Stressed out? Meditation helps, and so does sleep

Image description: Yellow background with a sun reflecting on the water on the left side, a lotus flower on the water's surface with a rippled reflection on the right side.

Image description: Yellow background with a sun reflecting on the water on the left side, a lotus flower on the water’s surface with a rippled reflection on the right side.

I went on a retreat this weekend with some friends. It was at a lakeside retreat centre a couple of hours away and the weather was beautiful. I set myself one main goal this weekend, and that was to get enough sleep.

The retreat involved organized sessions that included guided meditations. I like guided meditation especially when it’s “live” and I’m doing it with other people. But this weekend, I uncharacteristically fell asleep through each of the guided meditations. I could feel myself nodding off and there was nothing I could do about it. Obviously, I needed sleep.

This morning I was chatting with my mother, who recently completed a course on mindfulness meditation. I told her that despite the retreat, I was feeling stressed out at work. I really can’t stand complaining about workload because I have a great job and I realize that, but I do feel overwhelmed. But I mentioned this to my mother and she said, “are you practicing mindfulness?” (I love that she took that course and now is offering mindfulness as a solution to stress!).

She’s right that meditation always helps. Even if I just take a few moments of silence, it can bring me into the present moment where things seem a lot more manageable than when I am worrying about what’s going to happen tomorrow.

On the retreat we learned a technique that I have encountered before called “anchoring.” If you’re feeling mental discomfort or distress, think instead of a time when you felt peaceful and content or even joyful. Really focus on that feeling and anchor it somehow (e.g. touching your ring, snapping your fingers, even inhaling an essential oil). If you really connect with that feeling and anchor it in this way, you can use your anchor to bring you back to that sense of peace and contentment when you’re feeling a more negative feeling.

Anchoring is not exactly the same as mindfulness, but it is another process that we can use in meditation. For more information about how to use anchoring to alleviate stress, check out this article, “From Chaos to Calm in an Instant: How to Create a Positive Anchor.”

The anchoring meditation was the only guided meditation that I didn’t fall asleep during. To make up for the others, I took a couple of sessions by myself to sit in silence in a beautiful meditation room they have on site, overlooking the lake. It’s called The Oasis, and for some reason no one ever seems to go there. I love it.

So I meditated, I slept, and I anchored. And yet still I came home with an uneasy feeling. I think one reason this happens after a retreat is that, for me, I have a tough time reconciling that sense of peace with the chaotic pace of my day to day life. I got back to town and went straight out to a birthday party, followed by a different celebratory dinner, followed by an event in someone’s honor. Even though these are all good things, the pace of it all reversed the sense of calm because I had to rush around. I fell into bed exhausted, and felt the urgency of the week’s tasks press upon me as soon as I opened my eyes.

The good thing about meditation, sleep, and anchoring is that you don’t need to be at a retreat centre to do them.

What are your go-tos when you’re feeling stressed out and overwhelmed?

 

 

 

 

More about Mindfulness

mindfulness-StonesMindfulness is a practice people usually associate with meditation.  One of my favourite mindfulness teachers and practioners, Bodhipaksa, has an article in which he defines mindfulness like this: “the gentle effort to be continuously present with experience.”

What’s so reassuring and comforting about this idea, for me, is the “gentle effort.”  It’s not as if we apply no effort at all.  But we don’t go into urgent and tense effort either.  It’s just a gentle, consistent effort to stay aware of what’s happening right now.  Maybe even bringing a sense of acceptance to it, whatever the present moment may bring.

Jon Kabat Zinn, another teacher, adds another element to mindfulness. He says, ““Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

The added idea of paying attention “on purpose” takes it beyond simple awareness.  As Bodhipaksa explains in his article,

In order to be mindful I have to be purposefully aware of myself, not just vaguely and habitually aware. Knowing that you are eating is not the same as eating mindfully.

Let’s take that example of eating and look at it a bit further. When we are purposefully aware of eating, we are consciously being aware of the process of eating. We’re deliberately noticing the sensations and our responses to those sensations. We’re noticing the mind wandering, and when it does wander we purposefully bring our attention back.

When we’re eating unmindfully we may in theory be aware of what we’re doing, but we’re probably thinking about a hundred and one other things at the same time, and we may also be watching TV, talking, or reading — or even all three! So a very small part of our awareness is absorbed with eating, and we may be only barely aware of the physical sensations and even less aware of our thoughts and emotions.

Because we’re only dimly aware of our thoughts, they wander in an unrestricted way. There’s no conscious attempt to bring our attention back to our eating. There’s no purposefulness.

