Interview – Donna Wilkinson on Meditation
Donna Wilkinson is an advanced clinical massage therapist and an experienced meditator, having attended three 10 day silent meditation retreats over the years. She has an interest in indigenous healing practices and has spent two years training with a traditional shaman from Ecuador, including a month spent living with indigenous tribes in the Amazon jungle. She currently lives in Lewes with her partner and her two pet sugar gliders.
What is meditation?
I would really consider meditation anything that allows you to come back to yourself where you are – something which allows you to become present in the moment. There are many different techniques that you can use, but in its simplest form it’s really just something that catches the attention of your mind and brings it closer to one place.
Why do you think people should meditate?
I think for a lot of us, our brains are constantly on over-drive, running through our ‘to-do’ lists and trying to sort out a million things at once. We often forget to be in the moment, and although ‘mindfulness’ is a bit of a buzzword right now, the truth is that we often don’t take the time to slow down and see right what’s in front of us. How often do you notice details such as the pictures that are hanging on a wall, or really focus on what someone in front of you is saying. These things could be considered a form of meditation – it’s just really bringing your attention back to yourself and your space, and what’s going on.
We live in an extremely busy world, and when your mind is in hyper-drive it can eventually lead to feelings of worry and anxiety. Through meditation, you can start to focus your attention on one thing, instead of spending hours going over a problem again and again in your mind, worrying about all the things that could go wrong. You find that often after meditating, the solutions to your problems come much more easily. And you realise that really, you just had to stop thinking so much.
Is there a difference between meditation and mindfulness?
It’s not so much that there’s a difference, as that mindfulness is a specific type of meditation which often involves observing the breath. Being mindful is basically just coming into a state of presence, which is similar to other types of meditation. Mindfulness is just one way to go about it.
How many different types of meditation are there? What are the main types of meditation?
There’s millions of types of meditation! Within one school of Buddhism as an example, you’ll probably have 100 or 150 different practises that you could choose to do. And there are many, many different schools and religions that practise meditation.
What are the main practises that people use in meditation?
Often, the breath is used as an anchor point, and observing the breath is used in many meditation practises. ‘Labelling’ is also widely used, which is where if you’re observing your breath and thoughts or emotions arise, instead of being annoyed or frustrated you simply recognise and label them as what they are, before coming back to the breath. The other really common practise is body awareness – just noticing sensations in the body. This is my favourite kind of meditation, because it really puts you in contact with your body, and when you start to be able to notice more subtle sensations, you can sometimes find things that are happening in your body that you otherwise wouldn’t have noticed.
For example, I had a piercing under my lip – I thought it was fine and that it wasn’t doing any damage, but when I did one of the 10 day silent meditations I noticed that my gums were very subtly being irritated by it, which made me realise that perhaps over time it wasn’t going to be a good thing for my body. In the same way, by improving your body awareness you might notice that a movement you’re doing repetitively, such as hitting a ball in a certain way over and over again, is subtly starting to become a problem, and take steps to correct it before that happens.
Do you think massage can be a form of meditation?
Yes, definitely. I think it can take practise… especially in the beginning, it can be quite difficult for people to just let themselves be present in the space. For someone who isn’t used to being still in their body, they may notice that their brain starts working overtime when they’re lying on the massage table. Over a few sessions however, and as trust builds with their therapist, they can actually learn to focus on the sensations of getting a massage, and that can become a meditation in itself. I often encourage my clients who are struggling to relax to keep coming back to their breath when their mind starts to wander, or to follow my touch with their awareness, and eventually the mind will begin to settle.
What’s your personal experience with meditation?
When I first encountered meditation when I was younger, I was actually really against it! I used to have this funny theory that people who are into meditation are wasting their life – you know, there’s so much in this world to enjoy and these people are just sitting there in their own world. And then for personal reasons I started to think: “Okay, perhaps I can actually learn to appreciate having this contact with myself”. So I eventually decided to do a Vipassana, which is a 10 day silent retreat – they’re often free and you just pay whenever you feel like paying. And it’s probably one of the best ways to properly learn how to meditate as it’s such a massive commitment – you really throw yourself in the deep end during a 10 day silent retreat! After doing a Vipassana retreat you will know how to meditate by yourself – you won’t need anybody to guide you.
My first Vipassana was actually really shocking to me, and probably one of my most life-changing experiences. Although throughout my life I’d thought of myself as quite a present, calm person… when you start to work in that way you really realise that no matter how calm you THINK you are, your brain is actually on hyper alert, and constantly getting distracted and going to the weirdest places. And you realise that actually, deep down we’re all just a bit strange, and our minds do crazy things.
Immersing yourself into meditation so completely gives you a whole new perspective on life, because when you go that deeply into meditation you really do start to realise that having attachments to positive or negative sensations – such as the discomfort of sitting in one position for a long time – is a choice. And that there’s no objective difference between a positive or a negative sensation – they’re just your nerves reacting. Over the years, our minds have decided which sensations are linked to positivity and which with negativity, and so when you realise that every situation in your life doesn’t have to be ‘bad’ or ‘good’, you can kind of just accept it for what it is.
