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Manet

Back in 1977, when I was training in an engineering workshop, my mate ran his finger up a bandsaw blade. He swore and I fainted. I told everyone I’d had no breakfast and maybe that was why I’d fainted -only admitting the truth to the work’s doc. He was an old guy, long steely grey hair, an incongruous hippy type – a real-life Gandalf. He said I’d be okay, told me to get back on that bandsaw right away, and that I’d probably benefit from learning how to meditate.

The advice about the bandsaw made sense, but I ignored the bit about meditation because I had a fairly rational head in those days. When I think back it was probably the most sage piece of advice I’ve ever had from a medical professional. It was to be years later though, dropping a bottle of Prozac into the bin and wondering what the hell I was going to do next, that I finally took his advice.

By then I was struggling with panic attacks. You sit in a cinema, a theatre, a lecture at college, a presentation at work, and you sweat, you shake inside, you fear losing yourself, you fear drawing attention to yourself. You also fear getting cornered by the consummate bore and being too polite to tell him you’re busy, so you sit there, quietly tearing yourself apart while his interminable tale drones on, when what you really want to do is stick your finger in his eye and run away screaming – all of this behind a serene smile.

Scary, isn’t it?

I lasted a couple of weeks on the Prozac. Its effects were dramatic. They calmed me for a while, helped me to keep working, but I was not myself, and this intruder who was not myself took over my self, decided it no longer needed to sleep, that it was okay to do pushups in the small-hours of a workday morning, then decided it was in the mother of all panics and hanging on by its fingernails, needed a doctor more urgently than it had ever done before. This was definitely not me, so the Prozac went in the bin. (don’t do this without talking to your doctor)

So I talked to my doctor, but found him time-pressed and unsympathetic. He told me the medication would either help or it wouldn’t. Well, it wouldn’t. The message was clear: I was on my own; mental health issues may be ruining your life, but unless you’re thinking of taking your life, the amount of support you can expect is patchy. This was 1992. The only difference now is demand is even greater for fewer resources, and we are better at pretending they are not.

Gandalf’s advice finally broke through: I bought a book on Yoga, which introduced me to meditation. Meditation looks complicated, sounds mysterious, and seems bound up with a lot of transcendental, spiritual stuff. But the physical practice itself is straight forward, and it worked. I’ll probably still faint at the sight of a bloody injury, so don’t come looking to me for first aid, but the panic attacks are a thing of the past. I lead a fairly normal life, most of the time.

You don’t need a guru to learn meditation. Even self taught from books, meditation has an immediate effect on the mind, but without “messing” with your mind in the way anti-depressant medication does. In meditation we try not to think , or we try at least to separate ourselves from our thoughts, and to realise we are not our thoughts.

With a panic attack, we think we’re going to faint, when there’s no physical reason why we should – the pulse rate goes up, we hyperventilate, we experience dizziness; with obsessive hypochondria we think we have a fatal illness which we assemble from otherwise innocuous symptoms and we convince ourselves we are going to die; with obsessive behaviours we think we must carry out an action in a particular way or a set number of times and we think that failure to do so will cause something bad to happen. Thinking, especially faulty thinking, has lot to answer for. It can make us really ill. It can ruin our lives.

Meditation was developed to correct faulty thinking, admittedly more on the transcendental, spiritual level, and therein lies the problem for many in the west, and for two reasons: in the west most of us have either cut the spiritual dimension entirely from our lives, drained the vessel dry so to speak, or we have adopted a narrow, entrenched religious view that does not encompass spiritual philosophies borrowed from other cultures; we have filled the vessel instead with concrete, one that does not permit the natural convective dynamics of exploration and change.

So let me defend meditation by saying it acts upon the mental life, and we need not attach any spiritual significance to it at all. It’s just that in eastern cultures there is less separation between the mental and the spiritual realms. Meditation also acts upon the physical body by freeing up energy consumed in vast quantities by a frantically thinking brain. This is why, when we meditate regularly, we feel less drained by life.

You can find “how to” material on meditation just about anywhere online for free, including my own notes, here. We must meditate every day for it to have any meaningful effect, and we’ll most likely feel resistance to this notion when the pain inside us realises what we’re up to, but persistence pays. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of encountering what was once a sure-fire trigger-situation, and realising we’re looking it calmly and squarely in the eye, unshaken.

And just in case you’re a tough guy who thinks meditation is for girls, remember Kung Fu fighters meditate. It gives them an edge. It’ll give you an edge too.

Think about it. Or rather don’t think!

Meditate!

Thanks Gandalf.

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