Meditation and Mental Health: A personal perspective
This is an important week. As technology, societal rules and roles continue to evolve it’s essential that we keep shining the spotlight on mental health and to “normalise” and vocalise the issues many of us face. These are difficult and confusing times and we can all support each other.
We all experience challenges to our mental wellbeing to greater and lesser extents at different stages of life. As a meditation guide, I am often privileged to have the chance to hear people share their stories at this very open, vulnerable level. I am often deeply touched and amazed at what is going on for people beneath the surface. In private one-on-one’s in corporate meeting rooms or intimate conversations following a class I am given snapshots into some of the complex, emotionally layered and challenging existences of many successful, functional and inspiring people for whom you would easily be forgiven for assuming that their lives must be all plain sailing. These people are unsung heroes in my eyes, who would never dream of sharing the mental health challenges they face on a constant basis.
I’ve come to think this is the norm, not the exception. For many of us, mental health, like physical health, requires a certain degree of basic maintenance and discipline. Lifestyle plays a huge role. Each promotion we go after, each relationship we create, each mortgage or rent increase we take on, child, pet or loved one we are responsible for, each time we say ‘yes’ we are offering up our energy as well as enjoying the fruits of these acts. I agree with Justine Musk when she talks about the “deep yes”: we need to learn how to fully say yes to the things that matter and to unburden ourselves, painful or difficult as it may be, from the things that don’t.
Other lifestyle factors also have a significant part to play. A poor diet will affect the gut microbiome which can affect seratonin (our natural “happy” chemicals) in our brain. Alcohol and drugs are notoriously unhelpful and yet I think sometimes we underestimate the magnitude of the effect that even just a few beers here or there can have on someone, say, who is trying to manage their depression. Mindful movement of any kind will affect our whole physiology including the chemistry in our brains. Taking time to be in nature and follow creative pursuits are essential for an overall sense of balance. A full, uninterrupted natural night’s sleep will restore the physical body and allow the mind to dream and process all the emotions and triggers of our daily lives, as well as send signals to our conscious awareness of areas we need to address.
Meditation works much the same way. I think of it as a way of cleansing unhelpful patterns of thought and healing rifts. It’s a way of uncovering, accepting and integrating different aspects of our personalities in order to slowly, over time, feel more at ease, more completely “ourselves”, and to be able to live an empowered life and make choices that reflect that. It’s not a substitute for therapy or medication, should you feel like you need that kind of support, but it can be a wonderful complement to therapy and/or medication.
Yet for all the talk about meditation in the media I’ve found it to be a practice that many people are not yet fully ready to engage in at this level. I think this is for a number of reasons. Firstly, a lot of people just don’t feel like they need it. Yes, they may feel stressed or challenged at times but they have their own coping mechanisms that work well for them, such as going for a run. In my view that’s great if they feel that way and I wouldn’t force meditation on them.
The second reason is education and accessibility. There is a lot of misunderstanding around meditation, often it’s viewed simply as a relaxation technique, and many people don’t understand how they could benefit from a dedicated practice and don’t think it’s worth their time. Meditation centres have been very traditional up until now and don’t necessarily cater well to a broader, contemporary audience. I hope slowly with a new wave of teachers and businesses supporting the practice that this will change.
Thirdly, those who could really benefit from meditation for their mental wellbeing often, probably rightly, feel reluctant to go there. They intuitively seem to know that they could be opening a can of worms and don’t want to face the disruption in their personal lives that would go along with that. While mindfulness-based meditation is a gentle process whereby the mind heals itself at a pace we’re able to handle, it can indeed sometimes still be disruptive. Someone who is in a crisis situation in their lives might not be in a good place to start a deep meditation practice. First we have to work on creating a certain degree of calm and stability in our lives, often only then the real work begins.
Those who are genuinely drawn to and passionate about meditation often only feel that way because they’ve exhausted all other options and see no alternative. For me personally, I was drawn to yoga and meditation in my teens in the midst what I can see now as a crisis point in my mental health. I felt deeply disorientated, frustrated and misunderstood, which manifested as anorexia, insomnia, anxiety, and getting myself into unnecessary, troublesome situations which only compounded my suffering further. Yoga and meditation grounded me at that time, leveled off my emotions, and offered an alternative way to channel those energies in a healthier way.
Throughout my twenties, these were the practices I turned to whenever I was in need. When my boyfriend at the time turned physically abusive and I would lock myself in the bathroom out of terror until he calmed down, unable to see a way out of the whole scenario, I would meditate. When I had a run of career false-starts after the credit crunch and my self-esteem was at rock bottom, I would meditate. When I was in over my head at work and felt the strain of a bullying corporate culture, a sense of dread overcoming my body at the thought of having to go in to the office, I would meditate. When my previous partner suffered a bad wave of depression and I felt alienated and powerless to help, I finally undertook yoga and meditation teacher training.
I’ve never been diagnosed with a mental illness and I’ve always found a way to keep my life somehow ticking over no matter how low I felt. But I do feel as though for most of my life I have carried the burden of not understanding why I’m here or who I am more heavily than others seem to. It’s what drove me to study philosophy and to switch careers and to study countless texts from Eastern and Western cultures on consciousness and the nature of reality. It’s what fascinates me about the practice of sitting on my cushion, with nothing but the forces of body, breathing and sensory experience and creating space to really listen, to really feel what’s there, to heal and recalibrate and understand at a somatic level a little more, breath by breath. It’s what has prompted me to gradually shed more and more layers of protection I had built up in my life and psyche and trust and open to love, magic, wonder, and the simply beauty of just being.
I’m no enlightened guru and have no real secrets to share. I can only empathise with others who may be going through far worse to the limits of my own suffering. But I am grateful to be able to now share what I have learned to support the mental wellbeing of my neighbours and friends in this sometimes hard and ever vibrant city.