Experiences with Meditation
An illuminating interview on meditation, by Elena McCaffrey
I sat down with Jack, former president of The University of Exeter Meditation Society and co-founder of ComingUp festival – which explores meditation and psychedelics, over FaceTime to gain some insights into his mediation practice.
E: When did you begin to meditate?
J: I was first introduced to meditation around 5 years ago when I was in sixth form after my mental health had deteriorated and I’d been struggling with anxiety and low mood. My GP recommended a 6-week mindfulness course which ultimately is why we’re having this conversation, though I would like to avoid a framing of meditation that focuses solely on what we might typically understand as mental health.
E: Did it click for you straight away?
J: My practice didn’t really click until I joined my university’s meditation society a couple of years later. For the first two years, when I was intermittently trying it, realising how many thoughts that passed through my mind was challenging enough, even more so when recurring thoughts often led to questions like: ‘Am I even doing this right?’ It was, at times, disillusioning. In a sense it became easier because I was in an environment where I had access to a meditation teacher and could ask questions about mediation, Buddhism, and the nature of my own practice.
E: Can you see any downsides?
J: If you have some unresolved or underlying issues within you, just forcing yourself to sit in meditation, and encounter those repeatedly, can be unhelpful, dangerous even. When I was encountering that challenge, and feeling like I was battling myself, I realised I couldn’t just keep going. It was an indication that I required some other form of resolution, therapy, for example. It’s in this moment, and this process, where a drawback can become a positive.
There’s a risk of becoming something called a stone Buddha which is this point of detachment. Meditation can be a way to create space between you and your emotional reactions so you can best choose how you want to be in the world, but if that goes too far one can become cold and stony. It’s something I had a problem with when I first joined university. I got so caught up in wanting to not be a slave to my ego that I was really distancing myself from both negative and positive emotions. That was a misinterpretation on my part of what meditation can do, and it wouldn’t have happened if I was doing it with a teacher.
E: What tips would you give for someone who doesn’t find an immediate sense of calm?
J: Like any practice you can’t expect it to work immediately, it requires work. But meditation isn’t meant to be hard, it isn’t a challenge. It’s not meant to be easy, but you shouldn’t feel like you’re competing against yourself. With any practice it would be odd to try and master something by ourselves, so look for resources online or ask someone with more experience and inquire there because someone can just say something and it just unlocks it. There are also different types of mediation, and for different people who have different needs and makeups, the different types will be suitable or not. “Oh I tried meditation and it didn’t work” can be like saying “I tried sport and it didn’t work.”
The most important thing with meditation, for me and for when I was running the society, is getting people to be interested in their own experience. To suddenly realise how fascinating you are. Whether that’s at a thought level where you are just aware of what’s going on in your mind or whether that’s an awareness of what’s going on in your body. Becoming fascinated with that in order to believe that we are worth exploring and worth looking after. It’s something that a lot of people don’t have. It’s something that isn’t generally taught to us. If you’re interested in your own experience it’s important to see that not as inherently selfish but as selfless because it can allow you to be more present and compassionate when showing up in the world and your relationships.
It can help your understanding of your thinking and even just a small change in the understanding of how you think is magnified massively in how you do everything else. It helps me understand and see myself as something much more dynamic and changeable than I once felt. Within that there is this incredible liberation. I previously saw my future as being determined by my past experiences; my meditative and contemplative practices helped me to understand this as a fabrication, and that was definitely liberating.
E: Final thoughts:
J: Don’t try and do too much to begin with. That’s the same whether you’ve never meditated before or you’re coming back to it. This is a lesson that I have had to remind myself of because I’m just getting back into a phase of more regular meditation. For a few months I’d fallen out of it and I was coming up against a lot of resistance trying to go back into my previous practice. Bring it down to just five minutes or even lower, whatever you can do just to begin.
It’s also about having a diverse set of support mechanisms, whether that is friends, strangers, or a therapist. All these things, if you can implement them, are going to help you. On a smaller level, if you are just waking up and feeling a bit rubbish there is just something that can happen when you just sit. For the first couple of minutes, it’s like, “I’m in a bad mood this is bullsh*t. Why am I doing this?” and then you just sit with it, not judging those thoughts, and they start to ease off in their intensity.
Speaking with Jack was truly special. Within this there is a lesson for all of us: we have to start truly valuing ourselves and our experiences, whether that’s just taking 5 minutes to meditate or taking ourselves on a retreat. To care for ourselves and to care for our minds is something we can easily forget to do; however, in a world which places more demands than ever on our wellbeing we must begin, actively, to stop overlooking it.
Make sure to look out for next month’s issue to read more about some recent retreats that Jack has been on.