Monday, June 22, 2009

MEDITATION

David arrived a week ago for his summer visit. We’ve been playing baseball and soccer, having the usual wrestling/tickling wars, and consuming countless grilled cheese sandwiches. We spent half of last week at nearby Whidbey Island, the other half visiting friends, enjoying the Fremont Solstice Parade, and tripping over each other in our tiny apartment. This morning he left for his first day of summer camp.

Precious peace. Until 3:30, the place will be quiet. I can slow down and think about taking care of myself, re-order my prescriptions, take my supplements at the right time, eat lunch without rushing, write a little.

And especially I can sit down in silence to meditate.

I came to meditation strictly for survival, not out of any spiritual inclination. Without meditation I would not have made it through the darkest years of Lyme Disease. Without meditation the grueling recovery on antibiotics would be impossible.

In my life I try to avoid giving too many suggestions—most people can figure out what they need to do far better than I could figure it out for them. But I strongly suggest anyone who is chronically ill learn to meditate. When you meditate, you give your body and your mind a chance to relax deeply—perhaps more deeply, or at least differently, than when you sleep. Meditation pulls your body out of the cycle of tension that we all operate under almost continually; it puts your nervous system into the state known as parasympathetic, when your immune system and digestive system take priority and your body works to heal itself.

When I meditate, I feel better about myself and my life, my mind becomes calm and my thoughts become optimistic. I can feel warmth and tingling spreading to my hands and legs and I get a profound rest. It is usually easier for me to fall asleep at night if I have meditated during the day.

The kind of meditation I do is the easiest kind there is. It’s called mindfulness meditation. (I hate the words mindful and mindfulness, but that’s a different post.) You simply sit down in a quiet place, where you won’t be disturbed, and close your eyes and let your mind rest on your breath, until eventually your attention wanders away (it always does, it always will), and eventually you also notice your attention has wandered away, and then you return your thoughts to your breath. You can also notice your body, and notice how the out breath brings relaxation it, until eventually your thoughts wander away again, and the cycle starts all over.

Learning to meditate was difficult for me. When I sat down without doing anything—no reading, tv, even sewing to distract me—my mind instantly filled with all my fears and anxieties. And there were a lot at that time. I was twenty seven, could no longer work, had moved in with my parents, could barely walk and couldn’t even cook a meal for myself. And worse, I didn’t know what was wrong with me.

It is amazing that I stuck with it, but I had heard so much about the benefits of meditation that I kept at it. In time, and less time than you would imagine, the troubling thoughts didn’t bother me. That wasn’t to say that I stopped having them, but when they showed up I knew they were just the normal thoughts anyone in my situation would have, and I didn’t need to let them get to me. They were just thoughts, they came and went, and soon started to come less often and occupy less of my mind. They never went away completely and never will, but meditation allows you to put these kinds of anxieties in perspective, to neither avoid them nor give them too much weight.

Meditation was so difficult for me at the beginning that I found ways to make it easier. I always set a timer, and kept it short so I wouldn’t feel overwhelmed. “I can manage 5 minutes,” I’d tell myself. Often when the timer went off I would already felt so much more relaxed that I wanted to keep going. I would set another 5 or 10 minutes on the timer.

The best crutch was audio tapes. Andrew Weil and Rodney Yee both have excellent tapes (now maybe CDs or even MP3s) of breathing exercises. They walk you through, step by step, when to breathe in and when to breathe out, and give you imagery to think about. You don’t have to do anything on your own, the tape will guide you the whole time. This isn’t strictly meditation, but it will induce the same kind of relaxation you’re going for, and is much easier to do if meditation seems too difficult.

A few other tips for meditation:

*Sit in the most comfortable chair you can find. I sit with an ottoman under legs too. It’s not about asceticism or a spiritual journey for me, it’s about getting myself to relax so I calm my nervous system and maximize my immune system.

*Make sure you won’t be disturbed. Turn off your phone, the radio, tv, and tell your family you will be meditating so they don’t barge in and ask you what’s for dinner.

*Don’t stress about whether you’re doing it right or wrong. Whatever works for you is great.

*Listen to Pema Chodron’s talk, “Pure Meditation” from Shambala for a more thorough and insightful description of meditation, its process and its benefits.




PS: I am posting this quickly, without a chance to put in hyperlinks to the audio-recordings I've mentioned. Hope they can be found easily on the internet and I will try to get the links in soon.

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