Photo by Monica Valls
Despite the overwhelming prevalence of stress, anxiety, depression, and every other mental health concern today, my work as a meditation and mindfulness teacher shows me just how easy it is to become calm. Our body recognises this feeling; the relaxation response. It’s easy on us. It doesn’t take a toll the way stress does to us. We give into calm when it arises. It’s a welcome friend. It’s our deepest inner state, though sometimes long forgotten.
This is the problem, though. That sometimes we can forget how to become calm. Our process for dealing with life has too long been a stress response, and so even if we notice that we are stressed, we react by feeling stressed about noticing stress! What a headache! So our default inner process is centred around stress and anxiety, instead of our default inner process being calm, or relaxed.
But it’s not all on our individual shoulders. We also face a culture at times in which we normalise, and even glorify unpeaceful lifestyles and behaviours. In teaching meditation to my community, I witness every day how our culture can create personal imbalances and why these lead to anxiety or stress.
But I also witness every day how quickly we remember, adapt, and then choose to live more calmly.
Here are some heartfelt suggestions on how to slow down meditatively, and remove yourself from the stress cycle:
Forgive yourself and accept yourself
The first thing that can happen when there’s a realisation of stress, is perfectionism. Suddenly wanting to fix the stress, manage it, relieve it, before even really being attentive with it. Make me unstressed again, please! But what is perfection, actually? A belief that how it is, right now, is not okay. Before you think, I’m not a perfectionist, ask yourself this: do you say should a lot? Do you spot mistakes everywhere? Do you fear being judged? So one must practice forgiveness, for being imperfect, and for feeling stressed. Notice that there is stress. Say, “I’m feeling stressed.” Or some acknowledgement. Accept yourself for feeling stressed, for sometimes inflicting extra stress, for forgetting to do the things that calm you.
Try Jack Kornfield’s Forgiveness Meditation.
Do less, aim lower
A meditation and yoga teacher I admire said once, “We glorify busy”. (Sarasvati Sally Dawson, I hope you don’t mind me quoting you.) Doing too much and getting caught up in busyness often leads to burnout and overwhelm. Sure, some of us can manage a certain lifestyle, busy or slow, but that doesn’t mean one size fits all. There’s a common belief that doing more, and doing a lot, makes you valuable and important. Worthiness and value is something that is innately known, it comes from inside, it’s believed about oneself. It cannot come from outside, because that is only ever temporary. Someone says you’re valuable today, they could change their minds. Ambitiousness too, while it can keep one growing and learning, can also mask feelings of unworthiness. Practicing belonging and worthiness means we don’t have to do anything but be still to feel happy.
“I want to know
if you can be alone
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments.”
Read Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s Poem, The Invitation.
Similar to gratitude, or appreciation, contentment is feeling fulfilled as we are, and as our circumstances are. The challenge to realising inner contentment is the habitual cycle of stress or anxiety in the mind, which can be shifted over time by doing exercises of cultivating contentment. Writing lists of things that make you feel content, satisfied, grateful. This is a conscious exercise in redirecting thoughts away from lack, or pessimism, into something new. Another way is practicing meditative awareness and breathing to be more present in day to day moments of contentment. One important part of this is being aware of and questioning how our broader culture can affect our ability to be content. Some of my favourite yogic discussion on this is found in this documentary about Timothy Leary.
Watch Dying To Know, a documentary about Ram Dass & Timothy Leary.
Be still, meditate
Meditating on the breath and the body takes one out of their thoughts, and any limitations of their current mental processes. Through Still-mind meditation, thoughts slow down and eventually stop, even momentarily. It is a type of transcendental meditation. Rather than thinking a problem out, or overthinking, listen to your body, and become quiet. Then intuition can speak. Meditating is a way of committing to let go of stress, and committing to your mental fitness. If we can commit to working, and doing other things no matter our mood, then surely we can commit to meditate. It’s hard to be stressed. Hard on the nervous system, thinking mind, physical body, immune system, heart, and the soul. In the same way, calmness is easy on all of these aspects of ourselves, even if it’s not a natural or default process for us. Here is my own guided meditation in the Still-mind approach.
Try my guided meditation, Cultivating Internal Space.
Remember, calmness is the easy choice, stress is the hard one.
Wishing you peace and mental strength on your path, and don’t forget to share this blog post if it helped you in any way or you know someone who would benefit from it!