Mindfulness Meditation and its Benefits for stress and Anxiety
STRESS AND ANXIETY
"There is no need to struggle to be free; the absence of struggle is in itself freedom." -- Chogyam Trungpa
Many of us will come to meditation to deal with stress, and the anxiety, worry, or depression that often accompany stressful situations. Stress is; anxiety doesn't have to be. The problem is that for most of us, anxiety, worry, and depression take on a life of their own. We can tell ourselves over and over that stress is a natural part of life, or that we're making a mountain out of a molehill, but we just can't seem to break the pattern of stress leading to anxiety, which then leads to worry, or anger, or depression. This is where regular meditation practice, done patiently and with a sense of lively commitment, really begins to show positive results. Meditation helps us separate the fact of stress from our anxious reactions to it.
The most common reaction to a stressful situation is the attempt to control it. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it's even necessary. If your briefcase falls open on a crowded street, it's a good idea to rush about gathering your lost papers. But most of the time when we try to control things, we're wasting our time. We're blocking the very energy flow that could be our best ally. Think right now about the stress in your life causing you the most pain and anxiety: is it your boss's demanding personality? The seemingly never-ending tasks on the job? The fact that your child is going through a rough period? Is it that your parents are ill? Or your marriage is in trouble?
None of these stressors are like the open briefcase in the street. You cannot fix them right away by running around and gathering up the pieces. The papers are already on the wind, out of hand, out of control. They've landed in the river and are flowing downstream.
When we meditate we stretch out on the river, we relax on our backs, and move with the flow. We don't fight the contents of our lives; rather we discover a freedom that encompasses the whole dynamic river. We observe ourselves and all others -- the phenomenal world itself -- from that vantage point of freedom. We do this not by fighting, not by forcing, but by freely being in the world just as it is. "Do you know what astonished me most in the world?" Napoleon asked at the end of his life. "The inability of force to create anything. In the long run, the sword is always beaten by spirit." This from a man who spent his life, and the lives of others, fighting, forcing, and never giving in.
"We can stop struggling with what occurs and see its true face without calling it the enemy," writes Pema Chodron in a beautiful book about stress titled When Things Fall Apart. She says, "It helps to remember that our practice is not about accomplishing anything -- not about winning or losing -- but about ceasing to struggle and relaxing as it is. That is what we are doing when we sit down to meditate. That attitude spreads into the rest of our lives."
It is with the unavoidable kind of stress, the "full catastrophe" of human existence, that meditation can work its wonders. Kabat-Zinn says that "the major avenue available to us as individuals for handling stress effectively is to understand what we are going through. We can best do this by cultivating our ability to perceive our experience in its full context...So it can be particularly helpful to keep in mind from moment to moment that it is not so much the stressors in our lives but how we see them and what we do with them that determines how much we are at their mercy. If we can change the way we see, we can change the way we respond." Meditation changes the way we see and therefore respond to the unavoidable stress in life. There are other ways to change the way we see as well. I have created a top-ten list of practical, daily ways to deal with unavoidable stress.
TEN WAYS TO DEAL WITH UNAVOIDABLE STRESS
1. Meditate for twenty minutes. Do this every day or at least a few times a week. 2. When you feel stress creeping up on you, take short meditative"time-outs," even ones that last for a few seconds. Take a deep breath in, and exhale slowly. If there's no one around, sigh. Check your posture, relax your jaw, drop your shoulders, and slowly breath in and out again. Return again to your inner dignity and peace. 3. Keep mindfulness reminders around you: little quotes tacked on the wall; objects that express spaciousness, or peace, or clarity; pictures of people who inspire you to open your heart and quiet your mind. 4. Walk a little more slowly, a little more mindfully, as you move about during your day. 5. When you are driving, be aware of your breath and your thoughts. Use your time in the car to concentrate fully on driving. If you're stuck in traffic or late for an appointment, use the time to let go of control and accept where you are. Be mindful of your reactions to other drivers. Say, "anger, anger" instead of leaning on the horn; take in a breath of kindness and release a sigh instead of shouting, "You asshole!" to the guy who cuts you off. 6. Don't rush to answer the phone when it first rings. Pretend it's a church bell, ringing to remind you to relax. Soften your belly, relax your jaw, and smile gently. Then answer the phone in a more mindful way. 7. When you don't know what to say or what to do, don't panic. Take a deep breath and slow down. Welcome beginner's mind into your muddled mind. If you feel intimidated or jeopardized at work, you can take a long and conscious breath, straighten your shoulders, and say, "I don't know, I'll get back to you on that." If you're alone, you can lighten up for a moment and give yourself a break. You don't have to know everything. You don't have to be perfect. 8. When you feel a sense of dread, or panic, or anxiety, slow down, breath quietly, and locate the tension in the body. Where do you feel it? Place your hand there and gently pat yourself, as if you were calming a child. 9. Energize your body -- move around, take a walk, exercise. 10. Check out if your unavoidable stress is really unavoidable. Take a curious, fearless glance within. Listen deeply, give your feelings room to express themselves, and wait patiently for the truth to be revealed.
Teaching Mindfulness since 2005
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