I’ve been taking a meditation course recently, at the Edinburgh Buddhist centre.

It’s been interesting, and hopefully useful.

I find it a bit hard to describe what it’s about without very quickly getting into talking about what meditation isn’t. So maybe that’s what I’ll do. A lot of this is my own misconceptions I’d picked up over the years, but I think other people may have similar ones.

First of all and most fundamentally, meditation isn’t really about drifting off into a nice relaxing place. It’s not about becoming less conscious and escaping, but about becoming more conscious, more aware of what’s happening in your body and mind and the world around you. It isn’t about avoiding difficult feelings or making them somehow magically disappear, in fact it’s more about confronting them (though “confronting” doesn’t feel quite like the right word either. Maybe just “being aware of them” is better).

Secondly, there’s not really anything religious or supernatural about it either. At least not the kind I’ve been doing. (This is just as well as I have fairly little patience these days both for most kinds of religion and for unproven “alternative”-style remedies). Although the class is at the Buddhist Centre, they’ve hardly talked about anything Buddhism-specific. It’s all been pretty similar to the meditation I’ve read about in a book which was written by some pretty mainstream and down-to-earth seeming psychologists. Mindfulness, which encompasses meditation as one of its key components, seems to be gaining ground as a practise that’s considered helpful for lots of conditions (depression, anxiety, etc.).

So, what were we actually doing? There were three main meditations taught: the body scan, meditation on the breath, and the Metta Bhavana (which means cultivation of loving kindness, though “love” in this context is more what you might think of as deep acceptance rather than romantic or affectionate love). The teacher would guide us through each one, sometimes interspersed with relevant (and beautiful) poetry… I really need to ask him the name of one of the poems before the class finishes. The first two are basically what they sound like… in the body scan, you focus attention on each part of the body in turn, feeling the sensations as you go. It’s amazing how much you can find that you normally aren’t conscious of at all, and it’s also amazing how sometimes all you need to do is become aware of a feeling of tension and immediately you can feel it releasing and the muscles relaxing without having to deliberately do anything. (Relaxation may not be the main aim of meditating, but it is sometimes a nice side effect).

The breath meditation was similar to one I’d tried from a CD, but I somehow found it much easier in a room full of other people meditating. There was nothing to get distracted by, no suddenly remembering something I meant to do and interrupting my meditation to go and do it. Also the advice on the posture was extremely helpful… it makes a huge difference getting into a position where you can comfortably sit still for fifteen-plus minutes, and I found it surprisingly hard to do that on my own.

For me the biggest thing I took from it was the idea that there’s another way to deal with your feelings. For a long time I thought you either had to bottle them up completely (which risks them coming out in unwanted ways that you then don’t even understand), or let them out and basically be forced to do whatever they want you to do. But there is another way… you can become aware of them, explore and understand them, and then consciously decide “I am choosing not to act on this feeling”. I don’t think I fully saw how different that is from bottling things up before. Meditation can be immensely helpful for this. Highly recommended.

Why some things bug me and others don’t

It’s interesting how sometimes being exposed to something for years on end can desensitise you so that you become more tolerant of it than most people. And sometimes it seems to have the exact opposite effect and leave you with an irrational aversion to whatever it is.

I was thinking about this earlier because I realised I was far more bothered than I should be by the fact that one of my car doors is stuck shut. It shouldn’t be a big deal… the car still works fine, and most days I don’t even have any need to open that door. Sure, it’ll be a pain if I go on a trip away with several people, but there’s plenty of time to get it fixed before that next happens. Yet as soon as I discovered the problem I felt agitated. I couldn’t rest until I’d tried to fix it myself (no luck; perhaps ironically, there seems to be no easy way to get the door apart to get at the lock components without opening it, which is exactly what I can’t do!), then when that failed, booked it into a garage.

But I realised I’m always like this when something breaks, even if it’s only minor breakage. Whenever it happens I just have to fix it, arrange to get it fixed, or replace it with a new one as soon as humanly possible, or else it won’t stop bugging me. I think this is because when I was growing up we often had things that weren’t working (or weren’t working properly) for weeks or months at a time. Partly due to not having enough money to get them fixed, partly due to no-one being as bothered about them as I am now. Usually it wasn’t anything all that serious – stereos with only one speaker working, cookers with a ring that you couldn’t use because it would trip all the circuit breakers, cars that basically worked but would overheat if you were stuck in traffic for any length of time, toilet seats that weren’t actually attached to the toilet, that sort of thing – but once we were without a working fridge for several weeks, and that wasn’t fun.

So now, I just can’t be doing with those things anymore, even the ones that should only be minor annoyances. It’s like all my tolerance for them has already been used up and I’ve got no patience left.

But it interests me that with certain other things, it went the opposite way entirely.

Smoking, for example. Now I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life and I’ve got no intention of letting that change, but I’m not that bothered if other people want to. A lot of non-smokers seem to recoil in horror* at the thought of being in a room where someone’s smoking or the idea of (gasp!) living with a smoker, but I just don’t really care at all, probably because I’m so used to it, my dad having smoked the whole time I was growing up. So in this case I did develop a tolerance rather than using up all my capacity for tolerance. I wonder what the difference is.

(* I’m not saying people are wrong to recoil in horror… given that passive smoking isn’t exactly good for you, I do think they’re within their rights to object to people smoking around them. It’s just that I happen not to object to it myself, and I find it sort of interesting that I don’t).