4 Tips For Effective Meditation - Men's Health Magazine Australia

Four Tips For Effective Meditation, According To One Of The World’s Best Mindfulness Teachers

About that irritation – even the rage – you can feel welling up inside of you. Is there a way to quell it, for good?

Nowadays, the big guy who’s just appeared on my computer screen, who’s talking to me in his mellifluous voice, is a symbol of composure. But he wasn’t always thus. Like the time he flipped his lid in a New York diner.

“I always get embarrassed when I talk about my pre-mindfulness days,” says Kessonga Giscombe, a mindfulness and meditation teacher with Headspace App. But since he’s previously called it a turning point in his life, I insist he retell the diner story. Don’t worry, I add – we’ll make it clear you’ve evolved.

Okay, he chuckles. Well, quite some time ago now, when Kessonga was in his twenties, he and his wife went into this diner so he could get a milkshake. “I’m a fan of ice cream,” he says. The guy behind the counter made the shake and filled the cup and was about to toss the surplus shake when Kessonga spoke up, asking the guy to put the leftovers into a separate cup so Kessonga could take that with him, too.

“No,” the guy said – with “attitude”, according to Kessonga.

The request was repeated, for the same response, and Kessonga could feel himself getting mad. “Okay, you know what? I don’t even want the milkshake anymore. Just give me my money back,” he told the guy.

There was some back-and-forth yelling and then, Kessonga says, the diner guy used an awful word and Kessonga “lost it”, using his arm in a sweeping motion to send the cakes and pastries that had been displayed on the counter crashing to the floor. “And straight away,” he says, “it was, Oh no. What did I just do?’”

Kessonga and his wife fled the scene, convinced the cops would soon be on their tail. As they sprinted towards the subway, Kessonga grasped the peril he was in: a Black man running through the streets having damaged property? In the US, even an unarmed Black man in those circumstances is in mortal danger. “It could have been disastrous, but seen as justified because of my actions,” he says. “All because of a milkshake!”

Like most of us to some degree, Kessonga had anger-management issues. Kessonga says his could be traced to his childhood in the Bronx and Harlem, where kids and adolescents tended to settle disagreements with their fists. “The environment was volatile… and that tension, that alertness, that readiness to pounce, I hung onto that at a subconscious level,” he says. “Even now, I live in Chapel Hill in North Carolina – it’s a safe little bubble, a college town – but I still find myself with my head on a swivel. It’s just habitual.”

Shortly after the diner incident, Kessonga’s wife came home from work one evening and handed him a book. This might be something you’ll like, she told him. Check it out.

The book was a doorstop of a tome by Jon Kabat-Zinn called Full Catastrophe Living, which is essentially a manual for achieving greater calm and contentment through a technique called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). The following night, Kessonga started reading – “and straight away, something clicked,” he says. He finished the 650-page book in three days and began meditating each morning on the floor of his bedroom.

Full Catastrophe Living resonated so strongly with him, Kessonga says, because “it showed me there was another way of moving through this life journey”. It elevates moment-to-moment living, nonjudgmental absorption in the present, rather than constant mental time travel – backwards and forwards – to wallow in or induce regret, yearning, sadness, resentment, fear, anxiety or various other unhelpful emotions that destroy the possibility for pure, soulful experience.

“I wholeheartedly believe we’re all born as mindful beings,” says Kessonga, who asks me to think about how babies are forever present, absorbed in whatever it is they’re seeing or doing. Alas, as we grow up and life becomes more complicated, we lose touch with what he calls our “mindful centre”. The good news? “It never disappears. It’s still there. It’s just a matter of getting back in touch with it.”

Behind the fury

For Kessonga, so profound was his awakening that within a few years he wanted to spread the word about mindfulness. At the time a licensed acupuncturist with a practice in Raleigh, North Carolina, he began introducing his clients to the art and possibilities of mindfulness and meditation while receiving formal training from multiple universities. Today, he’s an adjunct mindfulness instructor at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Medicine and teaches through his company Mindful Explorations, LLC, hosting mindfulness workshops, seminars and retreats. Headspace App recruited him two years ago – and he’s still “pinching himself”, he says, that he can now reach 100 million people in 190 countries with advice flowing from a conviction that “if everyone practised meditation, the world would be a better place”. 

