You are crazy busy. Your kids are tearing around the house, the yard, the soccer field. You are trying to work, or you’re looking for work. The computer’s on, something is cooking on the stove, you have errands to run, and you’re not sure how you’re going to pay that phone bill. And I have the nerve to suggest that you find 15 minutes or more every day to do nothing?
What if I told you that this sitting around would reduce your stress levels, improve your concentration, give you more energy, and that the sprinkles on top are extra compassion for yourself and those around you? More energy, concentration, and compassion can help you focus on your job search and keep you in it for the long haul. Of course, meditating isn’t exactly “doing nothing,” but while you might glance at a book or listen to a tape or CD to get started, it isn’t a whole lot more than doing nothing either. Also it doesn’t cost anything, and can change your brain for the better.
My own meditation practice developed in the aftermath of my husband dying from cancer. At the time, I had a steady job, and the needs of my 2 young sons kept me functioning, yet there was another level on which I could hardly take in the devastation. A friend recommended the book Start Where You Are, by Pema Chodron, and, following the instructions on pages 5 and 6, I was off. Later, I found a local Insight Meditation group and learned the slightly different vipassana, or “insight” style of meditation.
Did I then sit every day? No. Did I stop meditating at some point? Yes. Did I yell at my kids sometimes? Guilty. A teacher suggested I develop some mindfulness practices that would fit into my life as my children got older. For a while my prescription was this:
- Go outside upon rising, and for a few minutes, really take in the day. Smell the air, look at the sky, listen to the sounds.
- Make sure the first thing you say every day is said kindly.
- Eat one item mindfully each day. Really focus on how it tastes, smells, feels.
- Wash your face mindfully, focusing on just that one activity. Don’t think about other things. If you find your mind wandering, just go back to focusing on the face washing.
- At bedtime, do a body scan, paying attention to your toes, the soles of your feet, your calves, the backs of your knees and so on, all the way up to the top of your head.
The retreat added another item to the “into my 80’s” list: I’m going to hike into my 80’s and I’m going to meditate into my 80’s. That, after all, is what changes your brain waves.
Meditation and Brain Science
If you enter “meditation” and “brain” in Google, you pop up scores of reports on the emerging science of neuroplasticity, which studies how the “hardware” of the brain (that scientists once thought became “fixed” in adulthood) can and does change. Research conducted at the University of Wisconsin in 2004 on a group of experienced Tibetan monks who had mediated for between 15 and 40 years, and university student controls who had never meditated, showed significant differences in gamma wave activity and synchrony between the 2 groups. In 2006, studies at Harvard, Yale and MIT, headed by Harvard psychologist Sarah Lazar, showed cortical thickening in experienced meditators in areas that are associated with emotional well-being and processing thoughts and feelings. Similar studies have demonstrated that cortical areas associated with certain activities will be thicker in advanced practitioners (music regions in the brains of professional musicians, for example). Since the cortex usually thins with age, these results suggest that meditation (or other types of concerted practice) can delay some of the normal effects of aging.
If you want to get started you can find a local group, get a book, listen to tapes and CDs, read about it online, or do all of these. Here are a few resources to get you going:
- Mindfulness in Plain English One of the best, most straightforward “how to” books on this accessible style of meditation is by Bhante Gunaratana, originally from Sri Lanka, and founder of the Bhavana Society monastery and retreat center in High Point, West Virginia
- Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living By Pema Chodron, an American woman who is a Buddhist nun and resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The voice of the author, her contemporary, wry humor, her way of talking you into being kind to yourself, her experiences in life before becoming a nun, are part of the appeal.
- Nothing Special: Living Zen Charlotte Joko Beck. A book of essays and dialogues between Beck and her students at the San Diego Zen Center, full of humor and a clear view of how “awareness is like rising heat on a summer’s day: the clouds in the sky just disappear. When we are aware, the unreal just disappears; we don’t have to do anything.”
- Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life By Byron Katie. While not strictly about either Buddhism or meditation, this is a book steeped in the tradition of mindfulness and looking at things head on, being in the moment, and becoming aware of our own thoughts.
Amelia L. Williams, PhD, is a mom, freelance writer/editor, meditator and poet who loves hiking and cooking. She is an experienced writer on health care, and enjoys writing grants and reports for non-profit organizations. Her website is Inkville Writing and Editing. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org