I sometimes sorta meditate.
I say this with a great deal of caution, for several reasons.
1. I ascribe to no spiritual view of the universe. I believe that death is death, e-coli is e-coli and ignorance is more wondrous when taken as an invitation for exploration and possibility, than when it’s put on a plinth to be marveled at. For me to use the word ‘meditation’ with all its connotations of Buddhism and eastern spiritual traditions, seems a bit harsh on the dead mystic dudes.
2. I associate meditation, as practiced in London, with a certain amount of bullshit.
Let’s begin at the beginning.
I was massively put off meditation as a concept, all the way back at school when our teacher in Health Studies – a class which at its best taught us about breast cancer, drug use and how to put a condom on an optimistically sized banana, and at its very worst got me into trouble because I couldn’t think of any recent arguments I’d had with my parents which I could share with the group1 – decided to try and teach us a bit of meditation. She meant well, but she didn’t pick her audience right. We were a group of 30 teenage girls a few months off our GCSEs, and even if a few had gone in for visualising ourselves as hot air balloons floating through a cloudless sky, the unspoken peer-group pressure to find it utter bollocks would still have trumped the experience. Try to convince an unwilling, stressed out rhino to meditate, and frankly you kinda deserve to get impaled.
Right here let’s tick off my first suspicion of the use of the word ‘meditation’: a lot of plonkers think they’ve got it, and can teach it. My health studies teacher spent a large chunk of her week doing yoga, eating vegan food and practicing meditation, and when she decided to share this irrefutably healthy lifestyle with her class, she got it wrong in every possible way. And didn’t even notice. Turns out that finding a sense of self-confidence, of being aware of something inside yourself, isn’t quite the same as spotting the elephant sat in front of your face. Teaching, guys! Teaching is too important to leave to muppets! But that’s a different ramble…
While we’re touching on that, let’s wave cheerfully at uneasy suspicion the second: that sometimes it seems that those who spend a great deal of time getting in touch with their inner feelings, learning how to redefine what matters and what doesn’t matter to themselves, can perhaps forget that the world as it moves on its own sweet axis, just doesn’t give a damn. Meditation is not introspection – learning to become aware of yourself (harder than it sounds) misses out the massive big deal of learning to be aware of the rest of humanity.
But back to my misspent youth. Rather than try controlled breathing to get through exams, instead I employed the classic stress-busting technique of reading nothing but the complete works of Garfield on my way to every paper. This habit continued through to LSE finals – but at RADA, the Garfield trick simply didn’t cut it. I discovered this on my very first show role.
I was stage crew. My job was to sit in an alcove behind a soundproof auditorium door and open it for actors passing through. I had no comms, I had no script, I knew nothing about the show, and in the course of 4 days of 13 hour shifts, I opened the door 5 times, and on 3 of those occasions the actors muttered that I was in the way and they were perfectly capable of opening it themselves. Which they were. On the 5th day, having spent over 52 hours by myself in a lightless black cubby hole with just my headtorch and every play text I could borrow from Ra-de-da’s wonderful library for company, the stage manager said my role was redundant, and I was sent home 2 hours before opening night. Looking back on my diary from that time, it’s very clear that even by day 3 alone in the dark, I was going gently insane.
Aware this might happen again, I went looking for a tool to keep myself rational which I could deploy even in the darkest, quietest corners of a theatre. So began a very slow, gentle shuffle towards meditation, not least as it was lighter to carry around than a punch bag.2
I started with podcasts. However, it was difficult to find ones that didn’t irritate me. I am in no hurry to open my third eye; I get annoyed by breathy voices reflecting on my divinity. My objectives were simple: I wanted to relax, to sleep better, to get a bit of distance from the things that were stressing me out. A dose of perspective, a chance to chill – what my partner aptly sums up as ‘sit down, shut up and be ok’.
