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How meditating didn’t get me through all of the pandemic.

There’s a bitter irony attached to writing a book about meditation when there’s a pandemic sweeping the world. The pressure of hitting a publishing deadline combined with the stress of managing a busy family life (while attempting some kind of vaguely efficient homeschooling) was immense. Like many of my friends and neighbours I rode the ‘coping’ wave and got through lockdown, grateful we still had an income and that the sun was mostly out. Funnily enough, because my time was no longer my own, my meditation practice was pretty healthy during this time. There were many online meditation classes available and I regularly clumped upstairs to make the daily 6pm mindfulness class offered for free by the London Mindfulness Project. These were a combination of mindful breathing exercises with a few forays into compassion. During these times I was reminded of how important it was to keep a practice regular. My son would nudge me when it was nearly six o’clock mainly because he knew he’d get free access to the television, but also because I would inevitably return downstairs feeling renewed, calmer and altogether more level-headed.

The other irony I find myself sighing loudly over this week is how much time I spent outdoors during lockdown. Rummaging through tins of old seeds (some packets were ten years old) I planted everything I found. Mornings were spent rushing outside to see the latests green shoots appearing in the pots that tripped up the Amazon delivery men as they walked down our driveway. Now, with restrictions reduced, I could spend all day outside in the garden — and yet I don’t. I’m back glued to my desk more so than ever before. The daily walks my daughter and I took around our local park have stopped. She’s back at school and I’m here, at my computer.

I keep asking myself why have all of my good habits slipped? The worst thing is that I really do know better. Goddammit, I’ve written a book about how important it is to maintain a practice and that meditating (for me at least) is one of the most important tools I have. These days I average a meditation of around twenty minutes every other day. It’s not bad, but it’s not enough. And yet, the more I allow myself to consider this emerging lethargy, the more I see what is happening. The truth is that meditating does not make me immune to mental health issues. It doesn’t provide a stress-bouncing forcefield that keeps worried feelings, anxiety or even fear at bay. Meditating is a useful tool for managing these symptoms and has, in the past, drastically lowered my reactivity. However, my practice hasn’t stopped the pandemic making me feel uneasy and unsettled. I’ve had to remind myself that meditating isn’t about changing how I feel, but feeling how I feel (even if that is awful).

As I stand back from myself and observe the onslaught of thoughts arriving every second, I hear that insipid, familiar voice I know so well. “You should be back to normal now,” it whispers, “fighting fit and not moping around feeling down.” And the worst putdown of all. “You shouldn’t be advocating meditation if it doesn’t work!”

It’s funny how my inner voice never tells me that doctors don’t get sick, or that psychologists never get depressed. Then again, it is rarely kind — or measured. And, of course, there’s the nub — the solution to everything is staring me in the face. Kindness. Before I can pick myself back up after this strange period of time — before I can dust off the fear and worry that clings to me like dust, I must be kind to myself. I must forgive myself for feeling unsettled and accept that worry will be part of things for a while. A meditation practice is not just sitting down. It is accepting how I feel and noticing how I am treating myself. I can’t help anyone else until I help myself.

So, I’m going to cut this short and take a leaf out of my own book. I am going to walk around the park and listen to the Science of Happiness’ 24 hours of kindness practice featured in this episode. I’ve done many of their practices in the past and they’re always insightful and inspiring. So, inner critic, you’re quite right, thank you. I do know what to do.

Finding My Right Mind: One Woman’s Experiment to put Meditation to the Test by Vanessa Potter, publishing Feb 2021.

Kindness begins with the knowledge that we all struggle. Charles Glassman

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