In the Times 24 April 2012 there is an interesting article by Carol Midgle about a pragmatic approach to meditation set out in a new book by Matthew Johnstone called Quiet the Mind. I found myself smiling as I read the method he describes because it is self hypnosis in all but name and that’s OK by me as I know it works and what it is called is not important. So I hope you enjoy reading the main parts of this article including a simple how to guide to meditate at the end….
If meditation involves simply sitting quietly, thinking about nothing, why does the world need so many turgid books about it? Why does it require thousands and thousands of words to tell us basically how to do nothing? Matthew Johnstone’s new book is proof that it doesn’t, actually. It uses few words and there isn’t a hippy in sight. Johnstone’s preferred mode of communication is art; humorous, profound, cartoon-like pictures that he draws himself to explain the practice of meditation in call-a-spade-a-spade terms.
It is a method proven to work. When Johnstone published his first illustrated book, I Had a Black Dog, about his ongoing battle with depression, it became an international bestseller in more than 20 countries. A simple, visual articulation of depression touched many people more than words. (It is an extraordinary book that uses the image of a black labrador dogging his every move, ruining his appetite, self-confidence and relationships and waking him at night with repetitive, negative thoughts.As Stephen Fry said at the time, it says “with wit, insight, economy and complete understanding what other books take 300 pages to say”.)
His latest book is a visual guide to help readers to revitalise themselves by taking their minds off the boil, turning down their mental volume switches, giving their brains a mini-break — something that, in an age of Twitter, smartphones and 24-hour communication, is ever more difficult to do. It may appeal to those who are slightly frightened by what he calls meditation’s “spiritual, fringy reputation”.
Most of us probably don’t ever properly “switch off”. Johnstone says that new technology, useful though it is, has “gobbled up our every waking moment” and the human brain is constantly thinking. This is exhausting, leading to stress, anxiety, insomnia, depression, burnout. The mind needs a rest just like the body does.
“We are so busy in all aspects of our lives,” he says. “We have become so incredibly connected that we are disconnected. We are in an apex of communication and it’s gone into overload.”
Recently he was in a railway station and counted 50 people staring into their smartphones. “No one was talking to anyone, no one was looking around them”, he says. “We have lost our ability to daydream or, God forbid, look out of the window. We are losing the ability to just be.” For teenagers it is even harder. He tells of a man at a recent seminar who had confiscated his daughter’s mobile phone. That night it went off 14 times, the final time at 4am. Is it any wonder that increasing numbers of teenagers claim to be “stressed out”?
So how do you meditate? Johnstone says it is so simple that he wonders how it is sometimes made to seem so complex. The key is not to “overthink” it. All you need to do, he says, is set aside, say, 20 minutes, switch off your phone, sit up straight in an upright chair, close your eyes and listen to the sounds within your own body: your breathing — in, out, in, out — your heartbeat, the faint ringing in your ears. Using a mantra can help. Does he use one? “They say you should never divulge your mantra,” he says. Really — why? “I don’t know,” he laughs and happily volunteers his own. It is “Schaar-nommm”. Pick what you like, but soft words that have no meaning seem to work best.
The thing to remember is that you are not supposed to be nodding off but “sitting with intention”, purpose and bringing mindfulness to your breathing. You will have thoughts that “bubble to the surface”, lists of what you have to do that day, frustrations, worries, but this is normal and you mustn’t get disheartened. If thoughts intrude, simply acknowledge them and “let them go”. You could imagine a sheepdog bringing a stray sheep back to the flock — it doesn’t matter — just calmly return to your breathing. Eventually, and it may take several attempts over a few weeks, you’ll feel mind and body slowing down as they enter a tranquil stillness. This is the “zone”.
