Stress 101: Meditation

Ah, to sit in stillness, cultivating peace! Doesn’t that sound just wonderful. Maybe you’ve even gone to the expense of creating a space, buying one of those special pillows, getting a sound bowl, burning incense. And it’s fantastic…for about four seconds.

Then your mind kicks in…and the battle is ON!!! Your back starts hurting, your left knee act up, you can’t stop thinking about the LIST that everybody’s got: what to get done today, what should have gotten done yesterday. Or that jerk that cut us off, or claims we cut them off. Some of us as well simply were not born to sit still, our bodies want to mooooove!

Confession time here. I’m not the greatest meditator in the world. I’ve been doing it for years, and I’ve been studying it and workshopping about it for almost as long; I could cite you statistics on empirical evidence of how good it is for the brain. And if I get to it more than twice a week, I’m awfully proud of myself. Time is a constraint, but that’s usually an excuse (unless you are a single mom with four children and an inflexible boss, in which case, you get to use that excuse). The really difficulty is sitting with one’s inner turmoil, unrelieved by distraction.

And that can be brutal.

Meditation has been one of the most studied and verified forms of effective support for neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability in the wake of damage to make new neuronal connections. These connections in particular seem to positively impact our level of compassion for self and other, involving a part of the brain called the insula. I won’t go into detail…but I encourage you to have fun with searches, and in particular check out some of the material from the Shambhala Institute.

Meditation is a discipline. Sometimes, it gets to me. In this video, in which I am upstaged by my dogs, I give a little taste both of the effort I put towards sitting, and how easy it is for me to get distracted from focusing on the present.  What is important for all of us to wrap our minds around is that, if you’re expecting your brain to cooperate and stop thinking, you will not succeed. You will get frustrated, and you will give up on an intervention that is free and requires no travel, taking 15-20 minutes out of your day.

Monkey mind. After you sit for that first 4 seconds, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. And the best approach is not to judge it, or to bypass it, but instead to gently recognize it…each and every time those thoughts start screeching and reaching from limb to limb. Normalize it. That’s what your undisciplined brain is going to do. It’s a little like the wobbly legs of a toddler just learning to walk. Just as we pull ourselves up, over and over again, until our body learns and memorizes how to balance and move with grace and economy, so too will, over time, our minds become more accustomed to the thoughts that spring forth, and more resilient in their return to a calmer, more present, and more aware place.

What does this have to do with trauma? One of the hallmarks of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is that it makes the differentiation between Now and Then extremely difficult. It makes sitting with the distress intolerable. By practicing the discipline of arriving at now, again and again, and touching our pain with forgiveness and compassion for our selves, we can do much to heal the wounds that linger from the past.

For the core article, click here