And Breathe... 10 Occasions When Meditating Isn't Such a Good Idea

After a long and difficult year, I'm finally dusting off the cobwebs on this site for what I hope will be a more regular comeback.

Before and during my blogging hiatus, I promised to write an article on how authors approach the theme of mental health in their works, and I fully intend to keep that promise, but given that my last article was somewhat sombre, I've decided to restore balance with a more light-hearted precursor with the help of a new-found interest.

Having been diagnosed with anxiety and depression about four years ago, I've tried a few different methods of treatment, and on most occasions met with little success: group therapy started out with some promise, but ran into a few snags; cognitive behavioural therapy is extremely helpful when I have a tight enough rein on my attention span, which isn't terribly often, and medication is an unexplored territory that I would prefer to keep unexplored while I'm still capable of managing the symptoms on my own. Most recently, I've been trying an app simply named Calm, and so far it's shown some positive results. The app offers a range of breathing and meditation exercises, timed or untimed, guided or unguided, depending on your preference and how much time you have to spare, and an impressive collection of sleep stories for those nights when the brain's having a hard time shutting the hell up.

While I originally toyed with the idea of writing a post singing the praises of meditation and the wonders it's worked on my day-to-day morale and energy levels, as well as find a few literary examples to bring it into line with the rest of the blog, I thought it would be a little more fun to share with you a few examples I've stumbled across when maybe meditation isn't quite the immediate answer. To guide you through today's session, I shall be including some relaxing images (all credit to the artists who produced them), and if you find it beneficial to picture yourself lying on a beach at sunset being serenaded by whales, then find yourself somewhere quiet and comfortable to sit, take a deep breath, and we'll begin.

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When is it not a good idea to meditate?

1. If you have a cold

A few weeks ago I came down with a rather heavy cold after a visit to the North Coast. On top of my speedily returning hay fever symptoms, it made moving, sleeping, speaking and, more importantly, breathing, painfully difficult. As someone who catches colds three or four times a year at the very least, the full and horrible extent of the breathing difficulties were no more than a common annoyance until... I tried to sit down and meditate. Frankly, after just two minutes, of being instructed to breathe deeply in, breathe gently out, you start to feel like the guide's rubbing your nose in it a bit. In this case, my recommendation for a substitute would be a sizeable mug of caffeine-free tea, as many boxes of tissues as you can fit on your bedside table, and a sleep story or audiobook to draw your attention away from your battle for oxygen.

2. If you haven't eaten for sevral hours

When mentioning the idea for this article to a friend, I was reminded that monks who practice meditation will often fast as part of their rituals, and I can only say that I have the utmost respect for them, because God knows I certainly don't have their strength of will! While I do prefer to meditate first thing in the morning in the hopes of being better equipped to deal with the day ahead in a more calm and positive way, I've learned that a key to an empty mind is a full stomach. The first few times I tried meditating straight after waking up, or just after returning from the gym, I would get about two minutes into the exercise and then my stomach would start moaning and groaning for the whole house to hear. Needless to say, it's hard to clear your mind and focus on your breathing when all you can really think about is a bacon sandwich, a stack of pancakes or even just a big mug of coffee. If, unlike myself, you are not the living and breathing definition of the word "hangry", then I take my hat off to you and your ability to reach Nirvana without the aid of a bowl of corn flakes, but for those of you with more of a cotton wool will than an iron one, there's (probably) no harm in dipping into the biscuit box before you sit down to meditate.

3. If you're wearing shorts and haven't shaved your legs for a few days

You may laugh at this one, but the first step in every meditation exercise I've done to date has been to assume a comfortable position. With limited space in my current home, I opt to sit on my bed, hands folded in my lap, and my legs either stretched out in front or lightly crossed. Take it from me, nothing will disrupt your state of comfort more than the nagging itch of two stubbly-haired legs making contact. No time to grab the razor? Then I would suggest long and baggy bottoms or sitting in a way that will prevent your legs from touching - great solution for any budding meditation enthusiasts who also fancy becoming a contortionist.

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4. If you've just made a cup of tea/coffee

This recommendation works in two ways. I'm sure it's safe to say that we've all done that thing where we make a hot drink, set it down somewhere, start working on something or get distracted in some way, and come back to the now not-so-hot drink an hour later. I've been guilty of this sinful waste of tea many times, usually during a writing session, and my most recent transgression took place during a morning off work. Imagining myself to have all the time in the world and a mile-long to-do list, I prepared a huge mug of tea and sat down to check my emails. After seeing a reminder on my phone that I hadn't completed my meditation yet. Confident that my emails could wait, I proceeded and came out of my session fifteen minutes later feeling refreshed, energised, optimistic and... oh God my English Breakfast's stone cold and I'd sooner die than microwave tea.
The second benefit of this little piece of advice comes if you've just finished drinking and are now sitting down to meditate. All I will say on this front is, if you don't want to be doing a wriggly sitting-dance all the way through the session, go to the bathroom first.

