Meditation and stress
Even people with no interest in meditation will be familiar with, and possibly support, the claim that meditation reduces stress. It has become a truism. It is a concept that sits comfortably within our culture. This wasn’t always the case.
Meditation practices introduced into the west in the 1950s were seen as counter-cultural; that was indeed the reason for much of their appeal to youth in particular. Since then, the exponential growth in research into the effects of meditation on reducing stress, and its translation through popular media, has brought it closer into the central culture.
However, there is a lot to unpack in this simple phrase “meditation reduces stress”. If you want to actually reduce your stress, then it will help to dig a bit deeper to understand: what actually is “stress”?; how does meditation reduce stress?; and how to use this meditation practice most effectively given your personal circumstances?
Stress is any physical, mental or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. If this tension isn’t effectively released in good time, there can be negative physiological and psychological consequences, or disease and distress. Even the “good stress” or “eustress” that comes from exercise or engaging in a physical challenge one enjoys has to be relaxed. We need to come down from our highs as much as we need to recover from our lows. Knowing how to balance your body’s physical and mental energy is the key to dealing with stress. The mind-body is a system that seeks balance, or homeostasis and health. However, our environment, lifestyle and cultural conditioning often conspires against this state of balance. Meditation is the life-hack par excellence for achieving balance.
While the source of stress may be external, such as our physical or social environment, our reaction to these stressors is determined by internal factors such as: how we understand or interpret these stressors; the extent to which we are mindful they are occurring; and our ability to apply physical and mental techniques to release the built-up stress.
From the outside, all meditation practices appear to be the same; so surely they all reduce stress the same? Not so. There are many different types of meditation. They have quite different purposes and neurophysiological effects. I will explain all that in another blog, but suffice to say for now, there are three aspects of the meditative process to reduce stress: 1] calming the mind, 2] becoming more mindful; and 3] cultivating a more useful world-view.
Calming the mind: This is something we can practice deeply in formal (eyes closed) meditations and maintain in activity though spot and informal meditations such as taught at Lifeflow. The core technique in the formal meditation is to rest the attention on a sense object (e.g. feeling of breath, visualisation or sound). When we notice the inevitable distracting thoughts, we gently allow them to drift into the background as the sense object is brought into the foreground of our attention. Eventually, the momentum of thinking slows down, thoughts become fewer and less compelling, and a spacious awareness is revealed. When we emerge from the meditation our thinking is clear and spacious, we feel calm, contented, connected with our environment, and physically relaxed; a natural state of balance.
In such meditations, we can allow ourselves to sink into deep state of meditative calm which is very blissful and satisfying. We are doing nothing but just opening up more fully and expansively to the natural state of the body-mind. We are removing the filters normally in place stopping us from being aware of subtle sensations and feelings within the body. This bliss can be taken into our daily activity, and some semblance of it can be recovered using spot meditations. It is more than just a salve for the pains we experience in life; it builds the foundation of confidence and emotional resilience.
However, calming the mind can also lead to dullness and sleep, which even though might give a temporary release from a stressful situation, it wont develop this emotional resilience. So we need to develop clarity, or mindfulness, as well.
Being more mindful: This is something we train and refine during formal meditations and practice during activity, with great practical consequences. Some mindfulness meditations involve focused attention on an object (such as the breath) and others on open-monitoring of whatever experience arises. Both methods train us to regulate our attention better and to be more open and accepting of our experience. When we are meditating on, for example, the sensation of the breath, the very moment we become aware of distracting thoughts or fogginess we are being mindful. So, we welcome this experience and allow it to expand so that we become effortlessly mindful for more of the meditation session, as well as the daily activity.
In terms of stress management, the benefit of developing mindfulness is that we notice when we become unbalanced earlier in the process so we can do something about it. When we get worried, angry, afraid etc, we normally try to fix the problem, and we assume the problem is out there. Mindfulness allows us to see this reaction to circumstances is due to being in an unbalanced state. Put your effort into getting back to a balanced state first, then (and only then) sort out what needs to be done. This is the Lifeflow Three C Technique: 1] catch the moment; 2] create a space (i.e. create balance); 3] change the habit.
Further to this, we know that psychological distress comes from an identification with a static sense of self. Meditation practice develops a healthy disidentification with this felt sense of self. Meditation develops an enhanced meta-cognition, that is we become aware of awareness itself, and this allows us to detach from the sense of self during meditation, and eventually in activity.
Cultivating a bigger worldview: This requires a re-evaluation of what is important in our lives. Really, we need go no further than the advice of the Stoic philosophers of 2,000 years ago, and we have opportunities to apply their aphorisms all through every day. Some examples: 1] “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” (Epictetus). Imagine you are in a hurry but waiting for the traffic light to change….soften your grip on the wheel, take a deep breath in and let it out with a sigh, and then thank the traffic light for the opportunity to calm yourself. 2] “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity” (Marcus Aurelius). Imagine you are in conversation with some who expresses views that deeply offends you….as you notice your anger rise, hold back from an immediate response, breathe deeply into the pit of your belly and allow the breath to release slowly and smoothly. This will calm you down and give you time to gather an appropriately assertive but not aggressive response.
As we cultivate a worldview where we take responsibility for our own emotions, and learn simple techniques to manage the energy in our emotions, we find our reactions to stressful situations diminishes and our ability to cope with stress increases.