Managing Stress in Extraordinary Times: Meditation to quiet your mind

 

As we enter the second full week of April, it’s time to expand the ways we are managing the stress and anxiety arising from situations we are facing.  Last week we talked about exercise and the value of incorporating even a few minutes of exercise into your day.  (Missed it?  You can catch up here.). 

This week it is meditation.  Like exercise, it doesn’t take hours and hours of practice to start to see results.  You can start with a few minutes each day and gradually build to a length that suits you.  Meditation doesn’t require incense or chanting, although both are fine if you like that.  Meditation requires something many of us struggle with. We have to accept an invitation to be quiet.

Many of us celebrated holidays in the last week without the usual activities.  We didn’t meet face to face across Seder tables and Easter brunch buffets. Over the past few weeks, we’ve stripped away many of the activities that keep us busy.  Without those activities, there seems to be a lot of quiet time.  And quiet can be very disturbing.  We have conditioned ourselves to live with constantly buzzing minds. We plan the next event before the current event is over. We have come to believe that activity, any activity, is a sign that we are important and accomplishing great things.  We rarely experience things fully because we find it hard to be in only one place.  We read about living mindful lives, yet we find it hard to make space for mindfulness. Sitting still and resting and taking time for ourselves seems self-indulgent.  And yet, quieting our minds and just breathing is one of the simplest and most effective ways to regain a sense of control.

Katie Pembleton, a coach and counselor, sees the value in meditation.  “Although meditation has ancient roots it is gaining more popularity daily in modern science. Recent research has shown meditation helps us rewire our brains. It can positively impact our moods and physical health. Meditation can be used to help with sleep, decrease chronic pain, increase satisfaction with relationships and more.”  Katie believes that right now is a great time to start a meditation practice, as we all need a little more intentional quiet in our lives to support this new way of living. According to Katie, “Most people just starting out find benefit from just 10 minutes a day.  Meditation is a way to exercise your brain and if you commit to a daily practice, it will not take long to experience the benefits. I challenge all of my clients to try daily meditation for a 6-month period. I have yet to have a client come to me and tell me it doesn’t work.”  However, she says “I do warn them that the brain tends to ‘fight’ against meditating. With continued practice, resistance to meditation will start to decrease. We are all capable of meditation and we can all benefit greatly from daily practice.”

While there are many forms of meditation, the goal is always to quiet the mind.  Quiet, not empty.  Meditation is not about emptying your mind.  Rather, it’s about learning how to manage the response to thoughts and feelings.  There’s no doubt that, especially as you begin the practice, thoughts and emotions will come up as you focus on your breathing.  The goal is to learn to observe the thought, but not engage.  It’s a bit like watching the clouds or the branches move with the wind.  Those things happen without you taking any action. and they pass.  A new cloud fills the space, or not, and you simply observe.  When you develop a meditation practice, you sink into this ability. This ability to observe without engaging stays with us so we can observe the mess without feeling anxious about cleaning it up.  When the anxiety moves out, clarity about the path forward can move in.

Ready to begin? We've asked an expert to help. Tobi Ewing is a painter, yoga and meditation guide, and a wellness entrepreneur and the founder of https://beyondtheclouds.co/.   She has tips on beginning a meditation practice and she has broken it down into six steps. 

1) Identify a space around you that aligns with the energy you desire from your practice. This could be your bed, a warm corner next to a window, or the car.
2) Take a pose that allows the least amount of stress on your joints, muscles, etc.   You can lay down, sit in pretzel or sit up against the edge of your sofa.
3) Begin to welcome in big, exaggerated breaths. Deep inhales, long exhales. Try it with your tongue out for Lions Breath.
4) After 2 or 3 or 5 breaths, lower your eyelids and close your eyes. If you prefer to keep your eyes open, you can keep a low gaze or focus on something still in front of you.
5) Take any amount of time you choose to breathe deeply and intentionally and focus on your breath. You may yawn after a few deep breaths. Just notice. Challenge yourself to do nothing but exist.
6) When you are ready to release the practice, take a couple of last deep breaths before returning to your natural, more shallow inhales and exhales. Invite some small, or big, stretches. Stretch your arms over your head or maybe take a twist. I always like to end with a closing affirmation. Namaste Ashe!


Meditation seems like a big undertaking.  But it isn’t, particularly.  How many times have you found yourself thinking “just breathe”?  Or taking time to count to ten before responding to someone?  Both are a short form of meditation.  Those are moments when we pause and reconnect with true selves.  Sometimes, we need to give the kind, thoughtful, loving selves that live within us a chance to come to the surface, rather than letting the anger or frustration take over.
Tobi recommends that beginners focus on just noticing.  Less focus on clearing or quieting your mind and a heightened focus on your breath.  Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed with the idea of meditation.  As Tobi says, “Meditation is super forgiving and there's no right or wrong way - as long as you're following your breath.” 


Like exercise, the more you practice breathing and meditating, the more you will see the results.  You will find that the benefits last longer, you become more able to separate the racing thoughts from reality and the more comfortable you become with quiet.  And quiet is where we come to know who we are.  Quiet is the space where we gather ourselves for the next adventure.   


If you don’t feel ready to start a formal practice, try sprinkling a few mindful moments throughout the day.  The times when you are washing your hands, taking a shower, or washing the dishes, are all great times to take a moment to be mindful of the activity.  How does the soap feel and smell, enjoy the bubbles and take a moment to think about how grateful you are for clean water at the turn of a handle.  Pause and focus on your breathing and recognize something you are grateful for.  That simple practice can help you see the abundance in your life.  Seeing what we have, not what we lack, is life-changing. 


If you’d like to learn more about meditation, here are some great resources.  Some are free, some offer a free introduction or a combination of fee-based and free resources and some have a fee associated with them.  These are here to help you if you are searching for more.  But, as Tobi points out, you have all the tools you need.  You just need to breathe!


Resources:
When people say “just breathe” there can be some confusion about what that means.  Breathing is so helpful in managing stress it was the subject of one of our blog posts.   Read it on our website. 

A great list of free resources can be found on Choosemuse at https://choosemuse.com/blog/ultimate-list-of-free-meditation-resources/
You could also check out https://insighttimer.com/.  There’s a catalog of free meditations, music and ambient sounds. 

Headspace offers a free trial with great resources for beginners as does Calm.   


Right now, Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey are offering a free 21-day meditation Finding Hope in Uncertain Times.  You can check it out here.
Tara Brach is a clinical psychologist and founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C.  Her background is fascinating and her website is full of free guided meditations, including some specifically created to help us through this time of pandemic.  Find more on her website.  https://www.tarabrach.com/guided-meditations/


Next week, music.  Have you noticed the number of musicians posting videos on social media?  It’s no accident.  The act of playing fills the musician and it is an offering for those looking for a bright spot in the day.  Rock or classical, jazz or bluegrass, doesn’t matter.  Music can lift our spirits!  We’ll be getting some insight from a music therapist and a playlist where you are sure to find something to lift your mood, and perhaps a few surprises!


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