One word has done more for my mental wellbeing at midlife than any other. That word is ‘practice’. The simple concept, which has quietly settled into my consciousness, was introduced to me at a retreat in Asilomar, California, USA, attended by 406 women. Lots of the activities were conducted in silence (can you imagine 406 women being silent? Miraculously, we were – apart from when it all got too much and a few would feel the urge to slip away to the nearby beach for a natter). There was lots of time for contemplation via journaling, gazing inwards, walking or meditating in one form or another.
My favourite activity was called ‘Sitting Practice’. Hundreds of us would arrive pre-dawn at a large hall, sit silently in rows on straight-backed chairs, close our eyes, still our mind and body then focus within. Such was the intensity of the experience that when the practice was pronounced complete it was actually startling to tune into the sounds of the waves in the distance, along with the racket of raucous birdsong greeting the morning sunlight which pierced the darkness of the hall through tiny windows set so high in the walls that the shafts of light made crisscross patterns on the floor, like spotlights flaring at a concert.
A large part of why I enjoyed starting my days in this way was the impact that the word ‘practice’ had on me. The beauty of ‘practice’ is that it removes all sense of needing to get ‘it’ right.
My many previous attempts at meditation had gone by the wayside because my mind would invariably kick in at some point, with thoughts such as “Am I doing this right? Am I supposed to be feeling like this? Oh, there’s an itch, is it okay to scratch it? If I do, will that break my concentration? What concentration? Stop thinking! Stop twitching! How much longer till I’m done? Have I missed the tinkle of the bell? Why use a bell that tinkles rather than rings anyway? Stop thinking, thinking, thinking! What do I do now? Are we there yet?” Over and over again…
While I totally understood that the purpose of meditation is to slow the mind and that the benefits of doing so are multitudinous, somehow I couldn’t seem to stick with it consistently enough to access those benefits. And that, of course, is the point. If it came easily, we wouldn’t experience the benefits in the same way.
For me, practising sitting quietly meant that I allowed myself more grace; more compassion; more patience to simply be present in the moment without any judgment, or curiosity even, as to whether I was improving my meditation skills. The need to learn the best way or to master the process of meditation disappeared completely. I wasn’t there to do anything but practice it. And weirdly, even thinking ‘practice makes perfect’ didn’t inspire me to try harder or interfere with my state because this practice really worked for me (and many others). It was so peaceful, calming and felt downright good for my wellbeing that I would float back to the motel afterwards, in my state of relaxed alertness.
Since returning home, I’ve maintained the practice – albeit less consistently. But most days, I take myself off somewhere with the purpose of embracing at least ten minutes of sitting practice. It’s interesting just how different it feels to the rest of the sitting I do (which I could be considered somewhat well practiced in – for all the wrong reasons! 🙂
So where else could this concept of ‘practice’ be useful? Would thinking of the things we are continuing to learn as practice – rather than something we need to get perfectly right – change our acceptance of being perfectly imperfect beings?
Wondering about ‘Sitting Practice’? It’s as simple as it gets really.
Find a chair with no arms and a straight back that you can sit comfortably upright in with your feet placed flat on the floor. A dining chair is usually a good option for keeping your spine straight-ish. Turn off any background noise. Sitting in silence is preferable. Set a timer for 5, 10 or however many minutes you want. Rest the back of your hands on your thighs, keeping your arms loose. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. As thoughts enter your mind, let them just pass through with neither judgment nor need to examine them. And breathe. Keep doing so till your timer pings. Slowly raise your head if it has dropped towards your chest and open your eyes. Settle into your body before gently moving onwards and upwards.
And then, whenever you wish, practice the practice again.
What could you practice practising?