The Best Stress Management Tool of All
Written by Dr Arien van der Merwe
Would you prefer a calmer, more peaceful life, managing the daily stress triggers with equanimity, as a human being (vs. a human doing!) from the still centre of a quiet mind? Learn to meditate, and it might just be the best health enhancing life skill gift you ever give yourself!
Meditation through the ages
This highly beneficial practice is more than 5000 years old and has stood the test of time. The word ‘meditation’ comes from the same Sanskrit root word as ‘medicine’: to take the measure of, to care for. The English meditation comes from the Latin meditatio, from a verb meditari, meaning to think, contemplate, devise, ponder, meditate.
According to Walsh and Shapiro (2006) meditation refers to self-regulation practices that focus on training attention and awareness in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control and thereby foster general mental well-being and development and/or specific capacities such as calm, clarity, and concentration.
All world religions have meditation practices. The old testament in the Bible has many references to meditation, e.g. the book of Genesis: Every afternoon just before sunset, Isaiah went into the desert to contemplate a while. Proverbs gives clear instruction in the art of meditation, Psalms tout the benefits of a contemplative life (e.g. Psalm 1:1-3 – How blessed is the man whose delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night and Psalm 19:14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart Be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer)
The new testament also encourages meditation (dwelling upon), e.g. Philippians 4:8 – Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.
Islam: The Prophet Muhammed was well-known for his meditation practice. People often related that he would go to the cave in Mount Hira for meditation, contemplation, and prayer. It was during this practice that he first received Qur’anic revelation. Thus, meditation opened the door of revelation
The earliest recorded evidence of meditation dates from approximately 5000 years ago in Hindu scripture, while a seal with the carved figure of a yogi in meditation pose, estimated between 5 000-10 000 years old, was discovered in the Indus Valley (reaching from India across Pakistan), during the 1920’s by archaeologist, Sir John Marshall.
Meditation and brain restructuring: from fear and worry to inner peace and calm
Most of us are inundated by information overload, bad news, new ideas, techno-stress, work, deadlines, personal demands, relationship problems, financial woes. Even during times of relaxation, the pressure remains as a constant mental background noise. The body has to function in a heightened state of arousal and hyper alertness, in the fight-or-flight stress response with its associated cascade of physiological reactions. The anxiety sends constant signals and internal alarms of survival fear coursing throughout our bodies and minds. No wonder we get sick and tired!
We remain in beta or high beta brain wave rhythm, the distress part of our brain wave patterns. This prevents us from calming down into the more relaxed, but still aware, alpha brain rhythm. Once we are able to do this at will, we can experience the state of whole brain functioning, where we remain calm and relaxed, but still alert and aware, able to find solutions and inner peace. Learning how to meditate, will help you fine tune this natural human ability.
Remaining in hyper alert high beta brainwave left brain mode, makes it nearly impossible to tune into our inner selves, our true nature. Meditation techniques help us clear our minds, manage our emotions, reduce stress, become truly calm and relaxed, by allowing us to enter into a more relaxed, alpha and theta brainwave state, moving from left to right brain, then wholebrain functioning, even extending much further than the brain itself.
Whenever we experience stress, our bodies automatically react to prepare us for the stress reaction of fight or flight/run/avoid/freeze. When faced with extreme danger, this reaction can be a life saver. A prolonged state of such arousal, however, can lead to physical damage and disease in every part of the body and mind. Meditation has an opposite effect to this stress reaction. It helps to restore the body and mind to a sense of inner calm, assists in cellular repair, while preventing the damage from the physical effects of stress.
The more we meditate, the more we move away from the superficial stresses, the worries, anxiety and tension that mostly happens in the left brain with high tension beta waves. It allows the right brain with its slower alpha waves to become more prominent. When relaxed, we have whole brain function where left and right brain work as an integrated whole, making us happier, healthier, more creative and able to solve problems and find solutions. Meditation, just like any new technique learnt, requires patience and practice, but as you continue to meditate every day, your patience will actually increase!
