It’s no secret that a meditation practice can bring more calm to one’s life. What is also well known are other benefits, and yet the repeat mantra of calmness is what seems to get top billing.
We know that telling someone to calm down at the exact moments when they are upset or angry about something is usually counter-productive, even patronising, and yet the wellness industry keeps churning out images of calmness; if you only sit on a cushion or lie down in a room with a view. Some apps promise it in downloadable bite-sized guided recordings of 5 minutes so that you can then rush back to your to-do-list.
The problem with telling people new and familiar to meditation it will bring calm is that often when we sit down to meditate we might be feeling a range of things besides calmness. And when we don’t feel we can quieten the mind, body, emotions into as much calm as a fluffy cloud or clear lake we might get disappointed, even give up the practices.
It can help to understand why we might gain a sense of calmness or peace during and after meditation, but then it’s best to just let it be a by-product of the physiological processes that take place in our brain and body. A great mantra for meditation is – “Accept, Don’t Expect”. Through various practices, particularly following the natural breath, our fight or flight response mechanism might be somewhat released and some relaxation might be experienced. Here’s what else might happen:
GROUNDING OR STILLNESS:
We might stay long enough, for whatever that stretch of time is, with our own experiencing – whether it be the soreness in the knee, the sound or feel of the blowfly hovering around us, buzzing thoughts, empty or blank mental spaces, strong or vague feelings, or numbness and other sensations. In a word, this is Mindfulness – we witness from moment to moment aspects of our experiencing. There might be some feelings of stillness or grounding, however fleeting these may be, and these might be achieved through staying with bodily sensations or scanning parts of the body, noticing the posture, or other practices such as breath awareness, sound awareness or watching of one’s thoughts.
GRIEF, SADNESS, ANGER AND A RANGE OF OTHER EMOTIONS:
When we sit and let go of some of our defences then strong emotions may surface, and exactly the ones we often push away through busyness, eating, incorrect thoughts, blaming others and a range of other techniques our species apply in order to get through difficult times. When we take time to sit more quietly, or do practices such as following sensations at the heart, our “stuff” can bubble up. Sometimes people want to access these buried or simmering feelings and meditation can provide the entry points. For others, this can be deeply confronting and even unsafe and in those cases more conscious deeper breathing can help some return from deeper states. The amazing thing is that meditation can support people to be in those more difficult spaces because the autonomic nervous system, through the parasympathetic system, provides more of a physical shield of safety than would otherwise be available during our more externalised daily fight-flight response modes.
COMPASSION AND CONNECTIVITY:
Meditation practices often have a long history of spiritual traditions behind them and practices to expand one’s compassion for self and others are certainly part of this tradition. When we sit in a room with others meditating together and keep an open mind to others’ possible suffering, hopes, dreams and unique stories, we can remember to soften our hearts, lessen our judgements and listen more closely to the whispered stories that others might be sharing with us without words. As we reflect on the world beyond our doorstop, we can be activated into further commitments to act with compassion where we see injustice. We can do this as calmly as we can but calmness alone might not be a starting point for social action. Through witnessing our thoughts and intentions, we can check that we are not erroneously using non-attachment or calm as a means of superiority, non-connection and absolve of our responsibilities to assist and care for others and ourselves.
Much has been written about neuro-plasticity. When we focus on certain things, such as gratitude and happiness, they can become acquired or developed skills or states through changes in the brain. Some days we may notice that we are warm, safe and fed and on other days we may forget about these blessings entirely. When choosing to focus on a space for gratitude during meditation a range of other blessings often become more known, remembered and prominent for us. We can sit with an ever-expanding heart.
We know that forgiveness is good for us, but why and how do we do it? It’s easy enough to forgive minor things. In a meditation space we have more access to the softer, kinder parts of ourselves, again through the physiology of being less reactive, safer and receptive. We have an opportunity to sit bravely through grounding and stillness with more difficult experiences and feel what it might be like to forgive others we perceive have harmed us. We might even begin to see things in a different way as well. Which brings me to another major benefit of meditation practice…
KNOWLEDGE AND FREEDOM:
We can learn as we watch ourselves react to discomfort or comfort, get attached to things and then practice letting go of these same things – such as an expectation of calmness. We can feel whatever we are feeling without judgement. It is often our own added layers of judgements about the validity of our emotions or actions that can cause the most difficulty. Instead of judging ourselves or others harshly we can befriend that part of us that worries if “we don’t quite know what might happen next” (who does?), or “we shouldn’t have said that, done this, felt like that…” We can get to know ourselves better, which isn’t always such a calming route in the short-term, but it is a path towards freedom.
Artwork: Connected by Suzanne Frydman
© Suzanne Frydman / Relax Communications