I didn’t grow up with a contemplative practice but began meditating years ago in college. I knew very little about what meditation was and there was no internet at the time to cruise for ideas. I knew that I wanted to feel less stress about my sense of life. Looking back I see what an easy life I had at the time, no mortgage, no kids, and no job, but at the time it seemed truly overwhelming just because of my own brain and it’s activities. I picked up a book at the library on the topic and began a simple mental focus meditation; where you focus your mind on one object like a candle flame. When your mind wanders bring the focus back to contemplation of the object in all of it’s details. But it can be hard to jump right into a contemplative practice unless you have worked on training the breath first. This connects the brain to the nervous system in a way that cuts through the stresses of life and gives you an ability to clear out your brain and reset it.
PENETRATE OVERWHELM BY CONTROLLING THE BREATH
Breathing exercises can reduce feelings of overwhelm, even if you are a long time meditator it can add to your experience. Try the Dr. Andrew Weil “4 7 8 Breath” as he speaks to the myriad possibilities of how this one very short exercise can contribute to health, especially if done every day. Right now the billions of dollars on research that are spent on pharmaceuticals are preventing research on meditation; which is a free, harmless activity that anyone can do without fear of all the problems caused by pharmaceuticals. The emerging research about meditation, although not as comprehensive as the dollar driven pharmaceutical research, clearly indicates multiple health and wellness benefits.
HOW TO DO THE 4 7 8 BREATH
Come into an easy seated position. Before you start the sequence of controlled breathing, first blow the air out through an open mouth in a strong puff. This activates your parasympathetic nervous system through the vagus nerve and helps you relax. Just do this one time, then begin the following sequence and repeat it four times:
Inhale slowly through the nose to the count of four, hold your breath for a count of 7 and then slowly exhale through the mouth to a count of 8. Exhalation is longest. Do this at a rate that is comfortable for you. Try this twice a day. You can feel spacey afterwards, so have a glass of water and integrate the experience.
Consider squeezing this practice in at certain moments. Say you wake up at night and can’t sleep, try it. Or make it a habit to do this breath at the end of the day when you park your car at your house.
MEDITATION AND THE VAGUS NERVE
Meditation retrains the brain and nervous system towards greater relaxation. When you take a deep breath out with force, or do a segmented breathing pattern this activates the vagus nerve. What does the vagus nerve do? In multiple yoga traditions, it’s known as the “nerve of compassion”, the longest nerve in the body as it controls parts of the “rest and relax” or parasympathetic nervous system. This wandering nerve is located in the neck and head and spreads through the body, innervating the heart, digestion and lungs. The Center for Compassion in Berkeley California has made a mission of figuring out how to enhance and train the vagus nerve to have greater “Vagal tone”. Studies have proven that when this nerve is activated, a person will behave in more loving ways. Certain life activities like singing, bonding with others and sitting in meditative postures with the neck tucked down all activate the vagus nerve through the muscles in the neck, tongue and head. Through meditation and controlled breathing, you train this unconscious part of the nervous system to be under your conscious control.
WHY IS MEDITATION IMPORTANT?
Meditation at this time isn’t just a wellness or a lifestyle practice but a necessity. As we see the overwhelming polarization in this country where people are attacking and disparaging each other for differing views, it is critical that each person take responsibility for contemplative practice of some kind in his or her own way. We have to develop that inner seed of compassion, where the mind and heart are connected and were we see ourselves reflected in each other, no matter what the differences are.
Take the time to sit down and contemplate, breathe deeply, meditate and be in the moment. Your contemplation practice can be sitting quietly in the morning as you drink a cup of tea and listen to the morning birds. You can adopt a formal program if you like or just cultivate a moment to moment sense of gratitude and connection.
This is not just for yourself, so that you can have wellness, this is for humanity at large. Dedicate your contemplative practice to the world, feel connected with every being that is out there and shatter the illusion that you are separate and alone. Every breath that you take is literally a small piece of the universe, when you hold it inside of yourself and then let it go back to the world a piece of you merges with everyone else. This simple and crucial act of defiance can change the world one breath at a time as you break through the lie that you are separate from everything. Multiple research studies have shown that if you have the courage to take the time to meditate daily, the structures in your brain will be fine tuned so that you begin to experience the world with a sense of oneness. That the actions you take will have greater compassion, less reactivity and more kindness.
Meditation reminds you that you have a choice. If you choose to meditate daily, it brings you back to self responsibility and that your life is a mirror to the inner you. All of what you see around you and how you participate with it is completely up to you. When you give yourself time to meditate daily, you dump a lot of personal negativity and you will take life less personally and with a bit more panache. Try this and see how it affects you. It does take time to change.
THE “O” MOUTH: EMOTIONAL RELEASE BREATH This is something very easy to try the next time life takes you by surprise and you feel emotional or overwhelmed. Close your eyes and make your mouth into an “O” shape. Breathe loudly with a strong inhale and a strong exhale of equal measure. You should be able to hear a loud “whoosh” sound and your diaphragm should move with every breath. Feel your diaphragm/stomach contract as you exhale and expand with every inhale. Do this for a minute or two, even if you feel light headed. Then stop and rest with a normal breathing pattern. See if this powerful breath changes the situation in your mind.