How I Finally Learnt to Switch Off: Case Study
“I’m a real control freak,” says 28-year old hairdresser, Rachael. “I find it really hard to just let go. I always have to feel like I’m in control of everything, especially anything that’s happening to my own body. And I find my mind is always really busy, thinking about things, wondering about things, planning things – it just never slows down!”
Switching off is hard to do…So when Rachael decided to start practising meditation, the hardest thing she found was learning to “switch off” and relax. It was so completely at odds with her normal active state of mind that she was almost fearful of completely letting go and shutting her mind down. It made her feel incredibly vulnerable and loss of control was not something she dealt well with.
“I just couldn’t do it! I felt so – sort of ‘exposed’ and scared. Like I didn’t know what was going to happen to me – or my mind – if I didn’t have a thought to focus on. I know it sounds stupid but it was almost like my mind was afraid of being ‘free from any distractions’ - like it just wanted – needed – something to do constantly. And the more I tried to switch off, the worse it got. I actually got so tense and wound up, trying to switch off, that I had to give up trying to meditate and go do something else!”
Rachael’s problem is a very common one experienced by many people who try to meditate. Especially in today’s society with its emphasis on time organisation and constant stimulus, it is very hard to learn to just ‘let go’ and just let the mind drift, to just “be” in the moment, without any active intent.
Trying too hard…In her frustration, Rachael sought help from various meditation instructors and finally got advice from one which unlocked the door.
“It sounded so simple but she just told me to stop trying so hard!” Laughs Rachael. “She said that it’s a common misconception people have that your mind needs to be completely blank when you meditate when actually, that’s very hard to achieve. She said that it was easier to stop thinking about trying to empty your mind and focus instead of small things in the ‘here and now’ that were easy to concentrate on. So for example, she got me to think about my breathing – not just to breathe unconsciously and automatically but think about doing it deliberately, with each breath. Well, I found that quite easy and very soothing actually – I sort of fell into a rhythm as I followed each of my breaths in and out.”
A helpful mantra…Rachael also found it very helpful to chant a mantra – a phrase or word repeated over and over – as again, it gave her mind something specific to focus on and a rhythm to follow. The other piece of advice she found invaluable was to first do something that helped her relax. In her case, it was listening to the radio in the background – just having the gentle drone seemed to help her tune out her thoughts from the day and relax. So she started putting the radio on in the background for 15 – 20mins before she planned to meditate, so that her mind was already in a relaxed state before she even began to meditate.
“I found it was a much easier transition – I would just switch off the radio and then sit down and start humming my mantra to myself, while focusing on my breathing – and very quickly, I’d fall into this sort of soothing rhythm which really helped me to become aware and mindful of everything. But in a calm, peaceful way – not in that panicky way I used to feel when I was trying too hard to empty my mind.”