Friday, January 10, 2020

The Lasting 'High' of Meditation

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I know, I know:  everyone's heard about the benefits of meditation & why you should do it.  Almost like some kind of cult, right?  What good does sitting in a lotus position & not thinking about anything for 20 minutes actually do?  Is it a test of wills, or some hippie scam?

For me, every previous attempt at meditation failed miserably.  My internal bodily sensations drove me mad & were magnified by the stillness.  Every tick-tock of the clock made me want to punch a wall.  I had no idea HOW to meditate & gave up every time out of frustration.  Hence my desperate need for inner stillness.  I've always been an impatient person who gets overloaded by my 5 senses & annoyed at people's shortcomings.  I can't focus for shit & have generally low self-esteem.  No amount of medication or therapy has remedied these things entirely.

That's where meditation comes in.

With the new year on the horizon, I decided to try out a meditation app to see if I could give it one last try.  I was not hopeful.  My therapist has given me brief tastes of meditation/visualization in our sessions, which I did get some benefit from.  But her calming voice is not always available to guide me & keep me on track so I generally haven't explored it after our appointments ended.  As stated, I have serious problems with focus & commitment to things that require sustained effort for long-term rewards.  It's a big part of why I'm drawn to the quick gratification of drugs, in fact.


A Lightbulb Moment

The turning point was learning how to meditate & what the actual objective is.  Entire books could be written about this subject (and have been) but the overarching idea is rather simple:  stay in the present moment & remain calm/focused through any negative thought or sensation.  There are a number of apps & websites that can help with this.  For me what worked is listening to an audible guide while meditating.  Calm.com offers free "how to meditate" 12-14 minute sessions that did me wonders.  Simply staring at their calming background scenes is relaxing af.  You can do that the first time you meditate if closing your eyes doesn't feel natural. 

There is no special position you need to sit in (if you choose to sit at all) & you don't have to focus on your breath or any other specific thing.  That's up to you.  The goal is to position your body in a comfortable-but-alert pose where you feel relaxed but don't fall asleep.  If you can do that lying down or standing on your head, great.  Experiment a little until you find what position you like best.  Any sensations that pop up or thoughts that come into your head should be observed but not assigned a judgment or emotion.  Just watch them float by like clouds.  Let yourself drift into a trance listening to the sounds around you & feeling the air on your skin.  Your 5 senses will become a help rather than a hindrance as you get the hang of it.  As you get more comfortable with the technique, you can opt to "take off the training wheels" so to speak & meditate without an audible guide if you like.  Or not.  There is no right or wrong way. 

I have a lot of physical pain in my head, stomach & other places.  Fatigue too.  I'm generally unhealthy compared to most people my age.  The rumbling of my stomach or pain in my neck was a massive distraction when I first started meditating...not gonna lie.  But once you push yourself to sit through it you will find those things easier to deal with when you're NOT meditating.  I think it's worth 10-20 minutes of your day to feel better the rest of the time.



How It Works


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Different types of meditation alter different brain centers (source: Forbes)

A lot of us are outer-directed, taking our cues on how to feel based on external events.  Getting stuck in traffic, unexpected plan changes & other people's moods can wear on us until we feel stuck in a loop of frustration & pessimism.  Regular meditation helps turn the focus inward & train the brain to stay even-keeled in those situations.

It does this by bringing about a state called the "Relaxation Response," which is essentially the opposite of the fight-or-flight response.  While you may not achieve deep relaxation with every meditation, when you do it's quite powerful.  This state is somewhere between sleep & alertness (but something else entirely) and can be compared to sitting on the porch at dusk watching lightning bugs flutter by without really thinking about anything--just taking in the sounds, smells, feelings & other sensations around you.  There are other ways to access this state, such as yoga, massage or visualization, but meditation seems to be especially effective.

Stress is toxic to our body on a physical level.  Meditation helps counteract the effects of stress, particularly in depressed or anxious people who tend to ruminate on negative thoughts & memories.  The benefits of stress relief are almost endless:  improved focus, more resilience, a calmer approach to life's unexpected ups & downs, stronger emotional control & better physical health.  Meditation has shown benefits in conditions ranging from PTSD to gastrointestinal disorders like IBS, though the jury is still out scientifically on just how helpful it is.  But the evidence is strong for its use in a number of other common disorders such as depression, chronic pain & anxiety.


What Meditation DOESN'T Do


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Beware of corporate or overly dogmatic applications of meditation

Meditation is awesome but it's not a panacea.  It won't cure your physical pain or whatever's causing it, though it might help you learn to focus your attention elsewhere so your mind doesn't get caught up in the suffering associated with it.  It won't magically relieve mood, thought or anxiety disorders or replace therapy & medication (or whatever prescribed treatment you're currently using).  It's merely an adjunct to these things... a tool that can help you re-frame your problems in a more manageable & positive light.

Perhaps most importantly, meditation is not a substitute for assertiveness in your day-to-day life.  It's not about becoming passive & receptive to unjust conditions or putting up with an abusive relationship (which you should always strive to LEAVE rather than tolerate).  And it can be hijacked by corporations, cults & other entities for purposes such as these.  This is why it's best to follow your own path & avoid dogma of any kind.  Treat meditation like exercise or any other healthy habit & you'll get the most out of it with the least potential for harm.  Even Calm.com requires payments of $69.99 per year to access their full program, which is not cheap for a lot of us.  So be mindful of where & with whom you meditate (see what I did there?).

In conclusion, there is definitely a lasting sense of peace & inner control that comes from meditation.  One could even compare it to a high of sorts.  The key is consistency & practice, and not setting unrealistic expectations.  If nothing else, you're setting aside a few minutes each day for yourself to be alone & relax.  That's a great habit to get into in this high-pressure capitalist society.

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