The focus and experience of meditation
Meditation involves concentrating on an object, such as a flower, a candle, a sound or word, or your own breath. Over time, the number of random thoughts diminish. More importantly, your attachment to these thoughts, and your identification with them, progressively lessen. Thoughts will still intrude, especially when you start practicing meditation for the first time, but once you become aware of this, attention is gently brought back to the object of concentration. Meditation can also be objectless, for example consisting of just sitting, standing or walking.
Experiences during meditation vary from one person to the next. Relaxation, increased awareness, mental focus and clarity, and a sense of peace are the most common results of meditation. Meditation, however, is a complete practice in and of itself. The experiences and benefits are only an added bonus, and not the main purpose at all! Never meditate with any goal in mind, like ‘am I doing this right?’, ‘is this working?’, ‘will I heal, work harder, earn more money?’, or mindless monkey chatter: ‘this is nonsense, I’m wasting my time!’, ‘people will think I’m a fool!’. Your mind will be captured by your thoughts again, going off on a tangent, completely forgetting that you’re actually meditating. This will spoil your practice and the benefits of meditation. The best attitude is not to have any expectations at all. The ego self and inner self will soon form a relaxed relationship of integrated wholeness, living together in peace, learning from and growing from strength to strength.
Since meditation involves becoming more aware and more sensitive to your inner self, you might find unpleasant parts of yourself also rise to consciousness, by way of deeply buried strong negative emotions. That’s okay. Make peace with all you are and let go any attachment to painful emotions and thoughts. Become aware of them, discuss them with a mental health practitioner or friend, if necessary. Work with and through them, learning more and more about yourself and life in the process. Then trust, surrender and let it go.
Failure to experience silence, peace of mind, mental clarity, bliss, or any other promoted benefit of meditation, is not in itself a sign of incorrect practice or that one can’t concentrate properly or long enough to be good at meditation. Remember, meditation is not a goal oriented practice. It’s not the usual striving for perfection, improvement and achievement of your everyday life! Whether you experience peace or bliss is not important. Being disciplined enough to practice regularly, preferably at the same time every day, in the same spot, always trying gently to return your thoughts to your chosen focus of meditation, is important. It is very difficult for the Western mind bathed in left brain consciousness, to become still. It really takes some practice for you to let go of thoughts, ideas, expectations, fears and worries, even for 10-20 minutes a day! Don’t be concerned: you remain consciously awake, aware and in control! Nobody or nothing will ‘steal’ your mind, put thoughts in your head or hypnotise you!
There is no right or wrong technique – choose one that’s right for you! You can practice meditation without belonging to any specific religious order. Meditation has, however, always been a part of all religions, Eastern and Western, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Sufi, Hindu, Muslim, etc. If you find it very difficult to practice on your own, or with tapes or CD’s, it might be well worth your while to join a meditation group. There are meditation classes in all the major centres, also visualisation, Buddhist retreat centres, yoga classes that include deep relaxation, etc. Go on a quest, explore and search for a practice that fits and soothes your soul. An old Chinese saying to assist you on your journey: ‘When the student is ready, the teacher will appear’. The ‘teacher’ being a person, book, group, your own life and relationships!
Tips for meditation practice
- Do it every day, preferably at the same time.
- You can do it early in the morning upon waking or at sunset, or both. Some people find it beneficial to meditate in the middle of the day.
- Keep your eyes open, half open or closed. Just be aware that wide open eyes tend to wander!
- Do it preferably before, rather than after, a meal.
- Pick a special spot that you use only for meditation. Use a comfortable chair, cushion, or mat; arrange your own special relics (sea shells, crystals, feathers, dream catcher) and perform your own cleansing (a warm bath with your special choice of oils, or a handful of course sea salt) and focusing rituals (lighting a candle, saying a prayer, burning aromatherapy oil in a burner, lighting incense, etc.). Give your creative imagination free reign! Let this be the distinctive place where you honour your inner being, looking forward to the privilege and comfort of its enveloping grace every day. With slight adaptations, you can also create a meditation sanctuary at work – all you need are a few likeminded colleagues, a small private room and creative imagination!