It’s not just “on purpose,” it’s also non-judgmental. So if we purposefully (and with gentle effort) focus in a non-judgmental way on our present moment experience, we are practicing mindfulness.

I’ve blogged before about the way activities like swimming and running feel meditative to me. See my post Om…fitness practice as meditation. I’m not unique in this respect. Lots of people talk about their activities in this way.

We can experience lots of benefits by taking mindfulness into our sport practice.  I have three approaches to running. The first way is to try to be as mindless as possible. I play music, daydream, and try to forget what I’m doing in the hope that the time will pass as quickly as possible. The second way is a variation on this same theme — running with people.  As we run and chat, it quite literally takes my mind off of what we’re actually doing.  The third way is mindfully. When I do this, I pay attention to my footfalls, their sound and feel, the position of my foot as a it strikes the ground, my posture and alignment and how that feels, the air on my cheeks, the sound of my breath, the colour of the sky.

In this state I become hyper aware and present.  It’s by far the most profound of the three approaches, but not always easy for me to sustain. It’s not that any of these is necessarily more enjoyable than any other. It really depends on my mood. But sometimes, the mindful run is exactly what I need.

Swimming is another thing that in my world anyway lends itself to this mindfulness. Our coach nudges us in a mindful direction when we do drills that focus on one tiny part of the stroke. She’ll tell us to pay attention for 50m to the roll of our shoulders or our hips, or ask us to count our strokes, or to focus on the natural alignment of our head in the water.

If you think that mindfulness is just a neat practice, think again. It has a positive impact on our attitude and even on our brain structure.  On attitude, this post on running mindfully says:

This “secondary elaborative processing” that psychologists refer to is the negative self-talk and classic downward spiral that I often see in ultramarathon events when pain and/or fatigue and nausea start to take a strong hold, or a runner is falling behind the goals they’d set. We’ve had a lot of social conditioning to “tough it out” and to “steel” ourselves in these settings. The mindfulness approach, however, is counter-intuitive to this conditioning – it encourages acceptance and surrender.

Total Immersion Swimming founder Terry McLaughlin, in his article “Mindful Swimming Transforms the Brain,” reports on a study at Mass General Hospital. It

documents  that 8 weeks practice of mindfulness meditation produces lasting changes in brain structure.

Participants spent about 30 minutes a day practicing mindfulness exercises, and had their brains studied before-and after by MRI.

Researchers found increased ‘grey-matter’ density in the hippocampus, a center of learning and memory, and in areas associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Participants reported reductions in anxiety and stress.

The significance of this study is that — like others before — it documents that changes produced by meditation are deep and lasting, not transitory. I.E. Mindfulness practice changes brain traits, not just brain states.

Lessons for swimmers:

1) Focal Points, Stroke Counts and Tempo Trainer beeps are, in fact, mantras — the essential tools of meditation.

2) Moving Meditation, by merging thought and action, is even more powerful at effecting lasting change in brain structure. This is because (i) aerobic activity increases the supply of oxygen and glycogen, which fuels muscle and brain cells; (ii) physical activity increases secretion of a protein that is the building block of ‘grey matter’; and (iii) as I posted on Dec 3 while passive meditation creates  Theta state brainwaves(4-7 cycles/second), moving meditation puts the brain in the “superlearning” Alpha state (8-12 cycles/second).

3) Every time you push off a wall, do so with a targeted thought or intention — a task that will require your full attention. (Once more, the reason I plan every practice and set to produce Arduous Experience and Cognitive Difficulty.)

Simple exertion — no matter how long or hard — may be good for physical fitness but neglects brain fitness.

Mindful Swimming optimizes both brain and body.

Mindfulness in our fitness activities doesn’t need to be an all or nothing thing. It can be something that we practice sometimes, as a way of switching things up.  For some, it can really have a positive impact on their approach to sport and even to life.

To read more about mindfulness, fitness, and health, here are some suggestions:

Running Mindfully

Mindful Swimming Transforms the Brain

Mindful Swimming

Mental Skill of Mindful Training

Yoga, Meditation, and Mindfulness: “Trends” that could change everything

The Principles of Mindful Eating

Om…Fitness Practice as Meditation

jordand_patch-meditationThe first philosophical problem I ever encountered was the mind-body problem. The question: what is the relationship between mind and body? How do they interact with each other when the body is physical and the mind is mental? I returned to this problem many times as a philosophy
student, both in my undergraduate studies and graduate studies.

But it wasn’t until I started to practice meditation that the mind-body connection became meaningful to me as more than just a philosophical puzzle. A meditative approach to my physical activities has had a transformational affect on my experience of them and my performance at them.

