Me, myself, and meditation by Maaya Modha-Patel
Maaya's meditation journey from young girl to mother.
I’ve been meditating for as long as I can remember.
It started when my family and I joined a local multi-faith organisation called a Sai Centre when I was about 10.
For years, my mum used to make my sister and I go to meditate in a dark room with two of our lovely family friends who were also members of the organisation (Maureen Aunty and Debbie Aunty, who have now sadly passed away). This happened every Friday night when everyone else was at home watching Top of The Pops. Every. Friday. Night.
We’d walk in and sit on wooden chairs encircling a small central table. This table held only one thing – a tall, white candle.
And within minutes, we’d be gently instructed to focus on the candle, commit the flame to memory, and then close our eyes, holding only this image in our minds.
I remember thinking that it was hard and dark and boring. And there were countless times I fought with my thoughts, stopping myself from standing up or yelling about how useless I believed the experience was. At that time I thought that positive change meant being in the real-world, doing things and helping people. I didn’t know that the most meaningful change starts within and blossoms outwards.
After these initial, intense feelings, my mind would usually quieten, realising that we were in it for the long haul. (I was 10, there was no way I could drive myself home). We’d normally spend around an hour sitting in silent darkness, hearing thoughts and feeling emotions as they came but trying to remain unaffected by them, like passing clouds drifting over a brilliant, unwavering sun.
When my mind was still, everything felt clearer. It still does now. I hear only what’s going on around me in the world – a ticking clock, a running tap, a car whizzing past – but that voice inside my head, completely silent. Silent and listening. Meditation gives my brain a chance to pause and my heart a chance to breathe.
When I meditate, everything gets stripped away. I am no longer my fears, my anxieties, my sadnesses, my worries. Closing my eyes and focusing on my breath brings me back to the present with a loving and gentle thud so I’m no longer only seeing the worst case scenario.
I also believe that meditation is one of the most liberating practices a human being can do. It is the great equaliser, because when a person closes their eyes, they no longer hold status, wield power, or have the burden of responsibility. We are all the same when we are sitting still in silence, eyes closed and simply listening. At that time we are everything and nothing. We connect with all the potential life has to give but do this with no need for identity, currency, or permission.
It’s strange to think that I’m now deep in to the third decade of my life, meaning that I’ve been meditating for over 25 years. During that time it has come to my rescue on more occasions than I can count. Before job interviews, exams, first dates, and lectures. It has been my safety net in those small, mundane life situations like when the train was late and I needed to feel less stressed, and my saviour in those huge defining moments like during a long and challenging labour with my son.
Here it turned out to be the most unexpected, miraculous thing. I was almost 12 hours in to my hospital stay, after my waters broke prematurely but labour didn’t start spontaneously. The doctor came to start my induction around midnight, after which I was in excruciating pain for hours with no medication available. The following morning, when the anaesthetist finally started my epidural, my blood pressure suddenly crashed. The reading was something ridiculously low like 75/50 (when it is ordinarily 120/80) and seconds after the machine beeped loudly and urgently to tell us this, I passed out.
When I regained consciousness, a team of doctors encircled my bed. My blood pressure was still dangerously low and there was now the worry that it would affect my baby. The lead consultant kindly put forward her recommendation of an emergency Caesarian section (C-section). I agreed, citing that we do whatever is best and safest for me and baby, but as she talked me through all of the risks, including mentioning that although rare, hysterectomies can be a result of this procedure, something inside me said no.
I had imagined a more natural, midwife-led birthing experience with minimal pain relief. I know people say to throw a birthing plan out the window, that “the baby will come the way it’s meant to come”, but this was already a far cry from the way I had hoped to bring my son in to the world. And now the prospect of not being able to give him siblings, it was a lot to process in such a short space of time.
At this point I asked the consultant for 10 minutes alone. A lot was going on in my mind and I needed some time to sit with my thoughts. She looked at me quizzically but kindly agreed.
Almost all of the people in our room suddenly vanished and I was left with my husband and our midwife. After catheterising me, the midwife left us and I told my husband I needed to meditate.
I took out my phone and started a meditation I had been doing since the beginning of my pregnancy, when I felt anxious and vulnerable because I had no clue about how to carry a baby safely and successfully against the tidal wave of hormones, nausea, marital misunderstandings, fatigue, and physical changes. My meditation practice was my anchor, a warm hug when I felt lost, a call to the confident, happy me who was always there somewhere.
Reconnecting to myself was what I needed and for that 10 minutes, I closed my eyes and opened my heart. I focused on the teacher’s words, coming back to them over and over again. After some time doing this, a sensation of calm gently washed over me and I felt my body settle. The meditation came to an end and I tuned back in to the world with a softness and acceptance that wasn’t there before.
The consultant returned and checked my readings. And it was at this point that things took a turn for the unexpected. She looked at me in disbelief as she shared that my blood pressure had stabilised and so had my baby’s. She hadn’t seen this before and she was very surprised. The C-section was no longer necessary.
I broke down in tears, as did my husband. When the consultant left, our midwife shared that the medical team outside were gowning up and preparing for the surgery, so they were all incredibly shocked that meditation was the reason it was no longer happening.
My husband and I couldn’t believe it and to this day, even while writing this, I find myself tearing up reliving this memory.
Another extraordinary part of this whole experience is that my son’s body did not have to automatically respond to the meditation in the way that I did. By this stage in his development, he had an independent system so his blood pressure could have stayed low, although mine had stabilised. This is so special because for me, it means that my baby felt something that centred him while I was meditating. Wow.
Meditation was something I had to drag myself to as a young girl, that became a useful tool to me as a young woman, and was now a life-changing miracle for me as a new mother. I am now interested in researching the science behind meditation to see whether it would be a beneficial practice for pregnant women, especially those from black and South Asian backgrounds for whom the UK reports a higher mortality in pregnancy and childbirth compared to any other ethnicity. I am so grateful to the Oxford Mindfulness Foundation and especially to Sally Bolton and Dr Sian Warriner for their support with this meaningful work.
What a journey it has been to finally arrive here and find my life shaped by a practice I initially disliked so intensely. I often think back to 10 year-old me feeling stuck in that dark room and I smile, wishing she knew what I know now.