Meditation holds many benefits for those struggling to manage a mental illness. The obvious are stress management and improved focused. Others, such as predicting difficult episodes, are also available to the meditator.
Meditation is quite different from sitting there doing nothing, thinking nothing. It is instead a focused attention on one’s present experience. It offers a chance to observe your thoughts and the feelings in your body, and to contemplate that thoughts that are so influential to your behavior may also be erroneous.
It gives you the space to know and to change.
It trains you to notice things you may have missed, and to find a still point in the onslaught of emotions a painful or scattered episode may bring. Simple in practice, it still requires effort to achieve real benefits.
So how does one begin?
Some sit cross-legged on a cushion on the floor. This does provide a stable, supportive base and opens up the body for natural, unforced breath, but it is not necessary. Sitting on a chair, if more comfortable, can also provide a stable base for practice. Just sit forward on the seat, rest your feet firmly on the floor, and position your spine erect, shoulders back, chin tucked, head gently pressing up toward the ceiling. If you can, without discomfort, hold this position without support from the back of the chair.
If even that is uncomfortable, lean back or even lie down. The point is to be dignified and still, and to breathe naturally.
What to do with your hands can be a special distraction, so just fold them gently in your lap or place the palms down on your thighs.
In this position, focus on the breath. Breathe naturally through the nose, unless it’s clogged, and focus on the rising and falling of your belly, or the cooling sensation in the tip of your nostrils during each inhale, and the warming on each exhale. Counting breaths can help keep the focus on the breath, so count each exhale, up to ten. Then begin again at one.
Other tips include closing your eyes to increase your focus on the breath. Or letting your eyes drop to a spot a few feet in front of you and holding them in soft focus to reduce blinking. Just remember, we’re not taking a nap. We’re falling awake.
Gently close your mouth, teeth slightly apart, and position your tongue behind your top teeth to reduce swallowing.
Focus on the breath, feeling the rise and fall of the belly, the subtle expansion and contraction of your chest and back, keeping the breath natural, not forcing it or trying to slow it down or breathe deeply. This is a practice to experience the present moment and although it may relax you, it is not a relaxation exercise. So keep everything just as it is, and return to the breath.
Thoughts will tumble through your mind and constantly pull your attention away from the breath. Your mind will wander all over the place, and even after years of practice, thoughts will continue to interrupt. Just notice that you are thinking, let the thought go, and return the attention again to the breath. If you’ve lost your count at three or four, or find yourself at fifteen or twenty-seven when you meant to stop at ten, just let it go and begin again at one.
You’ll find yourself constantly distracted by your thoughts, notice it, and have to return to the breath. Over and over.
In a way, since you keep losing your place and thoughts keep pulling you away from your count, meditation becomes an exercise in failure. But stick with it.
Discomfort is another challenge. If you find an itch, don’t scratch it. Just focus your attention into that spot and experience the itch. If you feel bearable pain in your shoulder, or legs, or anywhere, do not reposition. Just direct your attention to that part of your body and focus on release with each exhale. Hold your position, focus on the breath, and experience your body in full. If you find a position becomes too painful, then respect the body and make adjustments as necessary.
Be kind to yourself and don’t be overly ambitious. In the beginning, you may only be able to hold this attention for a few moments. The thoughts may become too much, or the body too uncomfortable. Although today I meditate for thirty minutes each day, I began at only five, and it took a long time to work up from there. Just be aware that any period of focused attention is valuable, and persevere.
That’s it. You don’t need apps or books or expensive courses, although a good teacher can help if you hit a difficult patch of thoughts. Just do it everyday and the benefits will accrue to you.
Meditation is as simple as breathing, and as natural. And while it has been challenging at times, over the years nothing has helped me manage my bipolar disorder better.