Do you meditate? Wait! Come back! I’m not about to go all esoteric on you. Let me ask a different question: do you have a tendency to catastrophise? I do. Catastrophising, thinking that something terrible will happen, is perfectly understandable. It usually develops because something terrible has happened, or perhaps there’s been a run of terribleness. The fight or flight response starts working overtime and the parasympathetic nervous system, the bit that calms us down, seems to go on holiday.
Here’s an example. A friend and her little dog came to visit. We left the dog in the house while we went for a swim. Then we came back for a cuppa and a nice chat. Everyone, the dog included, had a lovely time. But when they left, I went into the kitchen and realised with horror that a blob of ant bait that had been on the benchtop was no longer there.
My first thought was: “I’ve killed the dog!” She’s a little dog but she can jump very high. While we’d been swimming she’d patrolled the kitchen and sniffed out the honey smell of the ant bait. Then she’d jumped up, stuck out her tongue at just the right moment and slurped up the honeyed poison, ants ‘n all.
I rang my friend. No answer. I sent a text. No answer. I waited for what seemed like ages, then I rang again. Still no answer. So here’s what I thought: “The dog’s had a seizure in the car on the way home and they’ve gone straight to the vet. That’s why she’s not answering the phone.” Are you laughing? I hope so.
My friend rang about an hour later. “I was cooking dinner,” she said. “I didn’t hear the phone.” She rang the vet and found out that the bait wasn’t poisonous to dogs but might cause a bit of an upset tummy. Ms Dog, meanwhile, happily scoffed her dinner then ate my friend’s daughter’s dental guard for dessert.
I think it might be time to chill, don’t you?!
I used to own a sweatshirt that said “overthink everything” and I wore it around the house all winter. I bought it because it made me laugh but also it was a reminder to stop overthinking. Meditation helped. It gave me a way to step back and consider what was happening, rather than reacting instantly. Unfortunately, after a while I forgot to keep doing it. I stopped meditating and the overthinking/catastrophising came back.
Everyone’s an expert on meditation and mindfulness these days. It can be annoying, when you’re really strung out and busy, to hear yet another person telling you to meditate or be mindful. “I haven’t got time. I can’t do it right. It’s boring. I can’t empty my mind.” These are the things we all tell ourselves, even when we’ve meditated before and know that it works.
Since I started meditating again, I’ve been wondering: what is this thing called meditation? You don’t have to sit cross-legged on a cushion to do it; you can be walking or lying down or staring out of the window. It’s not really about emptying your mind either, although that’s lovely when it happens.
Here’s what I think it boils down to, the essence of meditation:
In the mornings, as I’ve been tying my shoelaces, getting ready to go out for a walk, it’s dawned on me that I’ve been completely focused. I’ve noticed everything about the action of shoelace tying: the colour of my shoes, the texture of the laces, the feeling of tying them. I’ve been meditating while tying my shoelaces!
Of course, once you start telling yourself in your mind how great it is—Hey! Look! I’m meditating! Whoo-hoo!—then you’ve broken the spell. You’re thinking again. But even those few minutes of seeing and not thinking are precious. They set you up for the whole day. You go into a meditative state at other times when you aren’t even trying to meditate.
The parasympathetic nervous system comes back from its holiday, packs the fight or flight response into a suitcase and puts it on top of the wardrobe until it’s needed. The big stuff seems less exhausting and the little stuff seems even more significant. Best of all, at any moment, out of the blue, you can find yourself wrapped in a warm blanket of contentment. Even when you’re just tying your shoelaces.