Present, open and awake: Learning to meditate in a lockdown

JANUARY 18 — “Meditation can make the difference between standing outside in the storm and being blasted with rain, hail and wind and standing inside your house and looking at the storm.”  —  Tim Ferriss
It’s no secret that mental health issues have risen since last year when the first lockdown started.

The average person already takes very bad care of his or her mind; one can only imagine how being forced to stay at home (or, worse, losing one’s job) can push people over the edge. 

Again, even before the pandemic began, our mental conditions weren’t exactly stellar. 

From the moment we wake up, we fill ourselves with non-stop social media messages, photos and links, all of which are blasting into our heads from the time we get dressed to the time we leave the house, during the commute, before during and after classes and work, during meal-times, when we get home then all throughout the evening and finally before we sleep (and for some the phone is a substitute for shut-eye). 

Add to this all the pressure and judgment from the people we interact with, and is it any wonder the average Malaysian is often stressed?

Apart from the bombardment from social media, our brains have a tendency to re-play very bad movies in our minds i.e. mental films which make us envious, jealous, greedy or just feeling wronged. Our psyche resembles a canoe going upstream in which “doing nothing” brings us down. 

Now just consider the average Malaysian facing pressures at work, extended Zoom calls, sibling rivalry, homework or deliverables they can’t handle, sexuality and identity issues and in recent times a lockdown caused by a pandemic and — voilà — you have a recipe for psychological catastrophe.

Remembering Tham Luang

During the Tham Luang cave crisis in 2018, 12 kids were trapped for more than a week before they were found by British divers John Vaughan and Richard Stanton. 

The very thought gives one the shivers: You’re trapped in near absolute darkness more than two miles inside an underground labyrinth which was flooded. 

Their eventual rescue was a miracle of human achievement worth celebrating; the quieter miracle, however, was how they were able to remain calm through it all.

Because the average teenager is prone to losing it over the smallest things eg. when “triggered” by a Facebook post, or when hungry, or insulted, or if the wifi is down. How did those 12 boys make it? 

Later it was revealed that the kids were taught a crucial practice by their assistant football coach who was also trapped with them. What was that skill which helped them cope in a hopeless situation for a week? Meditation.

Meditation — a category which loosely includes mindfulness, or mental “priming”, or visualisation ─ can bring about better focus, clearer thinking, less impulsiveness in decision-making, less reactive-ness, being more “awake.” 

Folks who meditate develop a greater sense of awareness (of self and one’s surroundings), facilitating stronger prioritisation, or an appreciation of the truly important things in life.

Put another way, to meditate is to fill our minds with the positive, the wise, the beautiful, the pure, the right, the admirable and so on. 

To think about these qualities and to immerse our hearts with the good ─ and to do so at regular intervals throughout the day, not least the first thing in the morning! ─ is to cultivate a mental frame vastly different to what most people do in their lives.

Meditation, therefore, is really about training our minds to have better control over our (often volatile) emotions, and even transforming our emotions such that the positive and more inspiring ones remain at the fore most of the time.

Instead of populating our minds with despair, rejection and lethargy, we throw in hope, cheer and determination. It’s about regularly taking out the trash in our heads and cleaning things up a bit.

The practice of meditation, not unlike how our kidneys function, substitutes the bad for the good. 

If we teach our students to meditate and “perform” mindfulness on a regular basis, we would be strengthening their minds and equipping them with mental tools to ward off dejection and despondency. 

Recalling the Tham Luang cave ordeal again, one of the key reasons why the trapped kids managed to keep sane and calm for so many days (in the darkness, hungry and lost) was because they were taught how to meditate throughout the crisis.

Despite being in such a hopeless situation, those 12 boys in the cave not only managed to “hold on” psychologically, but also maintain a measure of cheerfulness. 

Start now 

Off the top of my head, there are few easy practices a beginner can try. 

To prepare to meditate, maybe the very first thing to do would be to turn off your phone or put it into aeroplane mode (and try not to look at your phone the first thing in the morning). 

Secondly, find a place where you can sit comfortably and close your eyes for at least 10 minutes without any awkwardness. Put on some soft music if it helps.

Next — and these are some “concrete” action-steps involved in many meditative practices (again, more are available online) ─ learn to focus on your breathing. Simply attend to your moment-by-moment act of breath-taking, listen, be calm and be present. 

Be “here” in the moment, drop anchor into the Now and drift away into the (usually anxious) future or (usually painful) past; and let your heart and the movement of your chest (as it takes in and releases air) be all that you’re observing in your mind.

The above acts of mindfulness are necessary to calm us down and keep our emotions, our impulsiveness and our knee-jerk reactions in check.

After a few minutes you may begin to bring to mind your family, the people you love, your friends. And, one by one, begin to say a soft “Thank You” to them and for them, for just being part of your life. 

The point here is to hold in mind the most precious people in your life, for they are the reasons your day is beginning; they are why you work, why you study, etc.

The above constitutes disciplines of gratitude and prioritisation; nothing better than love and joy to keep fear and anger at bay.

Finally, another step some people take is to visualise what you want to achieve in the next hour, this day, the coming week or the next few months. In your mind, see these goals as accomplished, feel them as done, experience yourself as having achieved them. 

When coupled with the people for whom you are having these outcomes, such visualisation practices help you maintain a strong sense of desire and motivation.

The steps listed here are concise to a fault. But I think if you (or your children) try even a few of them, the benefits can be felt almost immediately. 

Try them, or read about meditation and try something. A few minutes a day or more; it could make a world of difference.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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