If I was asked to describe how the British saw meditation, I’d reply, “weird relaxation”: the British see it as a suspect means of getting some peace of mind that’s tied up in alien religions and general absurdity. As a result, people go to meditation in search of peace and relaxation, and when they don’t find it – and indeed, find other things… put it aside as if broken.
Which is a real pity: because on the other side of a successful meditation practice are things the British value very highly: emotional control, and a way of coping emotionally without bothering other people with our troubles.
What’s needed is a tetchy, sceptical, over-intellectualized Brit who lives in his head to step forward, give meditation a very serious run and report back. Step forward novelist and writer Tim Parks.
In Teach Us To Sit Still: a sceptic’s search for health and healing Parks describes his attempts to control his longstanding chronic bowel pain – attempts which lead him first to the insight that he must promote the problem to the main curriculum of his life if he is to make progress, and second to the realization, reached little by little, that the problem is caught up in his relationship with his own emotions and feelings, with his own past. Interested Brits will cheer on his jeering comments about the superstitious elements of the wilder edges of Buddhism – and it’s that instantly familiar attitude of Parks’s that makes his eventual turnaround and cure through meditation enthralling and interesting. This is the book to read before embarking on any course of meditation: it will let you know what you are really in for and what it is really like in there.
There is no shortage of meditation instruction on the net – Wildmind.org is a good, non-irritating place to begin, and it’s run by a Brit. But one of the best books on the subject, that keeps close to the “why” as well as to the “how” is Christopher Germer’s Mindful Path to Self-Compassion. The focus of Germer’s book is how to turn the sort of kindness and easygoing way you apply to friends and neighbours into a way to treat yourself – and how this in turn frees you up to have time for others as well.
Dr Susan Blackmore – psychologist and one of the UK’s best writers on the subject of consciousness – is responsible for one of the best accounts of the deeper experiences and insights that can come with meditation – her Zen and the Art of Consciousness takes ten of the questions that arise during meditation and takes them in utterly unexpected and fascinating directions.
Tara Brach’s classic Radical Acceptance and Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection are an alternative next step: using meditation and related thinking to deal with personal problems in a way that – and this is very British, as I’ve said – doesn’t involve burdening other people or moaning.