In March 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world, we suddenly found ourselves in ‘lockdown’. Those early days, as the crisis escalated, had a surreal quality. Many aspects of life, previously taken for granted, changed in unprecedented ways as we learnt a new vocabulary and reluctantly came to terms with the ‘new normal’.
Just before lockdown was imposed, all kinds of events and activities started getting cancelled, and those who knew how quickly switched to doing things online.
The rest of us soon had to catch up.
My initial response to the idea of doing meditation sessions and courses online was that it would never work. I’d probably consider myself to be quite IT literate: I can build websites, do a bit of graphic design, and I routinely use a variety of software packages. But I simply couldn’t envisage myself leading a meditation session sitting at my desk in front of a computer screen, instead of being in a room with other people, practising together.
In fact, I was totally against it.
Up until this point I had only ever taught – or, for that matter, been taught – meditation in person. The thought of leading sessions online just didn’t seem right. How would we get that sense of connection? How would we be able to meditate sat in front of a computer screen?
And in any case, it never occurred to me – at least not initially – that lockdown would last more than a few weeks, maybe a couple of months at the most. And even that seemed like an impossibly long time. I can remember all the hassle at work as we had to wind down operations. In those first few weeks I was busier than ever, cancelling courses and events, making arrangements to enable staff to work from home (and teaching them how to use the online tools I had only just learnt to use myself), trying to work out what we could and couldn’t do under the restrictions – which kept changing all the time – and wondering what would happen next. One of the most frustrating experiences was being completely unable to make any plans – for anything.
And sadly, the meditation centre in Newcastle, which I had set up four years before, was forced to close, permanently, as it turned out.
Anyway, I was persuaded to try the option of delivering online sessions and, much to my surprise, it worked remarkably well.
I can vividly remember those first few online meditation sessions in the early weeks of lockdown. The slight awkwardness many of us felt using unfamiliar technology. The nervous energy as we adjusted to those extraordinary changes to our everyday lives. The fear and anxiety that made us so keen to maintain some sort of connection with one another. The gratitude that at least we had the tools to be able to do that.
But it really worked. In fact, it worked very well indeed.
Soon weeks became months and in that initial period of the first full lockdown, we had up to forty people joining the sessions, which I ran three times a week. As the situation changed, I reduced the frequency of sessions and eventually the numbers of people attending dropped as restrictions were lifted. Which is exactly what one would expect.
But what one might not have expected is that the sessions would still continue to be a sustainable activity, even after the initial ‘need’ had passed. In fact, some sessions have actually increased in attendance. And I have no reason to think this won’t continue to be the case.
Meditation is generally thought of as a predominantly solitary and personal activity. And yet, it is also an activity that many people choose to do with others as well. For a start, there’s really no better way to learn how to meditate than joining a class or a group, led by a skilled practitioner, and being part of a community of other people meditating together. Even very experienced meditators still attend classes, not because they need to be told how to meditate, of course, but because being part of a group is such a good way of sustaining a regular practice.
But finding a suitable class to join isn’t always easy, even at the best of times. Which is where online sessions can really offer the best of both worlds. You have all the convenience of being able to practice in your own space, as part of your normal routine, and with no need to travel anywhere, whilst at the same time – and unlike using an app, for example – you can be part of an actual live group of people meditating together, with an experienced facilitator holding the space.
Doing everything on zoom can be a mixed blessing. Whilst it’s certainly made some things easier, and it cuts down on travel to meetings, there are clearly many activities – especially those that depend on normal social interaction – that are so much better in person.
However, meditation sessions are good example of something that really does seem to work surprisingly well online. This is at least partly because many of the limitations that may compromise other types of activity simply don’t apply. After all, for much of the session we’re all sitting in silence anyway!
Over the course of the pandemic, the success of the online sessions also made me think about developing online courses. During lockdown I was able not only to finish writing the Just Meditation book, but also to create my first online course. I think there is a huge amount of potential to do a lot more in this area. In some ways, there is nothing new about any of this. Distance learning has been around for years. But today the tools at our disposable are a lot more powerful. I now have plans to develop more courses and also a membership community as well. Progress is sometimes frustratingly slow – I do all this in my spare time and alongside a demanding full-time job – but we’re getting there, so keep an eye on the website and your emails (if you’re on the mailing list), because I’m hoping to develop a new and very comprehensive meditation course later this year.
In the meantime, let me just finish by saying a little more about what happens in a typical Just Meditation session, in the hope that you might like to give it a go sometime (assuming you haven’t already).
At the beginning there will usually be a short introduction, which will then be followed by one or more periods of silent meditation practice, depending on how long the session is overall. Each period of meditation will begin with some basic practical guidance, such as regarding posture, using the breath or a mantra as a focus for our attention, and letting our thoughts come and go without getting involved in them. But, of course, if you already have an existing practice then you are more than welcome to simply ignore anything (and indeed everything) I may say and just do whatever you would normally do.
A typical session may also include opportunities for sharing comments or questions and sometimes people like to stay on for a bit of a chat afterwards as well.
And that’s about it really. Each session follows the same basic format every time. We keep it simple, and that way everyone knows what to expect. In fact, the format of a Just Meditation session is more or less the same whether the class takes place in person or online, but what many of us have found is that the online sessions provide a really good way of sustaining a regular practice – not least because they’re so convenient.
So, if you’d like to give it a try one day, just head over to the registration page – and hopefully we might see you soon!