I ask Kessonga about the nature of anger, about what’s at the root of it. Different things for different people, he says. In some cases, he allows, it could be love, which can generate or intensify other emotions. Or an expression of deep, repressed sadness. “Sometimes, though, it’s pure anger – a feeling of being disrespected,” he says. “When there’s oppression and discrimination, that’s pure anger… maybe some hopelessness and frustration, too.” Through meditation, he says, you can zero in on your anger’s first cause.

The effect of meditation on Kessonga’s temperament was less like flicking a switch than pruning trees and cleaning windows to unveil a soothing mountain view. “But what I did notice from the beginning was a sense of ease and calm that I felt while meditating,” he says. Gradually, he was able to carry those feelings with him through the day. When stuff happened that would once have whitened his knuckles, he found he was far more capable of staying cool.

Think of meditation as practice for game day, Kessonga says – game day being life. While meditating, you’re training your mind to react differently to life’s pressures – and eventually, at crunch time, it does. Importantly, he adds, if your problem is anger, a heightened capacity for mindfulness won’t kick in only when something’s grinding your gears. “You’ll be moving differently in everyday life and with that can come a greater sense of joy, a greater awareness for sure, and a greater sense of self-love and self-compassion,” Kessonga says. “All those benefits, I was noticing and cultivating.”

The joy equation

We’re never – not in a hundred years of forest bathing or seaside strolls – going to eliminate all stress from our lives. But what we can do towards creating a more peaceful life, Kessonga says, is to learn how to stop resisting the stressors so forcefully. To clarify, anger is a form of resistance. So is avoidance. And procrastination. Resistance is anything that gives the stressor more power to affect your equilibrium than it would otherwise have.

Kessonga recites a formula: suffering = stress x resistance. Now, even if the stress is one million, he explains, if your resistance to it is zero, your suffering equals zero. Zero resistance might be a pipedream, but you take his point, right? Stress doesn’t mean inevitable suffering; you can work towards observing it neutrally, tossing water on the flames instead of petrol.

In this post-mindfulness phase of his life, I wonder, does Kessonga still feel anger but has learnt how to avoid launching from it? Or has the meditation subdued the anger itself – turned a lion into a kitten? It’s both, he says.

“I always say that one of the biggest misconceptions around mindfulness and meditation is that you develop this constant sense of tranquillity and calm – just floating through life, right? It’s not like that. It’s not like that at all. You’re still going to experience anger, sadness, fear, jealousy, anxiety . . . they’re all still going to arise. But meditation teaches you to create that space between the stimulus and how you respond. And in that space is where you’re able to gain some clarity, insight and maybe some wisdom that allows for a more measured response.”

We return to the episode in the diner. Were the same scenario to unfold tomorrow, Kessonga says, he’d still be angry but there is no chance he would trash the joint. “What I’d do is, I’d take a deep breath and say, ‘Let’s just go home’.”

Bring It On

The Headspace App’s Kessonga, one of the world’s best-known mindfulness teachers, offers these four tips for effective meditation

Get Comfy

Dispense with the idea that you need to adopt the classic, cross-legged yogi pose. Not everyone can strike it – at all or for very long. “I understand – I’ve got tight hips myself,” says Kessonga. In his classes, where attendees traverse the age spectrum, some people will meditate while seated in chairs. Kessonga’s tip: “Assume a comfortable and dignified posture of awareness”.

Keep it Simple

Misconceptions

Kessonga’s a fan of the KISS principle – but prefers KIS because he doesn’t see the need to call anyone stupid. Meditation doesn’t require adornments. If you’re having trouble getting started or finding the time, treat the moment 

your feet hit the floor of a morning as the start of a 3-5min session from the edge of your bed.

Consistency Trumps Duration

“I would say that three minutes every day is better than one hour on Tuesdays and Fridays,” says Kessonga. “Mindfulness is not just techniques and exercises you use when stressed. It’s a way of being.” Think of meditation as like brushing your teeth: it’s not something you forgo if you’re busy; you just do it.

Be Kind to Yourself

Mindfulness is about suspending judgment – and that includes of yourself. “There is no right or wrong with meditation,” Kessonga says. “Oftentimes your thoughts race and you might finish a session and think, Oh, man – that session sucked . . . what a waste of time’. But no. That was your experience – and it’s fine.”

By Dan Williams

Dan Williams, Men’s Health’s Associate Editor, is the magazine’s most experienced presence. While his body protests more than it used to, he still insists it honour the MH way, with regular dawn workouts mingled with punishing sessions on the tennis court – all against a backdrop of abstemiousness: he turns into a pumpkin at 10pm.

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