Three steps in preparation
- Posture: Sit comfortably upright, feet flat on the floor (barefoot if possible), arms and hands relaxed in your lap. Lying down, you’ll easily fall asleep. This is fine for rest, but you won’t be meditating.
- Breathe: breathe in deeply and fully through your nose, exhale deeply and fully again through your nose. Do this for 10 full breath cycles.
- Relax: notice any remaining tension in your muscles (feet, calves, upper legs, buttocks, abdomen, arms, shoulders, neck, head, jaws and face) and deliberately allow yourself to relax completely
and…..ready, set, go!
How to meditate
All you need:
- A quiet place
- A few minutes
- A willingness to allow yourself this brief respite
- Sit in a comfortable position to enable you to relax completely. Use a comfortable chair, or sit cross legged on the floor. Sit with the spine straight, head and chin lifted, arms and hands relaxed in your lap. You can sit cross legged on the floor with a small cushion behind your buttocks, lifting them, or in a comfortable chair.
- Close your eyes to prevent distraction and a wandering mind.
- Focus on your breathing and make it deliberately deep and slow.
- With each out breath, feel yourself relaxing more and more. Notice any thoughts and simply let them float by like clouds in the sky. Try to detach from your thoughts. This quieting of the incessant monkey chatter of the left brain, is the most difficult part of learning to meditate!
- Try to do this for 5 minutes in the morning and evening. Gradually increase this to 20 minutes twice a day.
- Remember the 3 P’s: practice, patience, perseverance! Learn to just sit there, doing nothing, simply being!
Health benefits of regular meditation practice
- Complete relaxation with a decrease in stress hormones and other stress chemicals, with muscle relaxation, improved oxygen and nutrient supply to all cells and systems, also improved clearing of toxins, debris and cellular waste.
- Reduced metabolic rate
- Increased blood flow with oxygen and nutrients to the brain
- Reduced cortisol and other stress hormone levels (as opposed to an increase during long term stress)
- Reduced muscle tone (as opposed to muscle spasm associated with stress)
- Integration of left and right sides of the brain with whole brain functioning. creation of new communication pathways between the logical right and creative left sides of your brain, balancing your brain and giving you a whole being experience. Areas in the brain associated with positive emotions like happiness, peace and joy are activated. All of this leads to increased orderliness of brain function, access to unconscious resources and abilities, allowing creative imagery, problem solving skills, clarity, productivity. There is also an increased ability to make good decisions based on values, improved mental alertness with more energy, vitality and a relaxed, focused mental alertness, leading to learning in an effortless manner
- Dramatically improved learning ability, memory, intuition, creativity, perception and ability to focus, concentrate and think more clearly!
- Lowering of blood pressure and breathing rate
- Improved immune system function with higher levels of antibodies
- Increased self-awareness and management of thoughts and emotions
- Improved production of vital, pleasurable brain chemicals (e.g. endorphins and serotonin) related to longevity, wellbeing, vitality, happiness and quality of life
More benefits of meditation
- Reduction in health care costs, need for medicines, visits to hospitals, doctors and other primary care health professionals
- Reduction in major risk factors for disease: high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, drug abuse, obesity, cardiovascular reactivity to stress, anxiety, depression, hostility
- Enhanced appreciation of health protecting factors, e.g. job satisfaction, love of life and psychological health
Stress management is a personal journey to the real you: enjoy every step on your way to wellness!
Know yourself, your response and body signals to stress triggers, your issues with self-image and self-respect, your preferences when choosing tools and techniques to enhance your quality of life! There is no goal to aim for, just enjoy the ride – the process is important and will teach you much about your inner self.
If you’d like to know more and to experience relaxation for yourself, click here to look at Dr Arien’s Stress Solutions book and CD. Dr Arien has also developed an online course which includes meditation exercises.