My name is David, I am the Assistant Interfaith Adviser at the University of Westminster. The team I work with is a part of the support services that the University offers to students, but our team are here for staff too. In other institutions, like prisons or hospitals, we would be called chaplains. We are here to support and represent people of all faiths and none at the University, including secular world-views. If you, or someone you know, might be looking for someone to talk to, whether it is something spiritual, religious or otherwise, I can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org . I also teach meditation, and alongside weekly meditation sessions across all campuses I offer an introduction to meditation as part of the PASS week. More detail can be found here.
You might have heard about the positive benefits of meditation, and broader mindfulness practices, including the reduction of stress and the improvement of concentration. ‘Mindfulness’ is principally derived from the Sanskrit term śamatha, which is an ancient Indian name for the practise of calming the mind. Meditators through the ages also testify to an increased awareness of our ‘interdependence’ – how our connection to the world shapes who we are, and how we feel. This second aspect of meditation is usually referred to as ‘awareness’, which in Sanskrit would be vipaśyanā. Religious, spiritual and secular philosophical traditions which embrace meditative, or contemplative practices frequently connect this increased awareness with a growth of compassion; towards others and towards ourselves. Scientific study of the benefits of meditation, including at the University of Westminster’s own cutting edge Centre for Resilience, is increasingly able to demonstrate the neurological and physiological dimension that underlies this experience in observable terms. So in the context of PASS week, what can meditation offer?
Unfortunately no quick-fixes! And there is nowhere you can go to download an already finished version of the you that meditates. There is a reason why we say we are ‘practising’ meditation, it takes time to experience the benefit, just like exercise, or learning to play an instrument. But in my own experience, establishing a regular meditation practise has definitely helped me with study, essay writing, revision and exams over time. I began to meditate regularly when I was an undergraduate, and I am currently a part-time postgraduate student alongside my work here at Westminster. When I was asked to write this blog, I was getting somewhat stressed about an upcoming essay that I had not prepared well for. I almost turned down the offer to write this because it felt like it would be hypocritical to talk of the “wonders of meditation” when I myself was engaging in all kinds of distractions (social media, food, the news, waiting for emails to appear in my inbox…) to avoid the assignment that I was becoming increasingly anxious about.
But when I came to think about it, I realised that something had changed. I realised that in the past I truly believed that if I whipped up some anger towards myself, or faked being ashamed of myself, that I would force or trick myself into “getting to work”. But the guilt trip never worked, and neither did the self-aggression. In fact, more often than not these approaches fuelled my distraction activities. And now, with regular meditation, I don’t try these tactics so often. I catch myself in the act sometimes, but then I drop it, because I know from experience that it does not help. So although I still find it hard to settle down to the work, the process it is not amplified by all sorts of negative emotions. Meditation can also have a curious effect on our sense of humour. In retrospect, the idea that I would see my failure to write a prize-winning essay as some kind of end-of-the-world situation is really quite hilarious. Following on from this sense of humour I sometimes find clarity; because I am not trying to use force, my own intelligence has some breathing room to enter into a dialogue with the ideas I am studying. In other words, I can read and absorb things better because I have relaxed, and I am ready to listen, instead of being obsessed by the supposed ‘goal’ – a finished essay and a top mark. Meditation is also about learning to enjoy the path.
In the Buddhist and Jain traditions the term ‘compassion’ is usually used to translate the Sanskrit term Karuṇā. In the secular mindfulness movement the idea of self-compassion, becoming a friend towards ourselves, is an important first step. Perhaps you know of someone who is a good friend to others, but can sometimes treat themselves with a harshness that they would never direct towards someone they cared about. We can work with this when we begin to meditate. By bringing our attention to the rhythm of our breathing, we may become aware of how busy our minds are, experiencing what may feel like a constant waterfall of distractions. This is due to the incredible capacity of our minds to process our experience. It is no surprise that this processing carries on when we are trying to relax. We experience the conscious part of this process as ‘thinking’, which is often referred to as our ‘discursive’ mind in meditation instruction. But there are gaps. And we can learn to notice them, and as we do they grow a little, and we can find some more tranquillity in that experience of space. Some of us might never have noticed these gaps, because the waterfall has never stopped, except when we replace it with something else that we can absorb ourselves in, like a movie, an artisan cheeseburger, or sleep.
As we practise letting go of the thoughts and feelings that we get lost in, it sometimes feels like a losing battle. If we see it as a battle, we might start to treat our thoughts like enemies. When we are writing an essay, we might watch our word-count as if it is the number of enemies we have defeated, with each sentence representing some territorial gain in an imaginary war. In meditation we learn a new way to work with our experience, both the good stuff and the bad. Whether the distraction that makes us forget that we are trying to meditate is painful or pleasurable, we simply acknowledge that we have become distracted, and gently return to the meditation practise of following the rhythm of our breathing. Whether we have to do this once, twice or one hundred times during a session of meditation, we commit ourselves to dropping the idea of failure. We are learning to accept ourselves as we are in that moment. This can be very liberating, but like any practise, it takes time and a degree of commitment.
If you would be interested to try it out, and see how it works for you, you are very welcome to come to one of my weekly campus drop-in sessions.
Thank you to David Morris for this insightful blog. David Morris is the Assistant Interfaith Adviser here at the University. For more information on meditation or if you would like to attend one of his sessions, email him at email@example.com