Striving to be like Yoda - Breathing and Meditation

I have been working up to this article since before this blog began. It is going to be tough writing it but I am enjoying the process. Even now I can feel the charge of the positive energy coursing through my veins. 

Today I am writing about a pivotal moment in my evolution as a man - understanding meditation and the connection to breath. The events that brought about this understanding and the clarity I received from them helped me find the courage to seek help again. To take a long hard look in the mirror and pacify my inner demons. I have said before I want to write about truth but the truth is I am not ready to write about that long hard look in the mirror yet.

One thing that I have come to realise is that my pendulum has swung from the darkness of fear to the light of love. It still swings back to the darkness from time to time but for the most part, it has moved. This sounds (even to me) like happy-clappy bullshit but it is what I believe, my truth if you will. 

I have written to an extent about the man and child I used to be, I have said that I knew things were wrong, that I was wrong. It is time to move forward from the past and stop looking back.

I know that I am on the right path, people have noticed a change in me. A change for the better I am told.  A calmer, happier man.  

My journey to understanding meditation 

I have always been aware of meditation and spirituality. I wish I had found this as a younger man but I clearly was not ready. I can remember events where meditation came into my life but I could never stick at it. One of those events was when I was 23, I was training at Grand Master Woodies Thai boxing gym in Manchester. When the Grand Master trained us he would always end the class with ten minutes meditation, I liked it, was intrigued by it but could never “go under”  I would last a minute or two then, open an eye, see what was going on.  I wasn't the only one having a furtive glance...

In my earlier life I used weed to zone out in the way I now meditate. I have friends in New Zealand who laugh when they hear that I used to be a stoner. I am told I am too down to earth, grounded for that. Enough bragging about weed smoking (it was fun though). Cannabis was like a tap that shut off the thoughts in my mind, I ditched it sometime in my twenties, I realised I was getting nothing done and risked failing my degree.

When I found Jits, I had to stick at it for a long time before I eventually found the flow of open guard. That became my meditation and it worked well, it kept the demons at bay (sort of) for quite a few years. I found the same experience with Ashtanga yoga as well but not to the same extent.  Ashtanga gave me a rudimentary awareness of breathing, as the instructor described it "the breath to movement flow"  

My Jits game changed forever when I incorporated Asthanga yoga’s fire breathing technique into it.  It gave me an extreme sense of calm however badly I was being smashed.  I remember when I moved to New Zealand, I spent some time at Tukaha HQ before injury drove me off the mats. One of the guys said to me “why are you so fucking calm, it is like rolling with a sociopath” I didn’t have an answer at the time but after reflection and knowing what I know now, I realised that it was because I was controlling my breathing during the roll (well mostly that but let's not go there again).

So Jits was how I meditated until very recently.

In 2018 I had another breakdown from work related stress and a number of personal problems. It was around this time that I became aware of meditation again. One of things I believe in is that life “shows” you things when you are ready to see them. For me this takes in the form of what I think of as overlapping themes from different, unrelated sources.  My own experiences suggest that for me clarity and understanding are born out of adversity.  As my favourite quote goes:

"Ignis aurum probat, miseria fortes homines" Seneca

Translated roughly "Fire tests gold, as adversity strengthens men".  Anyway, I digress.  I started to hear about meditation and breathing on a few different podcasts, places where I didn’t expect to hear about it. For example, a colleague at work talked to me out of the blue about her life outside of work at the Buddhist temple and how meditation plays a large part of that. It just started cropping up more and more.  Then came Hypnobirthing. 

Clare was pregnant with our son. A veteran mother of three recommended Hypnobirthing to Clare, she was keen to go on the course. We did. If you aren’t familiar with Hypnobirthing (I certainly wasn’t) it is basically a combination of positive thinking, visualization, relaxation and self hypnosis that guides future mothers through birth. It really works but that is another story.

We went to the course, at the time I was coming off the back of burnout at work. My mind was pretty broken. A large part of the course was teaching the mums to get into hypnotic trance, the dads do it too. Something clicked, the pieces of the jigsaw fell into place so quickly. The breathing technique we had been working for the past few weeks (a basic 4 second inhale, 8 second exhale) sent me under. 

