This is a continuation of a post the other day about the “Four Pillars” of Healthy Aging, specifically about stress management.
Sitting meditation is the most powerful method of stress relief I have found. Think of a time when you have spontaneously relaxed completely and gotten lost in the moment, your thoughts fading away as you are looking out on something beautiful, like a sunset over the ocean or behind some spectacular mountains. Meditation helps you to be able to cultivate that kind of feeling.
The simplest way is paying attention to your breath. This is just an extension of mindfulness, because you are supposed to be paying attention to what you are doing, and when you are sitting there, the only thing you are doing is breathing. You can observe the rise and fall of your diaphragm, or feel the breath going in and out. When a thought intrudes, just observe it, don’t try to suppress it or get caught up in it, and just return your attention the breath. Easier said than done, but if you can gradually get yourself to do it for longer periods of time, working up to maybe 20 minutes, it’s relaxing and helps with mental “fitness”.
How you should sit while meditating is a bit controversial. Some teachers make a big deal of sitting in a precise posture like cross-legged or half-lotus, with special hand positions or “mudras”, while others just say something like “sit upright in a comfortable chair”. I do the latter. The most important reason to be upright is to avoid falling asleep, which is more likely laying down or in a recliner. On the other hand, any yoga class I’ve ever taken ends with a short meditation lying down.
Some people find following the breath tedious, although you can get past that and start to enjoy it if you are disciplined enough to stick with it, which is well worth it. An alternative is the use of a focus sound, word, or phrase (also called a mantra). This is something to bring your attention back to, which should be a pleasant attractive sound. Sorry that I don’t have the reference for this, but I read somewhere that words ending with the “n” or “m” sound were shown to be more relaxing by looking at brain waves.
Dr. Herbert Benson wrote a book called The Relaxation Response and has been doing research on the health benefits of stress management for a long time. He coined the phrase “relaxation response” because it acts as the antidote to the “fight or flight response”, releasing relaxation hormones instead of stress hormones. He suggested the word “one” as a focus word, to be said on each out-breath, drawing it out like “onnnnnnne”. You could also use a short phrase like “I am at peace”, with “I am” on the in-breath, “at peace” on the out, again drawing out the sounds.
Like with the breath, when thoughts intrude, just gently move your attention back to the focus sound. After a while it becomes effortless, like the focus is “saying itself”. It’s kind of similar to when a fragment of a song gets stuck in your head, but in a positive way. Your brain can get fascinated with the sound and its normal restless activity quiets down. Your focus can be repeated once per breath, as noted in the examples above. For me it works a little better if it’s twice per breath, once on the in breath and once on the out. That is something you can experiment with to see which way calms your busy brain down better.
In addition to its relaxation benefits, meditation is a great way to train the mind. Far from being under control, our minds can flit from topic to topic. The terms “monkey mind” and “puppy mind” have been used to describe this. “Puppy” is useful because we can think of trying to train a puppy to heel on its leash. The focus, whether breath or sound, is analogous to the leash. Whenever the mind tries to wander off, we give it a gentle tug on the leash to bring the attention back to the focus.
This can seem a frustrating exercise, because the mind just wanders off again. But meditation teachers emphasize that bringing the attention back is precisely what is valuable for mind training. I like to think of bringing the attention back as “one rep”. So if you have to do it many times during a meditation session, rather than feeling frustration, pat yourself on the back for doing lots of reps of mental exercise.
Many people find it difficult to get going with meditation. The “puppy mind” just jumps around the whole time and it can be frustrating. This makes it a good candidate for Stephen Guise’s “mini-habits” approach . Yoga teacher Lilias Folan recommends “minute vacations”, or short meditation sessions of maybe a minute in length . This could be introduced as one of your mini-habits, at a specific time or when you’re feeling wound up. Just take a nice deep breath, close your eyes, and pay attention to your breath for a minute. Hopefully it will settle into more relaxing and deeper “belly breathing” rather than the more shallow chest breathing many of us do when stressed out. You could then slowly ramp this up by gradually increasing the length of your session over time and/or sneaking it in more than once during your day.
I do “mindfulness in motion” during biking, hiking, yoga, etc., and also try to do sitting meditation for about 30 minutes every day. I’m a lot more relaxed than I was before I took up these practices.
Meditation is taught as part of mindfulness-based stress reduction classes that are covered by health insurance because of their known health benefits, pioneered by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn . Good motivation and instruction for meditation are presented in Dr. Benson’s updated 2009 edition of The Relaxation Response.
Similar to a mantra is an affirmation, like “I can do this” when you’re in the middle of a challenging task. But rather than for meditation, this is very helpful for positive thinking. The great runner Deana Kastor describes how diligently doing this took her career to the next level, plus made life more enjoyable, in her inspiring book Let Your Mind Run.
- Guise, S, Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results, Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2013
- Folan, L, Lilias! Yoga: Your Guide to Enhancing Body, Mind, and Spirit in Midlife and Beyond, Skyhorse Publishing, 2011
- Kabat-Zinn, J, Meditation Is Not What You Think: Mindfulness and Why It Is So Important, Hachette Books, 2018
- Kastor, D, Let Your Mind Run, Crown Archetype, 2018