I started meditating in 2012. I’d been struggling with depression and, after reading some self-help books, I decided that meditation would help. I wanted to avoid getting involved in something spiritual that wasn’t well grounded in psychology, so I searched for a therapist who had mindfulness on their website and booked a session. He did an introductory mindfulness exercise and then recommended Mark William’s book The Mindful Way Through Depression. I did the exercises for a couple of years and it made a huge difference.
Discovering meditation groups was a second breakthrough. I’d been very isolated for some years and being in weekly contact with other meditators brought friendship and acceptance. They also introduced me to the broader spectrum of Buddhist meditations. I got a job working at Gaia House, a meditation retreat centre, and there I started reading and practicing more than ever. Meditation became as much about exploring the spectrum of happiness as a defence against unhappiness.
I ended my job at Gaia House and starting trying to get back into my previous career. Meditation started to slip into the background of my day and I hardly noticed that I was practicing less and less. Slowly, the general niggle of daily living crept back and the bright glow of mental happiness faded.
When I finally found a job, I was very relieved. At this point, I’d been away from my career for six years. The company was based in the area where my meditation groups were and I anticipated a lovely life of walking to work and spending free time socialising with my meditator friends. The company was smaller than the big enterprises I’d worked at before and had a reputation for its friendly environment. So I was shocked to discover that the work was extremely stressful and chaotic.
Faced with a sudden onslaught of stress, I turned to my meditation practice and found it wasn’t there. I struggled along for a year, trying to get caught up with my work each week and wondered what had happened to my bright, shiny future. What kept me sane was the regular contact with my meditator friends. It became increasing obvious that I was talking about memories of meditation rather than its current benefits. I’d often begin sentences with “when I meditated regularly…”.
It was the long Christmas and New Year break that made the difference. Without the pressure of work, I got into the habit of staying up late each night and not getting enough sleep. As the first day of work approached, I thought I’d better get an early night and I slept for ten hours. I woke feeling rested, warm and comfortable, and having dreamed for hours. It felt so good and pointed me back to the positive experiences and insights I’d had during meditation. I decided to start again from the beginning and, this time, do a formal course in mindfulness, letting a professional teacher guide me back into regular practice. I registered for the classic 8 week mindfulness course with the Oxford Mindfulness Centre.
I think I now understand why I stopped meditating and why I struggled so much when stress became the dominant feature of life. The context of my original meditation practice had been depression, including emotions of sadness and loss. I’d become very attuned to those thoughts and feelings. As the practice became strong, those issues stopped troubling me and my motivation to practice started to drift. I enjoyed talking with friends about meditation more than actually doing it. When the next crisis hit, it was in the context of stress. Not having a regular meditation practice in place, there was nothing to catch these thoughts and feelings in-flight. It seemed that the benefits of meditation, which still applied in regard to depression and sadness, had disappeared.
I restarted my meditation practice from scratch, doing the the basics like body scan and mindfulness of the breath, but this time scanning for the intrusion of stress in my experience. Doing the formal course kept me honest – I had homework to do and reported back in the weekly sessions. Knowing how effective the practice was the first time, I felt confident that the apparently solid wall of stress would turn out to be something I could work with.