by Heather Tick, M.D.
Meditation is [a powerful] antidote to the harmful effects of stress. It changes your body chemistry and brings your body rhythms into sync with one another. It can lower your levels of stress hormones, decrease excessive muscle tension, normalize blood pressure, reduce anxiety, and increase pain tolerance. The particular practice called mindfulness-based stress reduction is based on Buddhist meditation techniques and has been studied and made popular by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Research has shown it to be a powerful technique with benefits for patients with chronic pain and anxiety.
There are many different types of meditation. Some use concentration: you focus your attention on only one thing, such as a sound or mantra. Some employ mindfulness: you quiet your mind by excluding outside thoughts and plans, and you focus on the awareness of everything you are experiencing in that moment and from moment to moment. People think of meditation as something they have to sit still for. That appeals to some, but others just don't
have the time or
get bored. Some forms of meditation involve stillness and some involve movement.
The real meditation, says Kabat-Zinn,
is how you live your life.
You can practice using a variety of things: your breath, eating a meal, going for a walk, or a series of movements (as in yoga, qi gong, and tai chi). Any moment in your life can become mindful if you clear your mind of the daily clutter and attend to it: the look on a child's face, the fragrance of a flower, the taste of a meal...
Sit in a comfortable position, either cross-legged on the floor (use pillows to prop up your knees if you need to) or in a chair. Rest your hands comfortably on your knees and take a few deep, cleansing breaths. Close your eyes to limit distraction. Focus on your breathing: breathe in...breathe out.
You may notice that your mind is wandering and thinking about the office or the next chore you must do. Just acknowledge the thought and bring yourself back to focusing on your breathing. Each time your mind wanders, bring it back to your breathing, without judgment.
Mindfulness is about being rather than about doing. Do this for ten minutes each day.
This is one of my favorites because it combines two things I love to do. You don't have to walk very far. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes.
As you step, pay attention to the feeling in your feet as you place your heels on the ground and then roll toward your toes. Your weight shifts, and you are about to put your other foot to the ground and take the next step. Just observe the sensations in your feet, ankles, legs, and hips, and up through your body.
Are you swinging your arms? What do they feel like? How does the air feel on your face? Is there a breeze? What can you see? People, flowers, the horizon? Are there noises? Loud ones, like cars and voices? Soft ones, like the air as you brush past? The sound of your footsteps? Your breath?
When thoughts of your to-do list come to mind, just acknowledge them and then bring your attention back to your walk.
Food tastes better when you don't eat quickly — when you give your taste buds a chance to really experience the food. When my three children were young, I used to
inhale my meals. Mealtime was so rushed that I didn't think I would get to eat if I ate slowly. If I could change that part of history, I would. It was not good for my health, my weight, or my children. I set a bad example for them, and now when I nag them to eat more slowly, they point and say I am a hypocrite. I am trying to eat as many meals as I can mindfully, and I have slowed down my overall pace of eating. I find I enjoy the food more and am satisfied with smaller portions.
Try to choose one meal each day during which you eat mindfully. Take your plate of food and sit down comfortably. Take a moment to look at the colors of the food on your plate. Then smell the aromas of the food. Try to distinguish as many different aromas or just enjoy the blend of them. Take a forkful of food and, before you put it into your mouth, hold it close to your mouth and see if you can already
taste it. Then slowly put it in your mouth and feel the texture.
Begin to chew slowly. You will feel digestive enzymes being released along with saliva to help you digest your food. Chew for twice as long as you ordinarily would. Then swallow and wait a moment before you decide which morsel of food you will pick up next.
Choose a different part of the meal, if there is more than one type of food on your plate. Notice the different aromas, textures, and tastes, and continue eating this way until you are full. Then ask yourself, How did it feel to eat this way? Did it change your attitude to the food?
I recently heard of a woman who used to gobble a fast-food burger and fries each lunchtime. After learning about mindful eating, she ate one of those lunches mindfully. After that, she stopped eating fast food because she no longer liked the aroma, texture, and taste, which all seemed acceptable when she used to gobble it down.
Focusing on gratitude allows you to open your mind to those things in your life that are good. We all have something to be grateful for: waking up to a new day, a beautiful sunset (or cloud formation if you live in Seattle), having relatives or friends who have touched us, perceiving the beauty of a flower, experiencing the companionship of a pet. In a psychology study, each week for ten weeks, people wrote down five things they were grateful for. They were compared to two other groups, one whose members wrote down five burdens from the week, and another whose members simply listed five events. The gratitude group became 25 percent happier than either of the other groups. Perhaps gratitude moves us outside of our ego or makes us feel connected. Whatever the reason, it is a good practice.
Gratitude meditation is easy. As you fall asleep each night, review five things you are grateful for. You can combine this with a relaxing breathing exercise or one of the other meditations. Be prepared to be happier over time. Meditation practices are one way people feel connected to something larger than themselves and appreciate the spiritual aspects of their lives. Many people find that the experience of, and connection to, the mysterious, the sacred, that which is beyond their everyday experience, helps keep their day-to-day stresses in perspective.
Dr. Heather Tick is the author of Holistic Pain Relief and has been an integrative medical practitioner for over 20 years. A sought-after speaker, she lives in Seattle and works at the University of Washington, where she is the first Gunn-Loke Endowed Professor for Integrative Pain Medicine. Visit her online at heathertickmd.com.
Adapted from the book Holistic Pain Relief ©2013 by Dr. Heather Tick. Published with permission of New World Library.