BY CHRISTOPHER HASSETT | I’ve been thinking about meditating as a way of relieving stress. Do you think this will help? If so, do you have any suggestions on how to go about it?
— Rory, Fort Greene
Meditation is a great way to reduce stress in the moment, though in the beginning the act itself can have its own unwanted stresses. But, yes, the idea is correct: Sit, empty the mind, relax, de-stress. The problem for many meditators is that once they’re in that quiet, peaceful place, all the day’s thoughts and worries come rushing to the fore and the entire session is spent following the action in their head. Then, when remembering with growing frustration their purpose for sitting in the first place, they stress even more as time slips unproductively away.
With that said, it’s important to caution against sitting without aim or slipping mindlessly into unconsciousness. What is wanted in meditation is focus. So, for instance, one could meditate solely on the movement of thought in the mind, i.e: where, exactly, does a thought come from — from where in our minds does it arise? Where does it abide in the moment we think it? Where does it go, the thought, once it has passed? This exercise may sound trivial and purposeless but it is a very high practice in meditation, one that is also quite difficult to do with any kind of certainty or lasting presence. Yet it is exactly that certainty and lasting presence we are trying to develop in order to deepen our understanding of the workings of mind, the nature of self and the relationship between self and the world at large. An understanding of this kind also brings with it a significant reduction in stress.
Another focus for meditation might be looking at the labels we use to name things, labels that become quite real in and of themselves, as if they were the thing itself. For instance, a flower is a flower by name alone, but is it really, at its essence, a flower? Through meditation we see that it isn’t, and with that insight our perception once again begins to shift, not just in the way we see and experience a flower but in the way we see and experience all things named. This is important because it helps us cut through our strong attachments to the many things we identify with or want to possess: cars, paintings, properties, even the people who freely exist in our lives beyond any desire to claim (my wife, my children…).
This same meditation is even more effective when we turn that analysis upon ourselves. Our own names are a good place to start, as are the concepts of “I” and “me.” These concepts in a very real sense complicate and compromise our relationship to everything around us, so we meditate on them for the purpose of seeing the exact role they play in muddying or distorting our perception of who we are in relation to all else. The practice with time brings significant rewards, the least of which is an ability to walk through the world with far less stress.
Then there is a traditional meditation where one simply sits and observes the general workings of the mind. Most of us are inextricably attached to our thoughts and in response to those thoughts we take action in the world. But instead of acting or reacting, in this meditation we simply watch as our thoughts pass through the space of our mind in the same way a cloud moves through the space of a pristine blue sky. Nothing follows the cloud. Nothing blocks its movement. Nothing reacts. In this way we learn to create an easy distance between the true nature of ourself (which is sky-like) and the ceaseless movement of thoughts in our head (which are cloud-like). This in turn helps cut the long chain of reactiveness, patterned behaviors and unconsciousness that plagues so many us, all of which are major sources of stress. It also serves to open a much-needed space between ourselves and all that tends to trip us up, again with the benefit of reducing many of the impending pressures that continually bear in around us.
Another meditation has you simply following your breath, and this is where I suggest you begin because its purpose is to have you train in focusing on a single point for a short period of time. I would say no more than a few minutes to begin with. Even these short sessions you’re likely to find challenging since your mind will very quickly want to show you who’s boss: It will tease you with a thought which you’re likely to follow, presence will be lost, the breath forgotten, and then moments later you’ll return. You don’t have to do anything other than just that: remember and return to your breath over and over again. Don’t stress about the fact that you drift. Your main intention, aside from trying to relax, is to train in the whole business of calming the mind, but to do this you’ll need to begin with brief sessions. Sit for no more than five minutes in the beginning, but bring all the awareness and focus you have into those five minutes. This is much more effective and much less frustrating than sitting for an hour straight while drifting or nodding off the while. When ready, you might still want to continue with short sessions but instead of once a day you do it several times a day. Extend the length of your meditation only when you feel you’re stabilizing in awareness and presence.
It is only with training that we bring in control, and stress is nothing other than a response to a lack of control. But the idea of “control” is a bit misleading because the goal is to liberate ourselves from the control of our thoughts, rather than trying to control them. And emphasis is always on the thought because it is only through our thoughts that we experience so much difficulty in the world. In other words, things happen around us at every moment and very little of it is in our power to change. Yet we think about those things nevertheless and from that thinking we react in certain predictable ways (stress is one of those ways). But the reaction itself is sprung directly from the thought, not necessarily from the thing that’s happened. Backing off from an immediate engagement with the thought, giving it the space it needs to move freely through the sky of our mind without reacting or judging or doing anything at all, makes all the difference. In doing this one thing we in fact change everything, and stress on its own falls quietly away.
Hassett is a holistic health practitioner who specializes in restoring energy and mental clarity, losing weight naturally, and alternative approaches to health and well-being. You can reach him through his Web site at www.threeperfections.com. Do you have a question you’d like Christopher to respond to in his column? E-mail him at email@example.com.