A former self-described Zen failure, psychiatrist Dr Brendan Kelly resolved to meditate for 15 minutes every day. He shares the results of clearing the mind and gaining focus
I am a recidivist meditator. In late 2016, I realised that I had attended sporadic meditation classes over many years, joined contemplative groups, undertaken courses, visited the occasional retreat centre and — like many people — bought a small mountain of books about meditation, mindfulness and Buddhism. I’d even read some of these books and profited to a certain extent from their wisdom. In early 2016, I made a trip to Bangalore in India, spending much of my time happily lost in Hindu temples.
And yet meditation had never taken root in my life. I had always lacked the discipline to establish a daily meditation practice despite an oddly enduring belief that this would be a good thing to do: to reduce stress, maintain calmness, and increase happiness.
Meditation seemed like a no-brainer and yet I conspicuously failed to do it — just like going to the gym. I was a Zen failure.
There is much evidence to support my belief in meditation. As a psychiatrist, a medical doctor who treats people with mental illness and psychological problems, I am only too aware of the usefulness of mindfulness in preventing relapse in depression and assisting with day-to-day issues like unhappiness, stress and anxiety. I am also mindful (as it were) of the commodification and oversimplification of mindfulness — ‘McMindfulness’.
I know full well that people’s problems are rarely so straightforward that any single technique, such as mindfulness or meditation, can offer all the answers. But they can offer some of the answers and they help many people live calmer, happier and more fulfilled lives.
And so, despite my remarkably consistent failure to meditate in the past, despite my realistic attitude to what meditation can achieve, and despite the many other matters clamouring for my attention, I resolved to meditate for 15 minutes every day in 2017. Over the course of the year, I kept a diary of my successes and failures, and that journal became my new book, The Doctor Who Sat For A Year (Gill).
So, how did it go? Starting to meditate is not easy. It can be difficult to find the time and decide how to sit, where to sit, and how long to persist on a given day, before stopping and resolving to try again tomorrow. Luckily for me, I am a habitual early-riser, so it was not too difficult to set aside 15 minutes each day to meditate.
My real problems began when I sat to meditate and tried to clear my mind of thoughts. Whenever I tried to do this, hundreds of thoughts came rushing into my head at high speed. These intrusive thoughts were very varied and included predictable concerns (will I be late for work? where are the car keys?), less predictable thoughts (where will we go on holiday this year? ), semi-random musings (should I get a new bicycle this year or next year?) and then entirely random thoughts (why do birds spend so much time singing? Are they really singing? Maybe they’re chatting).
I soon decided the key was not to get too worried about the thoughts that drifted into my head, but rather to let them drift around a bit until they faded away themselves. In other words, it was best not to actively push the thoughts away, but rather decide not to engage, resist distraction and let my mind settle at its own pace, in its own way. This cannot be rushed, so I tried to mentally stand back and simply let it happen.
I found this especially difficult when I thought of something that was genuinely important as I tried to clear my mind to meditate. I still needed to let that thought pass without engaging with it, no matter how important it seemed at the time. This was challenging but, with persistence, I became better at it as time went past.
One of the great rewards of meditation is the rhythm of putting 15 minutes to one side every day. It takes at least three months to establish a new habit, but once you’ve established a meditation routine, it greatly increases your sense of mastery over your time. I found this aspect of my project especially useful in other areas of my life, particularly at work.
What else did I learn? Mid-way through my year of meditating, I noticed that I had become more generally reflective, as evidenced by enhanced awareness of my state of mind at any given moment (and how quickly it changed). My concentration and attentiveness also improved. Better attention was especially useful for me as a psychiatrist because I need to listen to people’s stories with particular care and focus every single day.
I also found that meditation helped me rediscover the quietude and concentration required to read more widely, especially fiction, which I had drifted away from over a number of years. This was an especially positive result of my meditation efforts as I began to read more novels and travel books as the year went past.
The other lesson I learned during the year has to do with the skill that lies at the very heart of meditation: dealing with distracting thoughts. This is now a huge issue in a world of constant social media and infinite information at our fingertips.
The mental skills that meditation teaches help to better regulate this flow of inputs and to better control the mind, reducing the likelihood of worries or thoughts popping into your head just as you are trying to meditate, to read or to talk to someone else. Meditation clears the mind.
Of course, once distracting thoughts appear, letting them fade away is not always easy.
But meditation teaches that good mental habits can greatly improve our focus, increase our self-awareness and, ultimately, increase our happiness by living in the moment.
In the end, that is the most important thing. The present moment is all we have. We need to live in it.
Brendan Kelly is professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and author of The Doctor Who Sat For A Year (Gill)
Start gently, but do start
Starting to meditate requires a decision to reduce distractions and focus on clearing your mind.
The best strategy is to put your phone out of earshot, maybe in the boot of the car.
Do not be too ambitious. To begin, aim for 10 minutes meditation per day.
Find a meditation spot
Sit comfortably in a relatively quiet spot.
Don’t worry about sitting cross-legged. It is often just too painful. Sit in a solid position, spine relatively straight, both feet on the floor.
Sitting on a kitchen chair or office chair, with your hands on your lap, is a good, simple way to start.
Start each meditation sit with a simple exercise
Focus your mind on the top of your head and what it is feeling right now: hot, cold, tired, heavy, calm. Then work your way down your body with your mind, focusing on your neck, your chest, your arms and so forth, until your focused awareness finally reaches your toes.
Feel each part of your body with your mind, not seeking to change anything but simply noting how your body feels right now, in this place, at this time.
Try to let your mind become clear
Do not be surprised or disappointed when distracting thoughts come into your head as you sit to meditate. Just let them drift past.
This is the very heart of meditation: trying to resist distraction; failing; trying again. Just keep going.
Be compassionate towards yourself
Meditation should not be something you dread. Don’t worry if your mind remains cluttered when you try to meditate.
Don’t worry if you miss a day. Just try again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.
You will get there in the end.