Professor Brendan Kelly
The Covid-19 pandemic has seen extraordinary changes in clinical settings, as work practices changed, demand increased and pressures mounted. The net result for most professionals is that we are working differently to before, experiencing new stresses and becoming increasingly busy.
It is easy to let this busyness spill over into other parts of our lives and to neglect areas such as exercise, sleep and quietude when we are not working. In 1660, French scientist Blaise Pascal pointed to the perils of busyness and to a possible solution in his Pensées: ‘I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.’
Staying quietly in our rooms is certainly one way to avoid the busyness that obsesses us so much of the time. But what are we to do in our rooms? Just sit there? How does that help with purpose, motivation and focus?
Meditation is one of the best ways that we can spend time in our rooms, simply being rather than constantly doing. Meditation is especially useful because it compels us to notice just how busy our minds and bodies usually are. It requires us to calm our frenetic thoughts so that we live more fully in the present moment, rather than rushing heedlessly into the next one. Meditation is not about disconnecting from the world, but connecting more deeply with the world right now and disconnecting from the imaginary worlds that occupy us for so much of the time. How do we begin?
The best way to start a meditation practice is to commit to meditating today and only today. Longer-term commitments tend to stop us before we start, so just decide that you will meditate today. That is plenty for now. Do not worry about tomorrow.
Next, find a relatively quiet spot in which to sit. You will never find complete silence and you will never be entirely certain that nobody will disturb you. There are noises and people everywhere. Just find the best place that you can and, if you are disturbed, notice the disturbance as it occurs and then watch it dissipate of its own accord. You do not need to do anything. Once the distraction has faded, guide yourself gently back into your meditation.
It is not necessary to sit cross-legged. Take up whatever position is most comfortable for you, ideally either sitting or lying on the floor. If you tend to fall asleep when you lie down, then sit up. As you sit, make sure your spine is relatively straight. Place your hands in front of you, possibly on your knees or the arm-rests of a chair. Your feet should be planted firmly on the ground and your gaze more or less straight ahead or slightly downward.
Try to focus on your breathing. This is difficult: once you direct your thoughts to your breath, a million other thoughts will enter your head: events at work today, things you have to do later, engagements coming up tomorrow, issues from the distant past, random thoughts that you didn’t even know were in your head, thoughts about thoughts, thoughts about thoughts about thoughts, and so forth. We carry a multicoloured infinity of ideas in our minds. All of them come rushing in as soon as we try to focus on our breath. So be it!
Do not be dismayed by this. If we were able to focus clearly on our breathing, we would not need to meditate. Our minds would already be disciplined, calm and directable. We would be Zen masters.
Instead, our minds are like troupes of monkeys chattering and jumping all over the place with no apparent pattern or purpose. Noticing this is the first and possibly most important step in meditation. Our monkey minds are immensely complex, powerful and filled with energy, so if we learn the discipline of contemplative practice, our minds can achieve great things.
Rather than focusing simply on the breath, many people find it helpful to structure their focus in a particular way. One common technique is known as the ‘mindfulness of breathing’. To do this, count your in-breaths for ten breaths, so that you have counted from one to ten over the course of ten in-breaths. Then, count ten out-breaths. Finally, count ten turnings of the breath (after the in-breath and before the out-breath). Then, start again. This is a common meditation exercise that helps us to relax at night-time and, during the day, connects us more fully with our breath, our bodies, the present moment and the worlds within and around us.
Meditation sounds like a simple exercise, but staying focused is a challenge. It is important that we persist. Making time is vital, as are self-compassion and self-love. It is inevitable that we will be distracted, but it is not inevitable that we will be disheartened. When distractions occur, notice them, try not to respond and watch as they pass out of awareness. Refocus on your breath. Meditation is a practice, so imperfection is part of the deal. If we do not need to refocus our thoughts, then we are not doing it right. Bringing back our wandering minds is the work of meditation. Without that, we achieve little.
What are the benefits of meditation? At one level, the purpose of meditation is to help us to see reality as it truly is. To begin with, this is the reality of the present moment while we sit and meditate. In time, this mindset becomes a habit and, eventually, it becomes our default position, even when we are not meditating: being rooted in the moment and seeing the world as it really is. This approach helps us to remain calm, connected and aware. It settles our thoughts, boosts our mood and promotes lasting well-being.
These are big claims, so it is easy to be cynical about mindfulness and meditation. In fact, it is vital that we question the benefits of any practice, such as mindfulness or meditation, in order to be certain that we are using our time well and not deluding ourselves with seductive worldviews that deliver little benefit in our lives. Happily, an increasing body of research supports the usefulness of mindfulness. There is now strong evidence from randomised controlled trials to indicate that mindfulness interventions (especially eight-week mindfulness programmes) help with the management of chronic pain, reduce rates of relapse of depression in at-risk individuals and improve outcomes in substance abuse.
Despite these benefits, there is little doubt that mindfulness and the wellness industry in general have been oversold as instant cures for all life’s ills in recent years. It is, however, important that excessive claims made about mindfulness and meditation do not draw attention away from the proven benefits of these ancient practices. As is the case with many things, mindfulness and meditation do not have all the answers, but they are valuable tools when they are used with humility, wisdom and care.
As health professionals, we are busy people who need to slow down. This is difficult. Busyness is addictive. It makes us feel valued and important. Even so, it is possible to achieve a better balance between doing and not doing in our lives, and so boost our happiness.
Decluttering our lives will increase our well-being and make us happier. How we go about this varies from person to person, but, in general, we should be aware that we overvalue busyness and action and we undervalue leisure and inaction. Aristotle was right: ‘Leisure of itself gives pleasure and happiness and enjoyment of life, which are experienced, not by the busy man, but by those who have leisure.’
To experience this, we need to slow down. And sometimes we need to stop.
Brendan Kelly is Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and author of ‘The Science of Happiness: The Six Principles of a Happy Life and the Seven Strategies for Achieving It’ (Gill Books)