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Eat your Mind Greens!

“Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened but go on in fortune or misfortune at their own private pace, like a clock during a thunderstorm.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

I didn’t think much of vegetables when I was a kid. In fact, I would do everything I could to avoid eating anything remotely healthy. “Eat your greens,” my tormented parents would order at the dinner table. “You won’t grow up to be big and strong if you don’t eat your vegetables.”

Of course I eventually came round to their way of thinking, but it took many years and lots of tough parental love and, on occasion, blatant bribery (the promise of a delicious bowl of ice-cream was definitely worth a few mouthfuls of broccoli).

But it’s not just as children that we avoid what is good for us. Over recent years, I’ve become absolutely convinced that the majority of people do not do enough to take care of their mental health. Most of us, as adults, become health conscious to some extent. We try to eat healthy. We spend a good chunk of our spare time and income on exercise. But physical health is just one half of the circle. Mental health is equally important to our overall sense of health and well-being. Indeed, physical and mental health are inextricably interdependent.

So, what is the psychological equivalent of eating your greens or a sweaty workout? For thousands of years, in cultures and spiritual traditions from throughout the world, meditation has been one of the most effective ways of maintaining a healthy mind and exploring the inner self. Benefits include improved feelings of overall well-being, deeper levels of relaxation, lower blood pressure, slower aging and improved concentration and memory. These effects have been described by spiritual teachers for thousands years. Much more recently, scientific studies (such as this one) have produced some dramatic results, such as the fact that regular mediation, even for as short a time period as 21 consecutive days, can give rise to positive, physical changes in the brain.

Many people spend at least 20 minutes doing some form of physical exercise each day. What if as many also spent another 20 minutes in meditation? This relatively small lifestyle change could result in profound changes for both individuals and society at large. Certainly there would be less depression and anxiety and that in itself would have all kinds of positive knock-on effects. People would be less likely to act violently; to physically and verbally abuse themselves and others. I also believe the world would be a fairer, more peaceful place as our leaders would be less likely to make rash, egoist decisions. And when they did, more of us would be mindful enough to see through their hollow justifications.

Encouragingly, the signs are positive. An estimated 15 million Americans, for example, claim to have a regular meditation practice. More and more people are eating their mind greens, and that fills me with great hope for the future.

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My advent meditation challenge starts on Sunday, November 27th. I plan to meditate for 30 minutes each morning until Christmas Eve, analyzing the effects of the meditation on my well-being as I go. Check back for regular updates!

A habit worth keeping

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

– Aristotle

I remember well the very first time I meditated. I was teaching English in Japan at the time and was spending one clear, spring day hiking up a small mountain on the edge of the city where I lived. Near the summit, I reached a clearing with a beautiful panoramic view of the city, the sea and high mountains in the distance. It was incredibly peaceful, so I sat down on a rock and, after taking in the view for a few minutes, closed my eyes and fell into what I believe was a state of deep meditation. I don’t know if my first experience of meditation was unusual in that it wasn’t something I planned. I guess I started meditating by accident!

Since that day, I have been meditating on and off for the last six years. In truth,  it has been more ‘off’ than ‘on’. When I get really into it, I can be quite disciplined and spend about 30 minutes every morning in meditation. Unfortunately, I seem to lose the habit after a few weeks. The reasons vary. Work gets busy and I can’t drag myself out of bed early enough. My social life gets hectic and alcohol and late nights break the habit. Maybe it’s a holiday or a house move. Whatever the reason, it’s a habit I can’t seem to stick with.

Despite these setbacks, I am determined to establish a regular and lasting meditation practice. When I am meditating regularly, I feel a much greater sense of inner peace and contentment. Life’s stresses and problems seem much easier to deal with and work, relationships, and everything else in my life seems to run a lot smoother. So, I have decided to set myself a meditation challenge leading up to Christmas. All going well, by the end of the year I’ll have established a regular meditation practice that will last into the New Year and beyond.

Here’s how it’s going to work. I am going to spend 20-30 minutes in meditation each morning from November 27th to Christmas Day. Why these dates? Well, these are the dates for this year’s Advent calendar. Although I don’t practice any religion now, I was raised Catholic and the advent calendar was an enjoyable childhood ritual in the lead-up to Christmas. Practically speaking, it works well because 4 weeks is certainly long enough to feel the benefits of meditation (more on that in later posts) and I like the metaphor of opening a new window each day, like daily insights achieved through an ever-deepening meditation practice.

So why this blog? Well, I’m interested in taking a  scientific approach to this  challenge. In my next post, I’m going to analyse the state of my current physical and mental well-being and determine specific criteria which will be used to gauge the effects of the meditation practice. Tracking the effects of meditation on a daily basis is something I’ve never done before and I hope it will be an enlightening experience.

I welcome any comments, advice or feedback on this blog and do feel free to join me on this journey and share your experiences.

Peace.