And here is another of the many, many reasons why I’d stop short of calling this meditation. Yes, I sit still and follow my breath, and I generally feel a bit more aware of my body, my rattling brain and my surroundings, and a tad more in control of my universe. Do I ‘let go’, as seems to be the tag-line of most meditative practices? Well, perhaps I let go of how annoyed I was that there wasn’t enough colour for the parcans, and of that thing my Gran said at lunch. I accept that the things I may have invested value in are, perhaps, not as vital as they might be – but do I let go enough that I’m gonna shave my head and give up my Asterix comics? I can perceive that my hair doesn’t count for much in the grand scheme of things… books are a different conversation… but hey, it’s my self-identity we’re talking about here, and they’re my frickin’ comics, I’ll do with them what I want in awareness of their relative values, and that’s just fine, thank you very much. (Holier-than-thou-ness is something else I loosely associate with meditation at its worst, but thankfully it’s hard to feel holier than anyone when you’re hanging off an 8m ladder at 11 p.m. just trying to get this BLOODY moving light to DAMN WELL accept data! Oh yes: colourful swearing in technical theatre is as valid as any other stress-busting practice you might be dallying with…)
Here’s my next worry in the tick-list of things that cause me concern about the word ‘meditation’ as used in this country: that ‘letting go’ can too often seem to mean ‘living on another planet.’ A director on a play I lit, the day I informed her – politely – that she had actors exiting through a wall rather than a door, sent an email out to myself and the entire crew of the show, asking us to maintain ‘positive energy’ in the rehearsal room after ‘Cat came in with some quite negative energy today’.
Rest assured, dear reader, if an e-coli is an e-coli, then a feckin’ wall is still going to be a feckin’ wall regardless of how positive you feel about exiting through it….3
Mumbo-jumbo gets in the way of basically good ideas.
Good idea: regular stretching, such as yoga, and breathing practices to help you control a stress reaction, will help you lead a healthier life. Positive thinking is also incredibly useful. It helps you get through horrid situations, and makes you more alert for finding a way to a solution. Rock on.
Mumbo-jumbo: revitalising your inner energies to achieve harmony between mind and body, stimulating your creative core and engaging every aspect of your being to achieve your goals. If I want it enough, it will happen: the power is within me.
It’s a curious Western reaction to the basic spiritualism of the disciplines of yoga and meditation. We took religious ideas, stripped away the religion to turn them into merely healthy practices, and then, having done so, decided to jam some ‘spiritualism’ of our own back in, only without much in the way of consistent pedigree or organised moral code.
And fine, you could argue that mumbo-jumbo is harmless enough, but actually in the long run, I’d say it has serious consequences. When you turn words like ‘hormones’ into ‘energy’ or ‘blood type’ into ‘natural creativity’ you immediately step away from reality – actual, testable, impaled-on-a-rhino reality – into a place where by wishing hard enough, you can make things better. There’s loads to be said for positive thinking, loads. But as the Russians wisely say – ‘pray to God, but row to shore.’ When positive thinking stops dealing with reality, well then it’s a fail. The wall is a wall, the e-coli is an e-coli, and is that a storm I see brewing on the horizon…?
Meditation in the UK is an industry, and the language it uses is part of the sales pitch. (It makes commercial sense root your product in terms that’s a little more incense-burning-fluffy-slippers than the NHS’s summary of ‘Good mental wellbeing – some people call it happiness – is about more than avoiding mental health problems.’) It’s expensive – although if you’re okay getting some evangelism with your breathing, then Buddhist centres are up for the odd freebie.4 Yoga is even more expensive, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that these activities are not merely economically denied to the majority, but are specifically marketted at stressed-out middle management with a mortgage. Given that the starting place for these traditions was ostensibly posited (albeit with caveats) for humanity as a whole, the commercialisation and implicit segregation of these pastimes is also cause for a cautious raised eyebrow.
Mumbo-jumbo also surrounds industries with an even more dubious track record, but which by association get tangled up sometimes in the otherwise fairly healthy potential of yoga and meditation. Health-food industries are replete with a language that corrupts actual scientific research in favour of ‘ancestor diets’ and ‘energising minerals’. But the worst culprit has to be alternative medicine, for all those times you choose lemongrass over chemotherapy. Again, here is the corruption of a basically good idea. Eat well and surround yourself with nice smells and pretty things – awesome, makes total sense. Eat well and don’t touch anything whatsoever that’s reasonably priced or, horror, grown as a result of 2000 years of agrarian development, let alone take an antibiotic derived from a fungus grown on a piece of bread… well no. It’s not merely mumbo-jumbo – it’s mumbo-jumbo that kills. And alas, as yoga studios start offering diet detox plans and meditation studios engage in aromatherapy health courses, these things get tangled and a basically good idea slips further away from our grasp.