I learned to meditate as a graduate student. I picked up a book called The Joy Within: A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation (by Joan Goldstein and Manuela Soares). I wanted to find a way to settle my spinning mind.

At the beginning, two minutes of sitting in silence with my eyesclosed (I wouldn’t yet call it “meditating”) seemed like an eternity. But using the exercises in the book, I eventually developed the capacity to sit for 20-30 minutes. For many years, practicing the techniques outlined in that book, I sat in meditation for 20-30 minutes every day.

Without me trying, the stillness and focus I achieved in meditation started to spill over into other areas of my life. If I was stuck in traffic, for example, it no longer bothered me. Waiting in line for the bank machine became an opportunity to rest instead of an occasion to get irritated. In general, I found myself to be in less of a hurry.

One day, while working out with weights in the gym, I found myself in what can only be described as a “heightened state of consciousness.” I picked up each weight with a sense of quiet, focused purpose. If I was doing bicep curls, I focused my attention on form, on the feeling of the muscle in my upper arm working, on my breathing, in pace with my movements. I felt totally present, as if the world had shrunk down to include only me and the weights I had in my hands. In short, that day (and from then on), approached my weight training with the mind of meditation.

By the end of the workout, I felt completely serene and at peace, much as I did whenever I meditated.

There are many forms of meditation, some associated with religious or spiritual traditions, some not. The most effective meditation course I’ve encountered is on mindfulness meditation. It was developed specifically for Westerners and isolates the practice of meditation from any spiritual or religious context. You learn simply to be present and in silence for extended periods of time (from about 15-20 minutes and longer).

A few years ago, I took such a course — Mindfulness Meditation for Stress Reduction — with Dr. Kate Partridge (London, Ontario). One of the first techniques we learned was the body scan. This is a guided meditation where the guide (either in person or recorded) talks you through a body scan, focusing attention on specific body parts one at a time. In class, Kate always had us engage in mindful movement (yoga lite) before we lay down for the body scan. This physical activity prior to the meditation brought our awareness to the feelings in our bodies.

By the middle of the eight-week course, the body scan exercise became my favorite. It’s the one I think is most useful for athletes. The reason is that it seriously heightened my ability to direct my awareness to very specific parts of my body (e.g. the big toe on my left foot). Doing the body scan brought me back to that experience I had in the gym that day and for many days afterwards. Having gotten away from weight training for some years, I’d forgotten that sense of focus that careful attention to the body can bring. At the end of a complete body scan sequence, I feel completely relaxed and at peace.

Having worked with meditation for so many years, I have taken it into my fitness practice in many different ways. Apart from the experience with the weights — something that I cannot capture when working out with a trainer or a partner, as I am doing these days — I have used swimming, walking, running, and yoga as meditation practices. The capacity to focus on the body that I learned in the mindfulness class is one way of bringing meditation into these activities.

Another common meditation technique is to focus on the breath. This too brings wonderful awareness to physical activity. When I am swimming or running, the combination of focusing on my breath and the rhythm of my stroke or footfalls takes me into a meditative, almost thought-free state where I lose all track of time.

Since I’ve started to practice the technique of chi-running, I have used the body scan to check my form. Keeping my awareness on form in that way also has a meditation affect, bringing the awareness of body into sharp focus in the mind. Approaching running or yoga or swimming or weight training (or anything physically demanding) from the perspective of meditation has the added bonus of making it easier to endure the hard parts (I even use it when I’m undergoing a root canal at the dentist, or getting a new tattoo). One of the gifts of meditation is that it teaches us to stay with difficult feelings instead of fleeing from them. Much like changing my experience of being stuck in traffic or caught in a long line-up, meditation changes my experience of my training when I choose to use it.

I do not always choose to use it. For example, lately I have been experimenting with music while running. It too helps me endure the hard bits, but in a totally different way.

Meditation focuses attention and draws me strongly into the experience, almost as an observer or a witness; in contrast to that, music is more like a distraction. I similarly distract myself when I choose to read on the cross-trainer. No such distraction presents itself when I do laps in the pool. Or when I turn off the music while I’m running (which, for at least part of every run, I do).

Note that, for me, it doesn’t take the place of periods devoted solely to sitting in silent meditation.

For all my experience of the mind-body connection through meditation and physical movement, I have not come any closer to solving the philosophical mind-body problem. But I do know that, for those who are engaged in athletic pursuits, getting the mind focused through meditation can be wonderfully transformational.

Right now I’m enjoying an excellent book, Running with the Mind of Meditation by Sakyong Mipham. And I’m just about ready to turn off that music while I’m running!

[Image credit: JordanD]