MHAW16: Mental Health and Meditation

“When we dance, the journey itself is the point, as when we play music the playing itself is the point. And exactly the same thing is true in meditation. Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment.”

Alan Watts

This week is mental health awareness week, a time to take a good hard think about what we mean by mental health and what we can do to keep ourselves calm, clear and in control.

Asking why we even have a mental health awareness week is a good place to start. Each year in the UK, 1 in 4 people will experience an episode of a mental health problem, and about 10% of the population is affected with bouts of acute anxiety and depression from time to time. Yet despite this ubiquity, we still treat it as a taboo subject and we’re uncomfortable talking openly about it: especially with the people we work under the same roof with. Why?

I think this partly stems from the way that many of us still treat mental health as a binary issue. In other words, we regard people as either mentally ill, or not. This attitude probably has its roots in the way the UK and the US approached mental health during the Cold War, with the looming spectre of the psychiatric institution discouraging people from simply putting their hand up and admitting that they are not feeling totally okay.

Thankfully, psychiatrists have now realised that the issue is not so clear-cut, and that in reality mental health is a vast series of scales and spectrums upon which we are all placed. It’s not black-and-white, but a series of lighter and darker greys of different degrees, all running off in different directions. And we’re all in it somewhere.

Fortunately, this understanding is gradually trickling down to everybody. But there are still things we can do to accelerate the process. We can take a good hard look at ourselves and be honest about how we’re doing. We can weigh up whether or not our thinking habits are healthy, and we can talk about it rather than letting it manifest itself as frustration and alienation, both from ourselves and each other. This is something we all need to do, both in and out of work.

This may seem daunting, dull, or simply lame, but it’s crucial. And there is one practical and simple way of becoming aware of how you are, who you are, and how you think.

If I were to say ‘meditation’ to you right now, what mental image would that immediately conjure? Chances are that it involves someone with their legs awkwardly contorted into the lotus position, grubby face poking out amidst a great mane of beaded dreadlocks, chanting out an incessant, obnoxious drone of OM. But this just isn’t the case. Let’s talk about the relationship between mental health and meditation.

Each day at Agent, we all try and take 15 minutes to find somewhere quiet and gain some perspective on how we’re doing. Before you write us off as a bunch of crusty New Age hippies, I want to try and make you reassess meditation and its potential benefits, especially in the workplace. I want to reassure you that meditation doesn’t have to be something grandiose at all: it doesn’t even have to be particularly ‘spiritual’.

Meditation, in the secular sense, is simply the practice of exercising and focusing attention. It’s about rising above the mental swamp we spend so much time in – emails to be sent, who has or hasn’t called back, what was on television last night, what you’re currently missing out on, whether or not to have your top button fastened, what’s trending on Twitter, what’s for lunch, who liked your photo on Facebook, who didn’t, etc. – and achieving sustained clarity of mind.

Meditation, in this approach, is more of a means than an end. You are not striving towards anything, but simply exercising your capacity to stay alert, awake, and in control, no matter what you are doing.

When you are practicing meditation, you are not trying to force yourself into some profound out-of-body experience, but rather the complete opposite of that. You are not forcing your own agenda over each and every moment and building a foundation for disappointment and frustration. You are simply focusing your attention utterly upon the act that you are engaged in, whatever it is. It’s about being here, being present and being utterly with it.

With this understanding, you can quickly see how its benefits go far beyond the one-hour (or fifteen-minute) meditation session. Although classes or sessions are certainly helpful, the true test and application of meditation occurs in your work, in your day-to-day life and in how efficiently and masterfully you can exercise control over your own mind.

With the right approach, something as mundane as queuing up for a supermarket checkout or cleaning your kitchen can become endowed with a deeper meaning. Rather than being tasks to merely endure, they can become opportunities to engage with the wealth of experience around you, and to appreciate the here and now. They can become processes of self-realisation and mental clarification, and a chance to secure a victory in the ongoing mental battle between stress and peace of mind. As the late, great author David Foster Wallace said in a lecture about focus and mental control:

“It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars-compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.”

Someone with a good deal of practice in meditation will be able to truly know themselves, and keep track of the ways they are changing every day. They will be able to remain alert and switched on to whatever task they are currently doing. They will be able to squeeze more productivity out of a shorter space of time, and switch off from work when the time comes.

I’m sure you can instantly see how this could be invaluable in an office environment, where our attention spans and tendencies to fret are so often our biggest obstacles to producing brilliant work with plenty of time to spare.

It might not be the answer to everything, but it’s certainly a good place to start in the ongoing process of becoming aware of our mental health, each and every day.

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