Meditation for Slow Learners
You can’t read too many health headlines anymore before you run across a story extolling meditation’s many health benefits: from calming anxiety to increasing resilience, from lowering blood pressure to building immunity. Meditation does it all! And is being embraced in practically every medical field.
But what is it?
I’m a bit of a slow learner, so even as I promised myself two years ago that I would start each day with 20 minutes of meditation, I am still thumbing through books trying to figure out how, exactly, you do it. I have learned much from Elisha Goldstein’s Psych Central blog, “Mindfulness and Psychotherapy.” Because I believe, on some level, that all forms of meditation are about creating space. And Elisha reminds his readers of that by continually repeating the meaningful quote by Viktor Frankl that says “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”
Space is what makes meditation as well as laughter such powerful tools. Without space, we live from the reptilian part of our brains, the amygdala, or fear center of our brain. So everything is reaction, impulse, panic. Even a second’s amount of space allows us to breathe and grab our mental blankie, if you will, so that we can respond with a higher evolved part of the brain.
While that all sounds so easy, I’m admittedly still challenged in this area. And apparently a lot of other folks are, too, which is why Dr. Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson have written an in-depth guide titled simply, “Meditation.” (Even the title is easy to understand!)
Before you put these guys in an ivory tower away from the muddle that us, non-academic-types trudge through everyday, you should know a little about Dr. Gawler’s story. A competitive decathlete, he was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1975 at the age of 24. Even after his leg was amputated, doctors gave him a five percent chance of living beyond five years. Just three years after that, the same doctors declared him cancer free. Because so many cancer patients were coming to him for advice, he founded The Gawler Foundation, which provides holistic healing retreats for cancer patients.
The authors introduce mindfulness-based stillness meditation with four simple steps: preparation, relaxation, mindfulness, and stillness.
- Preparation is the easy part, the practical details of where you will meditate, your posture, deciding what specific kind of meditation you will try, and everything that relates to how you set yourself up to begin the meditation. According to Gawler and Bedson, “Preparation involves establishing comfort and ease. We create a conducive external and internal environment for meditation by preparing the location, our posture and our attitude.”
- Relaxation is the street corner where the wheels on my meditation bus disassemble and roll down the road to a coffee shop. According to the authors we simply take the time needed to learn how to relax our body and mind. “A tight or tense body often accompanies a busy or restless mind,” the authors explain. “We use relaxation techniques to create more spaciousness in the body, which helps in calming the mind and bringing our attention into the present moment.”
- By the time I have made it to mindfulness, I have usually abandoned the discipline altogether, because my mind is so relaxed that it is thinking about chilling out at the pool with a glass of lemonade, not closing my eyes in an air-conditioned office sitting on a pillow. Mindfulness is simply paying attention to the present moment. I don’t know why that should be so difficult, but it is. At least for my monkey brain. Probably because staying attentive to the moment requires that you be free of judgment, like Damn it. I’m thinking about the pool and lemonade again. I totally suck at this. Ideally, if we are truly mindful, we are also free of reaction. Like when the doctor comes after your knee with that rubber thing, and you almost kick him in the nose without even trying to move your leg. Yeah, all that would stop if you were absolutely mindful. You are able to let go of the guilt in the past and the worry of the future. You don’t engage in your usual obsessive thinking … theoretically … so you don’t obsess about your not obsessing. You get the frontal lobes where they are supposed to be.
- That takes us to stillness. Let me just quote from them on this one:
Gradually, by just paying attention without reacting, we become aware of a stillness. Sounds, sensations, even emotions and thoughts just come and go. Free of judgment. Free of reaction. We notice a background of stillness against which sounds, sensations and thoughts come and go, appear and disappear. We become aware that still and silent presence that is just noticing the movement of sounds, sensations and thoughts. In this stillness, awareness is open and undistracted. Stillness is not a static nothingness; it is alive, alert and non-reactive presence.
Although Gawler and Bedson will not transform me into the Dalai Lama overnight, their four-step process is very helpful to a beginner and makes me think that it might not be another two years before my butt is on a cushion trying this stuff. Maybe their book will help you too.
Borchard, T. (2011). Meditation for Slow Learners. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 10, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/06/23/meditation-for-slow-learners/