I would like to share a story that is already known to quite a few of you, the tale of how I came to this place in my life where I am now a qualified meditation teacher, after spending my entire working life in fashion retail - an industry not known for its similarity to the world of wellbeing, in fact, you could hardly think of two careers further apart!
I came to meditation via mindfulness after being diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) in November 2013. Having been told that it was probable my illness was caused by simply “burning out”, I was prompted to look at the way I thought about, and lived my life. I realised that I had existed for the previous 15 years in a state of emotional overload, rushing about, under pressure at work to achieve ever unattainable targets, always look a certain way (I have signed contracts at companies that stipulate among other things, a minimum of three make up products to be worn at all times, and no less than 3 inch heels on the shop floor) and to work often way over and above my contracted 40 hour weeks. I loved the 'glamour' (anyone who has ever worked on a shop floor will understand the need for inverted commas!) and the clothes, of course, but I was slowly losing my connection to the world around me, and in doing so, my connection to myself.
A diagnosis of CFS is only the beginning of the road however, as there is no magic cure and the medical world is still in the dark as to what causes it and therefore how to make it better (although great strides are being made), so the only advice I was given by the GP was simply, rest and wait. After a few months of being nearly bed-bound and exhausted by the most gentle of activities, such as walking around our tiny flat, I was at my wits end, and having researched that stress was a potential red flag for CFS I booked an appointment with a therapist who specialised in 'stress reduction'. This was how I came to enrol in an 8 week 1-2-1 mindfulness course with a meditation teacher. She taught me what meditation was, and how to bring it into my life on a regular basis - starting with learning some breath meditations, body scans, and mindful exercises. I started to read more and more about the whole philosophy around mindfulness and meditation, and recognised so many of my own thought patterns in what was being said by people such as John Kabat-Zinn, David R. Hamilton and others regarding the over-stimulated mind in today’s society, the ever-chattering ‘monkey mind’ as it is sometimes called. I realised that possibly the only way to halt the vicious circle of over-thinking, over-doing and then becoming chronically exhausted was to start a daily meditation practice, and also, to look at the world with a more mindful awareness, and become more attuned to the now, rather than planning for the future or obsessing over the past.
In 2016 I attended an NHS-run chronic fatigue syndrome Self-Management Course which utilised a great many of the principles I had already encountered in my mindfulness lessons to help balance the peaks and troughs of over-exertion followed by a crash that tends to characterise a CFS sufferer’s condition, learning instead a more gentle pace of living. They also recommend a daily meditation practice (described as “therapeutic rest”) as being extremely beneficial in terms of calming the stress response that is now known to be a huge contributory factor in CFS. This opened my eyes to what rest actually is, rather than just sitting down in front of the television with laptop open, working, checking social media on my phone, and getting up every two minutes to do something else.
Using the knowledge I gained from my original mindfulness course, the independent reading I did on the subject and the information learned from the CFS Management Course, I developed a personal meditation practice that allows me to just be still, with my body and breath, and enjoy the calm of the present moment. I used to be very self-critical, and it was a revelation to me to be able to say “it is good enough as it is”, even if I couldn’t stop myself from following my thoughts, or fidgeting, or getting angry because I didn't feel calm! This kind acceptance of self has allowed me to become so much more understanding and forgiving, both of myself and others and I gain a huge amount of comfort by being able to just sit in the moment, with an understanding that I don’t need to hold on so tight to my thoughts, feelings and worries about the past and future.
I find that sitting with a “gentle curiosity”, as Thich Nhat Hahn describes, and letting my thoughts come and go, using my breath as an anchor to bring me back if my mind starts following them (as it will), and not striving too hard to achieve a result! I find this method really helpful when struggling with some of the symptoms of my illness, such as headaches, fatigue, body aches and dizziness, and will usually use an anchor of some kind, either my breath, by doing a progressive muscle relaxation (body scan), or using a mantra such as “peace - calm” or just a few words that resonate with how I feel, and sometimes I sit with a crystal and visualise them giving me whatever it is I need, i.e. energy, or peace.
Before my illness I used to do yoga, but as a purely physical form of exercise, and it was literally life-changing for me to come to a deeper understanding of what yoga actually is, directly through learning about meditation, and this has allowed me to evolve my personal yoga practice alongside my meditation practice in a wonderful way - for me now yoga is a form of moving meditation, rather than a series of postures. I feel very lucky to have had my awareness expanded to include the beauty possible in the world by having a meditation practice and also living with a more mindful attitude, and as I continue to learn and discover more about how amazing the world and everything in it, it feels really great to be able to share some of this with others, not necessarily in an "ultra-spiritual" way but as someone who understands we all just need a few tools to help us navigate life, whether it is plain sailing or stormy seas.