It was good really good, my mind switched off, I relaxed and then the lid came off pandoras box. I had flash backs to my childhood and a full on panic attack, right in the middle of the class. What do you do in that sort of environment when you want to scream like someone stabbed you and run out the door? I did what I imagine 90% of men would do, I dealt with it, kept quiet and rode out the storm (it never occurred to me to open my eyes).

After the class I told Clare what had happened. I knew two things, I liked this meditation stuff and that my problems ran way deeper than work related stress.

So, life had showed me again. I paid attention, I didn’t ignore it. I worked the 4:8 breathing into my daily rituals on my commute to and from work. I kept doing the meditation in my car when I got to work. Most importantly I agreed with Clare I needed to find someone to help me sort this stuff out once and for all.

This is as much as I am willing to share for now. 

Brief Summary

I suppose I should expand on the points I am trying to get across by sharing this. Here is a quick summary:
  • Life “shows” us things we need to see in different, unrelated ways, something keeps trying until we are able to see it. This process can take decades, it did for me at least (yes, I know that sounds out there and bat shit crazy)
  • I think of this showing as overlapping circles, commonality leading to one pivotal answer that changes your evolutionary state. This simple Ven diagram shows my most profound shift (it seems kinda obvious when you look at it)
  • I think there comes a point in everyone’s life where you have to stop and look in the mirror. To stare at yourself and see what you are afraid of and then pacify your demons. For some of us, that is more extreme than others and I think for others we never find the courage to look and keep running away. I ran all the way to New Zealand before I found the courage to look at myself, when I looked I was ashamed of who I was, who I had been but I saw the potential to become more and that is what I look to now

Practical advice on meditation

Meditation doesn’t have to be hard, you don’t have to go up a mountain and sit in the lotus position chanting. In the past I had only a thread of tolerance (note I say had) for happy-clappy bullshit, I can understand that some of you will be reading this with a large dollop of scepticism. Yup, I hear you.

I know that there is a LOT of mindfulness and meditation stuff being thrown about in Western culture right now (the Eastern cultures are probably laughing at us). Hopefully, my story illustrates that I am not jumping on a bandwagon, for sure I found a more spiritual side to my existence. However, I have not run off up a mountain to a cave or joined a cult. I am just a guy who meditates. 

How do you meditate then?

  1. Watch this YouTube video by Belisa Vranich, perhaps invest in her book Breathe* (optional). OR do your own research into diaphragm/ belly breathing
  2. Find somewhere quiet and comfortable. I prefer to lie on my yoga mat, recline my car seat or on a bed. A lot of people say to sit to avoid falling asleep, I haven’t had this problem yet
  3. Set a stopwatch going (it is good to know how long you were under for to measure progress)
  4. Shut your eyes
  5. Put into practice your breathing technique. Breathe in for 4 seconds, out for 8 seconds
  6. Relax your mind, allow thoughts to flow through your conscious mind. Don’t hold onto them, don’t actively engage in thinking, accept them and let them pass you by. Breathe and keep your eyes shut as long as you can
How do you know it is working? This is always what alluded me. From what I have understood meditation is that place between being awake and falling asleep. Your mind is still aware but you are about to switch off. DON’T FALL ASLEEP BRO!

The best test is to “test your eyelids”, gently try to open your eyelids. If they snap open, you aren’t quite there yet. If they feel heavy, like you could open them but don’t really want to, you are under.

That is it. See, no chanting or lentils (I quite like lentils though).

* thank you Glyn Powditch for introducing me to Belisa's work

Further Reading

I alluded to different sources of information relating to this topic.  As with most things, once I get interested, I get a bit obsessed.  The list below are the most useful books I have read on this topic:

Breathe by Belisa Vranich
Letting Go by David R Hawkins
The science of mindfullness by Ronald D Siegel
Hypnobirthing, the Mongan Method by Marie F. Mongan 

Final Thoughts

The best way to sum up where I am at with all this stuff is I am a beginner.  I have found something that helps me, I work on it every day.  My goal is to be able to meditate for over an hour (46 minutes is my record), I want to reach a state of complete calm, serenity if you will, where my internal dialog is silent.  

When I reach that state (it is hard to get to) my goal is to meditate on specific words or themes, as I have heard others talk about.  To listen out for the answers from my subconscious, not my conscious mind.  

I think of this as "Striving to be like Yoda" 


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