MEDITATION FOR STRESS – An article I have just written

July 1, 2009 at 12:27 pm 2 comments

Meditation has been used for thousands of years as a contemplative and healing practice. Its use has been more prevalent until now in the East rather than in the West, since it forms the bedrock of teachings as different as Yoga, Buddhism and Taoism. However its use in the West, particularly among Christian monks and nuns, was also widespread in the middle ages. Presently I imagine there are more people meditating in the West than in the East, most for spiritual reasons, and some for healing.

What is meditation? There are innumerable kinds of meditation, each designed to do a specific job, but what they all have in common is the attempt to still the ‘monkey mind’, the ever active conscious mind that accompanies our every waking hour. When we are at work, or walking, or eating, we are not aware of how insistent, persistent, chaotic and dreamlike this conscious mind is. Only when we sit down in meditation do we find out how difficult it is to penetrate beyond the thoughts, feelings, bits of song lyrics, and images that our mind constantly assails us with. This endless barrage feels like it will never slow down or stop, and many people who try meditation soon give up because they believe they will never be able to control their mind and quieten it. There is almost an impish quality to the mind when it realises that you are serious about slowing down your thoughts. The mind then becomes an internal voice telling you that meditation is a waste of time, or that you are doing it really badly and should stop, or that there are too many chores to do instead of sitting down like this. All of this is the ego defending itself from a threat. Having run the castle of the mind for so long the ego reacts with all its wiles to the threat of regime change – a new way of functioning.

If, at the same time as this battle of the mind is raging, we try to sit cross-legged in meditation, this also proves difficult for many people, leading to cramped legs, feet falling asleep, and pain in the hips or lower back. Add this discomfort to the difficulty of calming the mind and it’s no wonder that many people give up meditation after a short while.

This is a pity, since meditation, like most body or mind practices, takes some time to get used to. It is a training of the mind, and as with all training, time must be spent in order to get accustomed to it. One solution is to use a posture that does not require the legs to be crossed. It’s possible to meditate sitting at the front of a chair and thereby keeping your back upright. Another way (and one I prefer) is to lie on your back in the yoga posture sivasana, with the arms and legs held out at a small angle from the body. With a small pillow under the skull it’s possible to stay in this pose for long periods of time. It is also a natural relaxing pose.

When we begin to meditate, if we close our eyes, we can feel our breath begin to slow down. The breath gets deeper and longer and since the breath is the link between body and mind, this calmer breathing has a positive effect on our entire being. The mind does slow down, which is why the thoughts that come up seem so loud and insistent. Other than the breath, and the proprioceptive feeling of the body lying on the floor, there is nothing else going on. Our universe has been reduced to the three elements of breath, body sense and thoughts. Life has become simpler.

The relaxation associated with the breath, particularly the exhalation, which is a form of releasing or letting go, allows the nervous system to calm, and with that we feel our body sinking further into the floor as the muscles relax. As the mind relaxes, so too does the body. Our thoughts slow down, but if we continue to react to them, as we do in normal conscious living, then we are taken on a journey far away from the present moment and the meditation is lost. The trick is to allow the thoughts to come and go, and not to react to them. This is the part that takes quite a lot of practice, because we are so wound up with our thoughts that our habit (both of body as well as mind) is always to react to them as soon as they arise. In fact all emotions and many thoughts bring with them a specific muscular and bodily reaction. But if we can let these thoughts pass by without reacting to them, then they begin to slow down even more, and we begin to ‘sense’ or ‘know’ or gain awareness that there is another reality behind the thoughts, a presence that is still mind, but a different mind, a spacious mind of clarity and peace. This is the mind that we want to find in meditation, because we feel that it is somehow our original mind or our true mind, and the truth that we embody can be found in this open spacious sense of awareness.

When we are stressed or anxious, we are in a completely opposite state. We suffer from a mind assailed by confused and chaotic thoughts, a body altered by stress hormones, and a breath that is as choppy and confused as our mind. How can meditation help in such a situation? Anxiety seems to leave us no way of avoiding the painful thoughts that tumble through our mind, constantly invading, revolving and threatening. With our mind so full of problems, all we can do is seek temporary solutions that will take us out of our minds for a short period of time, like drinking, or drugs, or going to the movies. But when we come down from our high or get back home, we are back exactly where we were before.

Meditation is a great healing practice for stress because of three reasons. Firstly, by allowing us to gain some control over our breath we are able to initiate the relaxation response, which helps us to get out of the panic state, and calm the system. This we can do anytime we feel stressed and it only takes a few minutes. Secondly, if we can gain even a glimmer of that mind beyond the mind, we understand that there is more to our life than just the thoughts that are currently threatening us and causing pain. We gain an expanded consciousness, even if that expansion is only enough to see that there is life beyond our problems. We can then learn not to react through habit, but to respond spontaneously to the events that arise. Thirdly if we can slow our minds and find greater clarity to our thinking, we may be able to discover new solutions to our problems, or at least gain enough confidence to know that dealing with our problems is the only real solution. Meditation works; it only requires some discipline or dedication.

If people are unable to find a meditation teacher or attend a class, a guided audio meditation can help, especially one that is fully instructional, and which takes account of the needs of beginners. Meditation has been with us for thousands of years, and has proven itself as an aid to spiritual development. It’s good to know that we continue to have access to an ancient practice that is so effective in healing 21st century problems.

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Entry filed under: Age of Anxiety, Uncategorized. Tags: .

From my Old Journal – April 13 2003- Life Is Contradictory

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