Meditating Away Stress
When Thoreau went to Walden Pond in 1846, he didn’t take a laptop, tablet or iPhone. He didn’t have access to Google, email, Facebook or Twitter. Even so, he felt a need to go to the woods “because I wished to live deliberately, to face only the essential facts of life.”
Many Americans today are attracted to mindfulness for a similar reason...and because they have found it effective in relieving stress, anxiety, depression, pain and drug addiction. Recent research suggests that it may also be helpful in relieving migraine headaches.
You can practice mindfulness as part of a formal group or you can incorporate it in small ways into your daily life.
The goal is to focus directly and solely on the emotions, thoughts and physical sensations of the present moment. These experiences are not to be judged or criticized, merely experienced and accepted for what they are.
A formal mindfulness meditation usually requires:
- A quiet space where you can sit upright in a chair or on the floor.
- Good postural alignment with the spine kept straight and supported either by a wall or cushions.
Now focus on your breathing, feeling your breath coming in and going out. When your mind wanders, bring it gently back to your breathing.
Focus directly on what you’re sensing at the moment–the sights, sounds, smells and sounds that you fail to notice any other time. Recognize that your thoughts and emotions are fleeting and do not define you.
Take notice of your body’s physical sensations, how your muscles feel when you walk, run or simply sit in a chair.
Living as if It Really Matters
The ritual and routine described above may or may not be helpful, depending on your personality. But what’s important is the focus on the present. As Dr. Kabat-Zinn wrote, “It’s about living your life as if it really mattered, moment by moment by moment.”
That’s what Thoreau did when he went to Walden Pond. And mindfulness can be a way of living, free of the strictures of past and future that usually occupy our thoughts. Even Thoreau, of course, moved back and forth between his ideal state of mind and the reality of every day life.
It’s become clear that this change of attention and focus can also lead to changes in mind and body. Studies have found that mindfulness alters the stress response and, as a result, is helpful in dealing with a number of life challenges and psychiatric disorders such as chronic pain, grieving, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, depression and anxiety.
Whether you’re suffering from stress, pain or even negative thoughts, you may want to try mindfulness. Some basic techniques include:
- THE BODY SCAN: Focus your attention like a scan from the tips of your toes to the top of your head. Be aware and accepting of everything you feel in each body part.
- THE RAISIN EXERCISE: Experience a raisin, from the way it feels in your fingers to the way it looks and smells. And, finally, notice how the flavors coat your tongue. You can use this exercise with any food or beverage.
- WALKING MEDITATION: Walk back and forth along a short path, 10 paces or so long. Focus on the movement of your body, your feet lifting and touching the ground.
- LOVING-KINDNESS MEDITATION: Try feeling compassion toward people. Start with yourself and then branch out to close family members, friends, acquaintances, even persons who might be you a hard time. Finally, extend your compassion to all beings or all of life.
There are many other exercises you can use to focus your concentration on what Thoreau called “the essential facts of life.”