5. If your noisy housemate is at home

While there are certainly some positive aspects to living in shared accommodation, it's tough to guarantee peace and quiet at a given time. This can often be easily overcome with a decent set of headphones, but if you happen to live with someone who insists on bringing their boyfriend round for the night, likes to make Skype calls no matter how crap the sound quality is, or likes to talk to themselves (or to the deity of their choice, I was never able to tell for sure), concentrating on your breathing and keeping calm becomes something of a challenge. The way I overcame this was to be the first one up in the morning, which was easy enough as my work schedule often requires waking up around 6am. If, however, you're not much of a morning lark, it's worth finding a different place to meditate, or leaving the session until later in the day.

6. If you've just finished scrolling through your social media feeds

Social media has a bit of a mixed reputation, being both hailed as a revolution in communication and condemned as the creator of social and political echo chambers spreading fake news and propaganda. In any case, it does a fine job of filling the mind with information, both positive and negative, and is likely to lead to wandering thoughts and emotions during meditation. Just try focusing on breathing steadily or completing a mental body scan when your brain's rattling with Donald Trump's latest Twitter gaffe, the reports of a tower block fire that could have been prevented, or your friend's latest attempt to turn their cat into an Internet sensation, and then you'll fully appreciate the importance of taking five minutes to process the information radiating from your screens before settling down.

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7. If you're drunk

I know, I know, this one is bound to be self-explanatory, but I'm willing to bet there's someone somewhere who's tried to keep a hangover at bay by plonking down onto a cushion, trying to breathe deeply without throwing up and chanting under their breath until they nod off and fall flat on their face. So far I don't have any personal experience to report on this particular point (and even if I did there's no way in Hell I'd share it), but for the purposes of potentially sparing others from discomfort and/or embarrassment, I would advise putting the martini glass down, grabbing a bottle of water and a pizza menu, and going back to your meditation after a few hours's sleep.

8. If you're with a friend who's got the same daft sense of humour as you

I'll be the first to admit that good company and a like-minded friend are among the best ways to cope with a low mood or a stressful situation. If enjoying that company also involves a Supernatural box set and some Chinese takeaway, so much the better! This is in no way a criticism of group meditation - as I mentioned, I have tried it myself and did find it helpful for a while - but if you see yourself as an easily amused nerd with a touch of OCD and have friends who are the same, maybe don't meditate with those friends. To give a personal example, while taking part in a group mindfulness session that I attended with a friend some years ago, the guide went through the steps of visualising a deserted beach on a clear, sunny day, and to picture ourselves lying on that beach listening to the waves. Lesson learned from that evening: it's bad enough when you start squirming because you can feel imaginary sand in your clothes and are dreading the thought of washing it all out, but realising your friend is squirming next to you for the same reason will inevitably lead to fits of silent giggles.

9. If you've just finished a Netflix/TV/book binge

Hang on, I hear you say, surely you'd feel relaxed and ready to meditate after a leisurely fix of Doctor Who? That may be so, but if you've just spent 6 hours establishing your career as an amateur detective with Making a Murderer or The Keepers, or you've just watched your favourite Game of Thrones character get brutally killed, that's literally all that you'll be able to focus your attention on. Halfway through your session, you may find that instead of counting your breaths, you've been trying to work out when the lovers will finally get together, or if the butler really did do it, or you may even just be singing the credit song over and over in your head. My advice: meditate first, binge later.

Hang in there and keep breathing, the end is in sight!

10. If there are any children within a half-mile radius of you

This last pearl of wisdom will likely sound like Mission Impossible to any parents reading this, but logically speaking how easy would it be to meditate when there are toddlers trying to climb over you and screaming for attention? Not very, I would imagine. With the longer evenings I've now found that even the neighbours' kids playing outside makes concentrating difficult without earphones. If my earlier suggestion of being the first one up in the morning doesn't pan out, your best bet may be to wait until after the school run, lock yourself in a well-insulated room, or invest in a pair of ear plugs.

Congratulations on completing your When Not to Meditate session. I hope you've enjoyed what you've read and can take some of my tips and tricks forward into your own meditation. And if all else fails, see my departing message below:

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Emma McMullan's Picture

Emma McMullan

Writer, blogger, book hoarder, mug collector and language enthusiast.