, to the simple intention for you to be well, and then sending that intention to yourself. You can use an image to help with the latter, or – if images are tricky – you can simply focus on the embodied sense of yourself sitting. May I be well. It helps to smile. Notice what feelings come up. All are fine and natural – the specific feelings are secondary to your intention. You may feel loving or calm. If so, great – enjoy. Or you may feel annoyed or self-conscious. Also no problem. If the latter occur, have a sense of humour about the backfiring hilarity of this meditative situation, and send that sense of humour down and into your black, black heart. Compassion by another name. There’s always a workaround.
May I be well. Connect to the reasonableness of the intention behind your words. May I be well. For real. Like everyone else on the planet, you’re doing the best you can. May I be well. May all of us be well. Recognising our shared human condition. There can be something very poignant about this.
So that’s the main part of it. You’re sitting there repeating your phrase, and as you do you’re continually reconnecting to the simple intention for your suffering to ease. Sending this to yourself, with maybe an extra visual or feeling. It’s okay if it seems awkward at first – you’re like an actor rehearsing your lines. It gets easier with time. May I be well. Eventually your focus will be less on the words and more on the intention behind them, which gets stronger and clearer and more obviously common sense.
There’s one more thing you can do: if some specific part of your body actually hurts, then imagine sending your caring intention directly into that part, opening the channel, sending in healing vibes. May I be well. You are practising giving a shit about all parts of yourself. And then feeling what you feel. Feeling and fellow-feeling: May I be well. May all of us be well.
A good way to finish this meditation is to expand the circle of compassion out: to imagine others in your life, others like you, people doing the best they can. Connect to your intention for them to also be well. May you be well. Find a phrase that works for you, and silently repeat it if you like, maybe visualising faces near and far. May you be well.
Think of it as a final act of generosity, sending out your intention and your care and the benefits of the practice to others. Maybe there’s some gratitude there. May you be well. It’s basically the best training programme a human being can enrol in, ever. It’s worth the effort. Finish up by feeling the breath and the body. Solid in your posture, supported by the ground, chilling on your stoop like a little Buddha. A final couple of breaths into the chest, feeling that area fill with air and warmth. When you’re ready, open your eyes. Yes, you just did that. You are now a beautiful marshmallow of compassion.