Finally, and stemming fairly reasonably from all this, meditation as an industry runs the risk of, far from expanding the mind, breeding nonsense and even selfishness. I flinch when I hear talk of a gratitude alarm; I shudder when someone says the word ‘detox’ to me. Throw away the gratitude alarm, get a revolution alarm instead! Three times a day don’t bother to say thank you to the universe for giving you the gift of life, instead say fuck you society for mistreating the poor and the elderly and the dispossessed let’s try and solve real-life problems now! Because sure, I’m not biting on the theological apple, but I have a vague suspicion that before the Buddha went trotting off to Nirvana he had some fairly firm stuff to say about the injustice of society and how maybe that was a thing we should look into. Let’s not make the universe about ourselves. Learning about ourselves, and learning how to appreciate both what we have and the world around us – awesome sauce. Forgetting that we are tiny, and the universe is vast and complicated and beautiful and strange and doesn’t really give a damn about what we think and that this is ok – bit of a fail.
To conclude… sitting still occasionally, taking a step back, calming down, doing a bit of exercise, eating healthy… these things all rock, and you know what, can be done for very little money if you’re willing to look past a lot of nonsense. They are all awesome-sauce valid activities, and I applaud everyone who has found some time to indulge in them. You are all doing something groovy which will, touch wood, make your lives easier and happier in both the short and long-term.
The rest of it? The nonsense that clouds the good sense, the special yoga shirt for £55 a thread, the extra-magic incense that will make your experience that bit more transcendental, the posters of the Hindu ommmm sign hung up on the wall next to a statue of the laughing Buddha, who was himself a bit of Tang-dynasty propaganda5 , the classic mantra of ‘if I wish hard enough it will be happen’ WITHOUT also maybe actually bothering to invest monies wisely for the future, the diets of nothing but couscous and walnut kernal because, you see, ‘our ancestors didn’t need all this processed food’ (and died aged 25)… I mean sure, if you believe in it, if it makes you happy and does no harm, if it is in fact a tool that allows you to engage with humanity in a groovy and awesome way, then hurray! But if in fact these are tools of an industry selling you a product, and you have forgotten that sometimes real problems need real solutions, then um argh um, I think somewhere along the way the word ‘mindfulness’ might have lost its meaning, and I’m still gonna hesitate a very long time before I go anywhere near the word ‘meditation’.
1. Sometimes when you go looking for a problem and you can’t find it, it’s because it’s not actually there. Or to put it another way: sometimes it’s cool to NOT practice yoga, not do meditative breathing exercises, and every now and then have a cheeky fried chicken and chips. Dudes: chill.↩
2. I do also do a violent martial art, which does wonders for my overall levels of serenity. I am very much a child of the internet and globalisation – I mix and match.↩
3. The director felt very positive about exiting through the wall for 4 weeks of rehearsal, until finally in tech, she discovered that not only was the wall a wall, it was a real wall made of wall, and many hours and many tears were wasted at the revelation.↩
4.Let’s just take a moment here, team, to note that for all its perks, Tibetan Buddhism is massively elitist, Thai Buddhism has a wee bit of a protection racket thing going for it, and nearly all forms of Buddhism regard women as lesser forms of life than men. I say this merely ‘cos as organised religions go, Buddhism is arguably fluffier than many, but still suffers from the same problems that pretty much every massed movement ever has been plagued with towit it’s run by people, not celestial beings of ascendent light. As Tim Minchin points out: isn’t the Buddhist line about future lives a great way to stop the masses rising up? ↩
5. Fun fact: the fat laughing Buddha was a reinvention of the ‘Buddha of the Future’ by the Tang dynasty. This Buddha of the Future – essentially a Buddha yet to come – was a consistent rallying cry for the poor, the dispossessed and the occassionally mad, who would rise up in fairly quick succession to declare that they were said Buddha, and that wouldn’t it be great if everyone had enough to eat and the poor weren’t subject to the brutal machinations of the rich all the time. Naturally the Tang dynasty couldn’t be having that nonsense, so stamped out the cult of this particular Buddha and reinvented it instead in the laughing, chubby Buddha, who’s main interest in life was eating rice and being cheerful, rather than, say, overthrowing autocracy. I dunno about you, but as a sometime history student, stuff like this makes me happy.↩