As we have learned, when we are under stress, our sympathetic nervous system releases chemicals that begin several physiological processes to prepare us for action. When done in excess or at inappropriate times, these processes can be counterproductive, unpleasant, and even dangerous to our health. Thankfully, there are several techniques one can learn to regulate this fight-or-flight response and relax both the body and mind.
As we discussed in lesson 1, mindfulness is the practice of maintaining awareness while focusing on your thoughts, feelings, senses, and surroundings. The purpose is to keep your mind in the present, rather than dwelling on things of the past or worrying about the future. Mindfulness can be thought of as paying attention to your thoughts and behaviors rather than letting your mind operate on autopilot. Mindfulness is good for both the mind and body and can be practiced throughout your day by approaching situations calmly and with awareness. Practicing mindfulness typically leads to decreases in stress, while increasing emotional regulation. It can also boost the immune system. We very much like this description, done by the folks at Middlestream on what mindfulness meditation actually is:
Mindfulness can be combined with meditation to encourage deeper levels of relaxation and focus.
In 2009, Cambridge University Press published a study that provides clinical evidence that mindfulness meditation improves the brain’s attentive capabilities, reduces risk of sinking into depression, and reduces blood pressure. This joins countless other studies, such as a study published in General Hospital Psychiatry, that shows long-term meditation practice aids in the treatment of stress and anxiety.
Mediation is informal and can be done anywhere, at any time. Initially it’s best to pick a time and place where you have little distraction such as in the shower, while walking your dog, or while waiting for the bus. There are several aspects of meditation, but we will look at three in this section: deep-breathing, focused thoughts, and following the breath.
Meditation can begin with deep-breathing exercises. By taking deep breaths, you trigger your parasympathetic nervous system. As you’ll remember, the parasympathetic system begins several physiological processes that bring the body back to homeostasis: it slows one’s heart rate, begins digestion and increases salivation. Remember that it’s the sympathetic nervous system that begins the fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system are at opposition; this means that they cannot both be active at the same time. Therefore, by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system through deep breathing, we begin the process of inviting the symptoms of stress to begin to go away.
In addition to activating the parasympathetic system, deep breathing aims to bring you closer to your emotions so that you may let them go. Here is how you can practice deep breathing:
Begin breathing, slowly, ensuring your in and out breath are both long and deep. Take a deep breath in, concentrating on the way your breath feels as it enters your body and fills up your lungs and chest. Then, breathe out slowly, concentrating on how your body feels as the air is slowly released. Continue to breath slowly, filling up your lungs and slowly letting the air leave your body. Concentrate only on your breath, nothing else. This may feel silly at first, because it’s not something we often do. However, deep breathing automatically triggers your body and mind to relax. Practicing deep breathing for a few minutes a day can have a positive impact on both your mind and body.
We invite you to take ten minutes, sit in a comfortable seated position, and follow along to this guided breathing meditation. But before you do, take a few moments and check in with how you’re feeling. Are you happy, sad, nervous, bored, angry, or anxious? How about the sensations in your body? Are you holding tightness anywhere? Do you have butterflies in your stomach? Are you feeling relaxed anywhere? Take an inventory, and if it’s helpful, write down what you notice.
Great. So how do you feel now? Please take a few moments and jot some feelings, or physical sensations you can find in your body down. Have they changed from what you noticed prior to the exercise? Is anything tighter? Looser? What about the quality or texture of your mind? How about the speed at which your mind has moving? Has that shifted at all? If so, try to take careful note of the change.
The second aspect we will explore in meditation is a method of sitting down with your feelings and thoughts, observing them neutrally. So to begin, find a comfortable seated position. If it feels good to lay down, you can try that as well, although if you think you might fall asleep, it might be better to sit up. (Then again, if your brain and body need a nap right now, that may be the best option for you in the moment).
This time around, you’re going to control your breath a little less. While breathing normally, the only thing you will do in this exercise is pay attention to the breath as it moves in your nostrils and out. That’s it. The only thing you have to do is bring your mind to focus on the breath going in, and the breath going out. Far be it from us to spoil the fun, but here’s the spoiler anyway: very quickly into this exercise you will notice that your mind drifts away from the breath, and back into the thinking about the past and preparing for the future place that we discussed in lesson 1.
Here’s the most important thing: instead of judging the fact that your mind drifted away, you’re just going to note that you’ve gone away from the breath by saying to yourself the word, “thinking.” You might end up drifting away every five seconds, it doesn’t matter. When you catch that you’ve gone away from the breath, just note it by saying “thinking,” and then go back to the breath. Sometimes you’ll go away for just a few moments — maybe you’re thinking about the lunch you plan on eating later.
Other times you’ll go away for a long time — maybe you spend 10 whole minutes thinking about a fight you got into with your best friend three years ago. The important thing is that you try not to judge the fact that your mind drifted, and that you find the breath again once you realize you’re “thinking.” Here’s the good news: no matter how far away you’ve drifted in your thinking mind, the moment you realize that you’re gone, you’re instantly back at the breath.
While you may be inclined to judge yourself negatively when you find that you’ve drifted away, we encourage you to practice taking a non-judgmental stance instead. There are no “good” mediators or “bad” mediators. There’s no competition or tournament that you’re preparing yourself for. You’ll never be tested or have to go head to head with a meditation opponent. All it is is practice. That’s all.
We encourage you to begin this practice slowly. Set an alarm and try to sit quietly with no outside noises for five minutes. Focus on the breath and keep using that as the anchor you return to when you’ve discovered you’ve drifted away.
If you notice that this is making you too anxious and that it’s too much to sit still in the silence, take a step back and either do the guided meditation up above, or go back to the progressive muscle relaxation we explored in lesson 2. If you’re getting anxious it just means that your parasympathetic system is charging on, and it will help you to take a step back and teach that ancient part of your brain that all is well, and there’s no need to get activated.
If five minutes feels fairly easy, feel free to sit for longer. Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, whatever feels right for now. No need to push too hard, but as this may be a challenging exercise, you might need to push yourself a little bit to get started or to continue if you’ve had a rocky road at the outset.
As mentioned above, in getting comfortable with these practices, try to do two five-minute sessions a day, eventually increasing your practice to ten minutes straight. If you find meditation is a good fit for you or you are just interested in learning more about this practice, then you may want to explore some online resources. Even better, you may also find joining a meditation class or mindfulness group helpful as well. These may help you improve posture, learn different breathing skills, and ways to work with your thoughts.
We’ll close this course with two more guided meditations. This first one is 20 minutes, so we invite you to settle in, give your ancient brain the morning, afternoon, or evening off, and enjoy how ordinarily wonderful it can be to allow your parasympathetic nervous system to take over.
The final guided meditation is similar to the progressive muscle relaxations that we did in the second lesson, but this is more about bringing one’s awareness to a particular spot, without actually doing anything extra, like tensing up the muscles. It’s called a body scan meditation. This one is about 45 minutes long.
Thank you for all the effort you have put into this class. In a culture dominated by getting “stuff” done, we hope that you’ve seen a little of the value in sitting still and doing nothing for a while. It’s a counter-cultural message, we know, but it’s also one that can make you far more focused and productive in the long run. Like anything though, it takes time and discipline to cultivate a practice.
We’ll close with gently inviting you to check into how you’re feeling in this moment. Relaxed, neutral, agitated? Please remember that counseling can be a wonderful complement to meditation practice. Sometimes difficult material (old inner wounds), can be kicked up during meditation practice. For others, it’s an invitation to get to know one’s mind with more clarity and maturity. In either case, counseling can be a very effective addition to anything that has been inspired in you during this course. :)-