How many of these retreats have you been on?
Three 10 day ones and one three day one. And they don’t necessarily get easier! But once you know the basics of the technique, the biggest lesson is learning not to judge the meditation process itself. Once you’ve experienced the incredible sensations of a very deep meditation, it’s hard not to desire that same experience again, and when you start to view your meditations in terms of ‘bad’ or ‘good’, you start placing judgements on them. So it’s about making sure that you’re not chasing after a great experience, and training yourself to be not just accepting, but really embracing, of whatever life or your body gives you. And once you can do that, you can start to view any experience as an enjoyable part of your life, even if it might be frustrating or uncomfortable.
How can meditation be beneficial for people who suffer chronic pain?
I think a good way to talk about this would be speaking about my own experience. Ultimately, when you go into a 10 day mediation, you are sat down with your legs crossed, with no back support, for maybe nine hours a day. For 10 days straight. So, no matter how good your posture is, or how fit and healthy you are, you are going to experience pain from day one. And for the first five days that pain is excruciating, and you will be trying tricks, such as sitting on thick blankets, or trying to find support for your back. Eventually, when your mind starts to let go of this prejudgement and starts to understand: “Why am I reacting to this? It’s actually no different to the positive sensations” – all those pains start to disappear. And so by day six or seven on a 10 day meditation retreat, you are sat there for hours and you no longer feel pain. You still feel sensation of course, but it is no longer pain, because it is no longer uncomfortable, and it’s no longer hard to sit there. And nothing’s changed in your body – if anything you’re probably sitting in worse and worse posture as the days go on – it’s more that your mind has changed.
Pain can be a warning that something is wrong in your body – how do you separate this from the painful sensations which aren’t necessarily harmful?
That comes down to really getting to know your own body, because the more time you spend listening to your body, the more you start to understand it. Even taking 30 seconds a day to stop and feel what sensations you notice will help you get to know the normal aches and pains which don’t cause any problems and are just a part of our lives. But if these sensations start to change, or if new sensations develop, you become aware of them immediately and can do something about them if you need to.
The key is to look after your body and pay attention to it, without overreacting or catastrophizing. Often someone will feel a pain shooting down their leg and immediately think of the worst-case scenario – they’re already having an emotional response to something that is probably not as bad as it seems. Whereas the better response would be to feel the pain and be curious, rather than emotional. They could think: “Okay, this is a new experience – it could be something bad or it could be nothing, but I’m going to manage it however it comes, and do what I need to do about it, without coming from an emotional place”. In fact, studies have shown that worrying about pain actually makes it worse, because the brain creates more pain in the body when it feels unsafe.
Meditation can be quite an intimidating thing for a beginner. How would you suggest someone start if they were interested in experiencing meditation for themselves?
It depends on how interested they are. If somebody is just a bit curious, and wanting to see if meditation would be helpful to them, I would probably suggest one of two options. Firstly, you could use guided meditations. These are really helpful for beginners, because often there’s uncertainty when someone is sat in meditation about whether they’re doing it ‘right’ (even though there is no right or wrong way necessarily).
Secondly, I would advise someone to start with meditating 30 seconds each day, for one week. The daily consistency is the key, rather than trying a longer meditation every once in a while. Once this practise is established, then maybe try 30 seconds in the morning and 30 seconds at night. You could even have various alarms set up throughout the day – instead of having to sit down for a longer period, where it may feel like you don’t have time, or that it’s too much effort or commitment, go “okay, well I’m going to set my alarm five times a day. And when it goes off, for 10 seconds I’m just going to close my eyes, and I’m just going to come back to my breath for those 10 seconds”.
In terms of what you do, just sit and breathe naturally, noticing how your breath comes out. You’ll probably be aware of how it touches the skin around your nose, although often at the beginning that might not be noticeable, in which case you might want to breathe out a bit harder so you can start to feel it. You don’t have to do anything on the in breath, just notice the sensation on the out breath or use a guided meditation – but do it for a duration that feels comfortable, and slowly start increasing it at your own pace.
I guess the important thing is just starting the habit – the duration probably doesn’t matter as much as the consistency. I can imagine it being a bit like running – someone getting fired up about wanting to run a marathon, and on their first run going out and doing 10 miles, hating it, and never wanting to run again.
Exactly – it’s important to know yourself, and do it within your own limits. You could decide to meditate with a group – when there’s a group setting then you have the support of other people helping you. Or you could decide: “I’m going to do a 10 day meditation retreat”, and really make the commitment to it. But if you aren’t that motivated, and go: “Okay, I’m going to meditate every day for 20 minutes”, and by day three you’re having to force yourself to do it, you’ll probably treat it as a chore and spend the whole time wondering when it’s going to be over. So at the beginning, it’s better to do less than you’d like to – even if you know you’d be comfortable with 10 minutes, maybe do eight. And if you want to meditate every day, then make it a time frame that’s really doable.