The rewards, according to the book, may include energy rushes, serenity, tingling, insight and feelings of weightlessness. But don’t expect to get this straight away and don’t raise your expectations too high, he says. Some people expect an instant out-of-body floating experience. Johnstone has been meditating for 20 years now and admits that he still sometimes has fuzzy meditations. “But for every rubbish one I have a really great one,” he says. And during his best ones he does sometimes have an extraordinary physical experience. “I have this weird little thing that happens. When I have a really good meditation I get an incredible rush right through my body and out of the top of my head. I don’t know what it is but I love it. But I’m wary of mentioning it because everyone’s experience is different. And that rush is quite rare.
“The way your brain behaves is very reflective of the mood state you are in; if you have a lot of stress in your life or if you’re exhausted. The way I see myself sometimes is that I’ve been dropped into an ocean of flotsam and jetsam and I’m in a lifejacket … and I’ll sometimes spend half my meditation just trying to get under the water [to the calmness]. It’s like a battle. But I know that underneath the flotsam and jetsam there is stillness. I just keep working on it and coming back to the breath and more often than not I’ll just pop through the other side.”
I have been trying it this week and I’ll level with you — when your life is governed by deadlines, sitting there doing nothing for 20 minutes can be a guilt fest. “I could have written 250 words by now”, I kept thinking as well as, “do I look a bit of a tool sitting here?” But I know from friends who swear by it that it is worth persevering. They agree with Johnstone that it makes you more clear sighted, more efficient at work.
Some people fear that meditation may soften their drive, but Johnstone says the opposite is true. “I feel very sharpened after a meditation,” he says. It is, apparently, about clearing mind clutter and making way for creativity and productivity. Some maintain that meditation is more invigorating than sleep. Johnstone says there are times when he has been exhausted or jet lagged and faced with a day of speeches and interviews, and meditation has revived him. “It’s cleaning the windows, turning the volume down and taking the water off the boil. That’s what it’s about for me. I think [meditation] can make you more compassionate, calmer, more present.”
He strongly believes that employers and schools should encourage meditation because it is an investment and “incredibly beneficial to anyone” whether they have depression or not (they teach it to children at his daughters’ primary school). “I would make a bet that if large companies [did this] they would get better results,” he says. It is remarkable really that something so natural and basic should have become so complex in people’s minds. But then, as Johnstone says, a lot of people don’t like “being with themselves”. Forums such as Twitter and Facebook ensure that we rarely have to (Johnstone is on Twitter but sends “about one tweet a week”).
Meditation is an antidote to all this. Don’t make a big deal of it and try to factor it into your life like a good habit, such as having a shower or going for a run. “You can’t control what happens in life but you can control how you respond to it,” he says. “If you learn to meditate, your whole being will thank you for it.”
It must be worth a try. In a materialist, consumerist, hurry-hurry world it’s not often that you are urged to do something that costs nothing and which, crucially, involves doing precisely nothing.
Quiet the Mind: An Illustrated Guide on How to Meditate, by Matthew Johnstone, is published by Constable and Robinson at £7.99. To purchase it at the special price of £7.59 (including p&p) from The Times bookshop, call 0845 2712134
The best medication is daily meditation
Any time is great but half an hour before you typically get up is often the quietest time of day.
A firm but comfortable upright chair, a cushion to place behind your lower back; earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones, though not essential, can help you to focus on your breathing. Use a soft, ambient light.
Sit upright and symmetrical with palms either up or down, or with one hand placed comfortably in the other.
With eyes closed, focus on the sounds outside the room, then inside the room, then within your own body: your breath — in, out, in out, heartbeat, the faint ringing in your ears.
It can be two words or one word with two syllables. Johnstone’s is “Schaaar-nommm”. When using a mantra with your breath, try to become aware of the space between each word, syllable and breath. “This is where stillness and silence sit.”
Each time you breathe in and out think of your feet growing roots into the floor.
This is normal. Acknowledge them and let them go, like a fisherman releasing a fish. Don’t be put off, just return to your breath. Johnstone says: “With practice you can get to a place of incredible stillness. You may experience unusual but pleasant sensations. They include serenity, energy rushes, insight and feelings of weightlessness.”