Stress is a part of life. Our bodies are designed to produce stress and respond to it. It is a way our biology, by releasing chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol, motivates our behavior, especially when we are in an unfamiliar or dangerous situations.
What these chemicals initially do is they make us more energized and alert. And by doing this, we gather more information about our environment, and we have a better idea on how to respond to our surroundings.
However, compared to humans tens of thousands of years ago, we are being introduced to novel stimuli at an alarming rate. This creates more stress, and a lot of it is due to our technology.
Of course, technology has also reduced a lot of stress: we no longer have to be worried about predators, we can survive through most weather conditions comfortably, and we have a lot of machines to do our manual labor, etc.
But in exchange we have found sillier and less threatening ways to accumulate stress. Now we stress over text messages, upcoming exams, job interviews, sports teams, video-games, having to go to the store, or “what will I eat for dinner?” Meaningless stuff compared to survival, the ability to be alive, to breathe, and to feel safe.
We have more distractions than ever before, we have more possessions than ever before, and we have more circumstances to worry about than ever before.
Some people can handle it well, and others can’t. And this may be why we are seeing so many with attention and learning disorders. We’ve created our very own chaotic environment – from our entertainment to our political and economic systems – and some people are having trouble adapting to it.
But, just as we have created our own mess, I think we are also creating our own solutions. Solutions that are not coming from the unconscious forces of evolution, but from our own minds and good judgment.
One of these solutions is meditation. Research on meditation, especially on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) (which you can learn a little bit about here), has shown its effectiveness in reducing stress and anxiety.
Kabat-Zinn says “being and doing are interrelated,” and if we don’t take the time to “be and rest,” then we are doing without any purpose or direction. We are like a 26-musician orchestra trying to play Beethoven before ever tuning our instruments – no matter how much effort we exert we will never find harmony.
The first principles of meditation according to Kabat-Zinn are that the past and future exist only as a concept (given, a very useful concept), and life only unfolds in the present moment.
This recognition allows us to keep our mind concentrated only on what is happening now, the sensations of our breathing, and not to drift into the future or present – but when we do – to make note of it and go back to the breath.
Eventually we notice how unruly the mind can be – how it loses focuses, becomes interested in new things, seeks new desires, and always wants to be entertained. Don’t be alarmed – it doesn’t mean you are a bad meditator.
Recognizing your ability to be distracted is knowing your mind at a deeper level. Our minds do this all of the time, they are constantly shifting their beacon of light to new shapes and forms. Be aware of it’s irregular movement.
One moment you may be noticing birds chirping, then you return to the breath; next you notice a pain in your lower back, then you return to the breath; now you notice a smell of someone cooking in the kitchen, then you return to the breath. Be aware of changing awareness. Notice how even while you are doing nothing, your mind is being tugged in different directions.
In the midst of this chaos of consciousness, remain still and choiceless. Try not to judge any of your sensations as pleasurably or painful, but retain equanimity, balance, and centeredness. Just flow with each new sensation as it rises and falls, without attachment or disapproval. Just let things be as they are.
Jon Kabat-Zinn recommends that we practice this formal kind of meditation at least a few minutes a day, and that we also should try to maintain this awareness and clarity throughout our daily activities. “The real meditation,” he says, “is your life.”
He mentions that even a short 2-5 minutes meditation before an important business meeting, or an interview, or a date, can help tune yourself before carrying out the activity. This can help you act more efficiently, by being in the moment, with greater focus and less stress.
When you first begin your practice, don’t worry so much about how long you are meditating. Just meditate when you can, and when you think you most need it. A little bit each day (or every other day) is enough to create a foundation to your practice. Try to apply mindfulness to every moment.
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