And at the end of a very challenging year a message about how we can actually create a culture of peace and goodwill to all. To help us all to be calm, mindful and powerful even in stressful or challenging situations.
After 20 years of research and exploration I am pretty clear that personal authenticity is about the constant challenge and journey of being the very best version of ourselves that we possibly can be for as much of the time as possible.
In practical terms this means regulating our emotions so that we avoid inflicting them on others in unhelpful ways. And part of this is about managing our stress levels so that we avoid being so close to the edge that we get triggered to being a lesser version of ourself through vulnerability, embarrassment, anger or upset.
I have found three main tools that help me to be the best version of myself more of the time, and it remains a journey of discovery, a continual peeling back fo the onion to cope with more situations.
The first tool is general wellness, we are all more easily triggered when we are not feeling good, being disciplined around the basics of sleep, nutrition, hydration and exercise provides us with a good foundation.
The second tool is self knowledge, knowing ourselves, knowing our triggers and our recovery strategies so that we can be prepared and avoid the worst triggers completely and also recover ourselves from situations in the moment is a constant journey of practice and refinement.
The third tool and the one I want to share today is meditation and mindfulness.
My journey with meditation started when I was about 12. My mother was a spiritual seeker and tried many different paths. I didn’t get along well with school and she was exploring transcendental meditation with the school of the Maharishi Mashesh Yogi (who taught the Beatles). She took me along and I was given a mantra and taught how to meditate.
Although I did use it, especially through my rather challenging time at boarding school, I never really got into it and sat there beside me as something I knew but didn’t really understand. Occasionally over the next 40 years I would try to understand with various books and teachers, but I always found that the ritualistic and spiritual aspects of Tibetan Buddhism for example made it difficult for me to connect.
The book that made the difference for me was called “Search inside yourself” by Chade Meng Tan one of the first employees at Google, a book about meditation from an engineers perspective.
What I understood from this book is that meditation is the practice of learning to be in control of our thoughts. Just like learning a physical skill like skiing, where you need to learn the skills to be in control of your body (and skis), meditation is learning to be in control of your mind.
When we are not in control of our thoughts, our thoughts can be in control of us. We might have a thought, a worry for example, which grows into an emotion, fear for example, which then solidifies itself as a belief “I cannot do….”.
In more immediate situations we might have negative thoughts about a situation or a person which might then lead to behaviours that spiral downwards, both for ourselves and for others.
Meditation can teach us the skill of consciously controlling our thoughts to avoid these outcomes.
However the benefits of meditation don’t end there. Heart rate variability (HRV) is the millisecond by millisecond changes in our heart rate in response to stimulation. The faster and more variable our heart rate the better. HRV falls when we are stressed, tired, dehydrated or burned out. HRV increases when we are well rested and well nourished.
HRV is a physiological measure of when we are are our best. When our HRV is high we are less vulnerable to being triggered we are in better control of our mind and our body.
HRV, like many bodily functions is controlled unconsciously by our autonomous nervous system. Meditation is a way of quickly and intentionally increasing our HRV so that we can be ready for the next challenging situation.
There are many ways to meditate and many schools of meditation, several of which I have tried. The one which I find most effective is as follows.
Choose a meditation position. I am not sure it matters what the position is. The purpose of having a meditation position is to communicate to your body that this is what we are doing now. You might extend this to a particular chair or a particular place to reinforce the communication. However it is also worth knowing that you can meditate anywhere if you need to.
I like to be sitting, have my feet planted on the floor, my hands touching each other and my eyes closed, you may find other things work better for you. There are also meditative qualities to activities such as walking, yoga, cycling, running or swimming, however I find these are additional to the seated practice of meditation, not replacements for it.
I also use the Breathe app on my Apple Watch to time my meditation – it is not essential but I like it. Afterwards it also shows my my heart rate while meditating which I also like.
Many schools of meditation will recommend long mediations lasting 20 or 30 minutes. I find this very difficult and not sufficiently valuable to do. For me two minutes of meditation seems to be optimal.
Once you are ready the challenge and the practice is to relax your muscles (particularly in your face and shoulders) and simply to pay attention to your breathing. That is it. You can make this easier, by using breathing techniques (such as 4-7-8) which you have to concentrate on, however this is not necessary.
The challenge part is that inevitably thoughts will come in.
The practice is to notice these thoughts and to gently push them away without judgment, guilt or blame. I tell these thoughts that I don’t need them right now. This is the practice that is teaching you to have conscious control of your thoughts, so having thoughts is absolutely not a failure to pay attention to your breathing, it is the point of the practice.
And return your attention to your breathing.
Do that for a couple of minutes two or three times a day and you will begin to notice yourself being calmer, more in control and more ready for the next challenge.
I hope that you found this helpful, please do let me know how you get on.
Wishing you all a peaceful, calm and restorative festive break.