Thursday, June 13, 2013

Does Meditation Stress You Out?

You know how sometimes you feel like you're the only one struggling to do something that's good for you, something your doctor, dentist, psychologist tells you to do?  Like flossing your teeth after every meal, or drinking a gallon of water every day, or getting up at the break of dawn (or earlier) to run five miles.  So you don't talk about it, right? You just pretend you do all of these things because that's what everyone else does, and you don't want to look like an unhealthy slacker. Sound familiar?

Well here's some breaking news:  nobody does all of the things we're supposed to do to be healthy.  If we did we'd blind each other with our glaringly white teeth, and the part of the day when we weren't running we'd be in the bathroom ridding ourselves of all the excess water.  We'd have no time for anything else.  But even though I think we all recognize, at least on some level, that it's impossible to do everything right all of the time, we still feel bad about it.  Take, for example, meditating.

Meditation is getting a lot of coverage these days, and everyone seems to be talking about it.  I've been struggling with some health issues these past few months, requiring many trips to various health practitioners, and without a doubt (and regardless of the diagnosis given, which varies wildly from doctor to doctor), the one thing they've all been consistent about is telling me to meditate.  I don't disagree that meditation can have health benefits -- I've read the research and know first-hand that I feel better, mentally and physically, when I meditate regularly. But I think we need to be careful about latching on to meditation as the "silver bullet" for whatever ails you.  In fact, according to a recent article in the Boston Globe, The Stress of Not Meditating, telling someone they need to meditate can actually cause them stress.

"Nothing’s more stressful than hearing about the advantages of something you’re not doing."

So, if you are one of the many who wants to be "calm and happy and live in the now" but who also has a mile-long list of things you can accomplish with that extra 15 minutes, you are not alone.  If you are feeling stressed because you know you should meditate, your doctor, yoga teacher, or best friend has told you that you need to do it, take heart in knowing that even the person recommending it to you probably doesn't do it, at least not regularly (although they might not admit it). 

So should you give up on the idea entirely?  Well, that's up to you.  But before you do, consider this:
  1. Meditation is only one form of mindfulness practice.  If sitting on a cushion for thirty minutes a day isn't something you want to do, there are other options.  You can breathe deeply and mindfully at stop lights, or spend the first 10 minutes of your lunch time eating slowly and quietly.  The idea is to incorporate small mindful moments into activities you do regularly; anything that brings on a relaxation response counts.
  2. You may already do things that approximate meditation.  Many activities like gardening, hiking, or playing music bring our brains close to a meditative state. In short, if you lose track of time doing a favorite activity (i.e. reach a state of "flow"), you're receiving some of the same physiological benefits as you would get through meditating on a cushion.
  3. There are no rules. There are many types of meditation, so you should explore the options and choose something that works for you.  Also, starting slowly is perfectly acceptable -- if five minutes on the cushion (or chair or bed) is all you can or want to do, just do that.  The meditation police will never know and, even if they did, they don't write tickets.
So whether you decide to jump on the meditation bandwagon or not, I think the  healthiest choice any of us can make is to be honest with ourselves and everyone else about what is important to us and what we value.  We are free to make our own choices, free to decide what works for us, and also free to release the guilt, shame, and fear about all the rest.  "Seek the middle path" as Buddha advised -- it's all about balance, not perfection.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

If You Could Write Your Own Prescription...

In May I spent a lot of time thinking about and writing about meditation and other mindfulness practices, and toward the end of the last post, "Minding the Gap", I introduced the idea of self-compassion because I know most parents are very hard on themselves -- worry and guilt seem to play a big role in this job.  It's true that there's a lot of responsibility that comes with raising children, which is why we feel so much pressure, and it's also true that we're all trying to do the best we can with the time, energy, and other resources we have available.  It's easy to forget.

This isn't to say that we shouldn't continue to try to do a better job, however.  We can simultaneously hold the ideas that we are "good enough", while at the same time knowing that we can do even better.  To really rise to our potential, to enjoy this process of raising children, learning and growing are key.  And in order to learn and grow, we need to take care of ourselves.  It's the familiar "put your oxygen mask on first..." concept.  Which makes sense and sounds great, but can be so hard to do in the midst of working, laundry, and shuttling kids around.  So here's the deal -- we need a plan. 

As a crazy coincidence, as I've been thinking about these ideas of self-care and self-compassion this week, I happened to be listening to a recorded conversation between two authors, Lissa Ranking and Brenee Brown, and they touched on this very topic of taking care of themselves.  Here's what they both said:  they have written themselves their own health prescriptions. They have these prescriptions written on pieces of paper that they carry around with them.  On their lists are things like how much sleep they need, foods they avoid, exercise schedules, and other items that fall into the category of "sanity maintenance", like limiting work hours and getting comfortable with saying "no".

Before this, I hadn't really thought about how I take care of myself as a "prescription" before, but the idea really resonates with me.  Without knowing it, I would say that up until now my prescription has included: 
  • 9 Hours of Sleep:  I'm a sleeper -- always have been, always will be. For years I've envied those who could get by on seven hours or less (my uncle is a four-hour per night person), and tried to get by on less myself for a while, hoping I could train my body. Nope. So finally I've accepted it -- I'm a sleeper.
  • Daily Meditation.  I've written a lot about this recently, so will only say that I'm on my cushion for 30-minutes a day.  When I miss a day, my emotions and energy suffer.
  • Sooo fresh -- we picked them ourselves!
  • No Sugar or Flour.  I started following the Paleo diet when I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and it has made a world of difference for me.  I have almost no inflammation in my body, and have much less pain than others who have the same health issues I do.  The first weeks coming off of sugar were tough, I can't deny it, but they were totally worth it.  I eat protein, vegetables, and some fruit (low glycemic, primarily apples) and have no sugar cravings.
Now I'm thinking about adding to it, and have had a lot of fun the past couple of days just thinking about what I will include.  I want my prescriptions to be realistic and sustainable -- daily massages would be wonderful, but just won't happen. Maybe a monthly massage, though?  And I love having fresh flowers on my desk, so maybe a weekly purchase of fresh flowers?  The possibilities are endless, and soooo much fun to consider. So I'm curious to know -- What's on your personal prescription list?  What should be on it?  Any good ideas?

"Enjoying a life of extreme self care means living and working in a soul-nurturing environment; developing a greater appreciation for, and connection with, nature; doing work that provides an opportunity to express your greatest gifts and talents; and caring for your emotional, physical, and spiritual health in a way that's aligned with who you are and what you most need."
 - Cheryl Richardson, Extreme Self-Care