BREATHING SPACE

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Comic reprinted with kind permission of Mya Gosling

Over the past year I’ve followed the career of Mya Gosling—the internet’s foremost Shakespearean stick comic artist—with interest as she plunged into following her passion full time. It’s been great to see how she has gone from strength to strength: creating products, carrying out invited talks, and keeping up with a demanding publishing schedule. More recently, I’ve watched as she shared her progress in meditation through her comic alter ego on Patreon, and this has encouraged me to reveal my own meditation journey (plus a meditation confession) …

After dealing with a rather stressful week at work last year, I started to meditate on a daily basis using the Headspace app. Based on my past life as a researcher working with gamification, the first thing I noticed was that the app was gently gamified to encourage you to continue. My research certainly indicated that simple techniques like this can be effective, but I have to admit I never expected to see it used for what could be considered breathing exercises!

The app itself is composed of packs for topics like handling stress and anxiety, as well as developing qualities such as creativity and focus. However, the core of each guided meditation remains the same: helping you to be in the here and now rather than mired in the quicksand of your thoughts and emotions. All of the recordings are guided by Headspace founder Andy Puddicombe and he has an incredibly soothing voice. More on that later.

Like exercise and healthy eating, meditation is always mentioned as one of the pillars of physical and mental wellbeing. Indeed, research has shown that meditation can be as effective as medication in combatting certain stressors. The practice of mindfulness in particular has gained traction in recent years, and it’s hard to escape the various products that promise that you can cook, clean, or colour your way to a mindful lifestyle.

Mindfulness is an incredibly simple concept but fiendishly difficult to put into practice. The idea is to allow you to be aware of your thoughts and emotions, but not get caught up in them. To be mindful of the present without dwelling on the past or ruminating about the future. It is the opposite of multi-tasking* and this focus helps calm the brain, improve mental resilience, and, in my case least, enhance creativity.

It’s been almost eighteen months since I started daily 20-minute meditations and I definitely notice a difference in how I approach things. For example, I have a tendency to feel overwhelmed by my never-ending to-do list: for the longest time I carried around the belief that everything must be done RIGHT NOW or I was failing at life. But there is the implicit reminder in meditation that you can only do one thing at a time. You can breathe in. You can breathe out. You cannot do both together.

Likewise, making the deliberate choice to slow down and carve out time for myself has helped inject much needed stillness and clarity into my day after facing the constant bombardment of information at work. This downtime is vital to the creative process. In Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success, Matthew Syed sums this up as:

The first [type of environment necessary for innovation] is when we are switching off: having a shower, going for a walk, sipping a cold beer, daydreaming. When we are too focused, when we are thinking too literally, we can’t spot the obscure associations that are so important to creativity.

So, in brief, I am a big proponent of meditation. But my confession? I am a bad meditator. I do exactly what you’re not supposed to do: I listen to the recording before bed and promptly fall asleep. Andy’s soothing voice has become part of my bedtime routine and I am usually knocked out by the time he concludes that day’s recording.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Letting go of the belief that there is always a “right” and “wrong” way to do something has been part of the unlearning process that meditation has encouraged, of recognising that certain beliefs are unhelpful and should be dismissed.

If you’re interested in giving meditation a try, you can reap the benefits in as little as 10 minutes a day. While I have grown fond of Headspace, you do have to pay to access the full version of the app. However, there are many, many free guided meditations and apps available online – find one that works for you and give it a chance to work its brain-altering magic.**

* Studies have shown that multi-tasking is bad for the brain and productivity; perhaps mono-tasking is the way forward?

**  Seriously, meditation changes the structure of the brain. In a good way.

Elaine Massung Off the Beaten Track
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