Arshya Vahabzadeh, M.D., Resident Psychiatrist, Harvard University/Mass.General/McLean
For many of us, daily life doesn't lend itself well to relaxation and reflection. We find ourselves running around from task to task. We wake up hurriedly, rush to work, get bombarded with calls and emails throughout the day, speed through meals, try to fit in a workout, and schedule time with friends / spouses / kids. . . which leaves us with little to zero time for ourselves. It's a tough way to live, day in and day out. Meditation is one tool we can use to find some calm.
This is okay - and even expected. When the mind wanders we simply bring the focus back to the breath. When a very strong emotion of physical sensation calls our attention away, we can make that sensation the new object of meditation, watching as it gets stronger or weaker. When the sensation isn't so strong anymore, we return to the breath. Training the mind is like training a puppy - when it runs away, we bring it back, over and over.
So how does this simple practice help cultivate relaxation in daily life?
1. Meditation helps you stay in the present
So much of our time is spent in the past and the future that we rarely are present in the moment. We spend so much time remembering, regretting, planning, and worrying that we miss the moments of joy and spontaneity that are right in front of us.
Meditation helps train the mind to focus on the present moment. Instead of regretting things we can't change, or worrying about bad things that haven't even happened yet, we can learn to accept and appreciate our current circumstances.
2. Meditation teaches you how to redirect your mind
Sometimes we get caught up thinking (obsessing!) about a big problem, and we have the idea that if we just think hard enough we can solve it - but that's rarely the case. The best insights usually come in those "in between" moments - in the shower, when you're driving, when you're enjoying a cup of tea.
But even if we're aware that worrying and ruminating won't solve our problems, we don't know how to shut our minds off. Meditation can teach you this skill! Like any skill, it requires practice. But with dedicated practice, even five or ten minutes a day, we can learn how to let go of worries and redirect our mind to the present moment.
3. Meditation teaches you to be more aware of your thoughts and emotions
Too often we have a thought and react to it without considering why. We get angry at someone and start yelling. We hear a critical remark and get defensive. Instead of taking our thoughts and assumptions as facts and immediately reacting (possibly saying or doing something we'd regret), we can pause and consider what's really going on.
Maybe we feel angry but are really hurt. Maybe we feel defensive because part of what the other person said is true. Meditation teaches us to be more aware of our deepest thoughts and emotions, so that we can choose to react to conflict in a wise way.
4. Meditation helps you tolerate difficult emotions
Some people have a misunderstanding that meditation somehow helps you get rid of all negative emotions - after all, isn't that what enlightenment is?
The truth is, though, that painful emotions like sadness, anger, and shame are part of being human. We make things worse when we fight against these emotions or blame ourselves for having them.
Instead of getting caught up in the narratives of our emotions, we can learn to experience them just as they are. Anger can feel like a tightness and burning of the chest. Shame can be a flushed feeling of the face and churning feeling in the stomach. Meditation teaches us to experience these emotions without getting caught up in the story.
Does Meditation really work? What are the basic elements?
According to a government survey, almost 1 in 10 adults use meditation each year to help them cope with conditions such as anxiety, depression, pain, stress, insomnia, and symptoms associated with chronic illness. It is believed that meditation can improve the ability to focus attention and improve how we handle our emotions. These improvements may have broader benefits for our daily lives including personal relationships.
Researchers have linked meditation to some beneficial changes in the human body. Some experts have suggested that meditation may dampen down our body’s sympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for our “fight or flight” response. There is also continuing interest on how meditation can alter different parts of the brain, although the answer remains unclear and research is ongoing.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a federally funded research organization, suggests that there are several elements that are important when you are trying any type of meditation. These elements include finding a quiet location, a comfortable posture, being able to focus your attention, and having an open attitude to the experience.
Interested in learning more about how meditation can help you lead a happier and more relaxed life?
Check out zenpsychiatry.com where Elana Miller, M.D., blogs about integrative strategies to be happy, live well, and fulfill your greatest potential. To get tips and helpful advice sent straight to your inbox, sign up for her free newsletter.