All in the mind
Meditation is one sure-fire way to decrease stress levels
Kathy Schwerin is a long-time practitioner and teacher of meditation. The 18-year marriage and family therapist is active in the Dharma Zephyr, a local Buddhist meditation group. She received her instructional training at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and is considered a dharma leader (teacher). She says meditation is not equal to a quiet mind, but it’s about training the mind to quiet down. And it’s the training that will bring down anxiety levels and blood pressure.
Does meditation help to relieve stress?
Meditation can help in a number of ways. Number 1 is the fundamental technique of meditation to help quiet the mind. People have probably noticed, particularly when they’re nervous, that their minds start generating more and more thoughts about how to control whatever it is they’re nervous about. Not only does that not work, it actually increases nervousness or anxiety. With meditation we train our minds to quiet down. In training our mind to quiet down, it changes our whole nervous system so that we go into other parts of our brain that aren’t related to the survival parts of our brain, which is what generates all the fear.
I’ve never heard it put that way. It makes sense.
What’s happening is if we perceive an event as more of a danger, it triggers the brainstem part of our brain, which has to do with survival. The difficulty is, as humans, it’s hard to differentiate, so that anything can kind of look like that even though it may not be a total threat to us. We start operating from that fight or flight part of our brain, the more primitive part of our brain. In other words, we are more evolutionarily wired to scan for danger all the time. That part of the brain is always on alert, it’s always looking.
How often does somebody have to meditate to get the benefit?
I don’t think there is anything that has a number like that attached to it. What we do know is the more you train, the better you get. But I’m a perfect example of someone who’s been meditating for 18 years, and I still don’t meditate on a daily basis, but I go on retreats. What we say is when you’re driving, and you’re stopped at a stop light, you can actually take that minute and meditate. What I mean by that is you can withdraw your attention from all your thoughts, all your worry about, ‘are you going to get there on time,’ and ‘why does the red light only stop for you,’ blah, blah, and you can feel your hands, you can feel your breath, and you can look at the sky, and you can actually be present in that moment for one minute. And that brings benefit. The more you practice it, the easier it is to find those moments all day long.
Do most people need some kind of instruction to learn how to meditate?
Most people think that meditation equals having a quiet mind, and therefore they can’t meditate because they sit down and close their eyes and their minds go bonkers. They do benefit from instruction. It’s just training the mind, it’s not achieving a certain mindspace. … There’s a million places on the web to get instruction. There are lots of wonderful books, all kinds of meditation groups. Classes. But the simplest thing is to sit down for five minutes or as long as you can, bring awareness to your breathing, every time you realize your mind has wandered off, which it will do, bring it back to your breath—over and over and over again.