Sometimes we may hope to use meditation as a way of withdrawing and protecting ourselves from the external pressures we feel building up around us. There are times when it might be helpful for that. But meditation is about focusing attention and listening to signals – and foremost, about listening to the signals that are coming from within our own body. This provides the opportunity to hear what the body is saying about the deeper origin of the stress it feels. When we turn off judgment while listening – or specifically, we turn off the automatic ways we have been interpreting and judging those signals, we have a chance to evaluate how we have been making those. Often the judgments are wrong or not helpful. We may find that we are making judgments in one way then realize there are other ways, possibly more positive, peaceful or productive ways of interpreting those signals. But we were so caught up in our programmed way of handling it that we became stuck in a tight negative feedback loop.
We may be feeling stress, and assume it is mostly coming from the pressures we feel coming from work or from other people. But when we take some time to turn off the narrative, when we turn off the judgment, when we turn off the labeling, and focus on just the raw sensations, we may start to see other candidate causes for the stress we feel, causes that are more within our own power to alter.
Many years ago, while sightseeing with my wife and children one hot Sunday afternoon, I found myself mysteriously feeling stressed and anxious – as if I had made a big mistake in some responsibility, committed a crime or sin, but couldn’t recall what I’d done or who was coming after me. We got back home and immediately I went to the bedroom and lay face down on the bed. My body was so distressed I started to cry. After many minutes of release, eventually I heard an inner voice say – ‘Hey Mat. At lunch you drank two giant glasses of iced tea. You’re overdosed on caffeine, funny boy.” I think I started to laugh. It was then that I made the connection between occasional bouts of sudden and intense anxiety and what I consumed. I finally admitted that I am extremely sensitive to caffeine and shouldn’t indulge. Small amounts have a strong, and obviously negative effect on me. Nothing was wrong with my life externally. But my body was chemically distressed and my mind started to run to false conclusions in reaction to it. I was simply poisoned by an exogenous substance.
My problem was not with something outside of me, but inside, and slowing down to listen revealed the rather benign cause. This case happen to be a simple biological situation and I am cured by staying away from caffeine, especially strong, rapidly-absorbed doses of it. Imagine if I had started seeing a psychiatrist to help me deal with my anxiety attacks!
“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” ― Mark Twain
Rather than immediately looking for ways to remove ourselves from external pressures or to change what others are doing to us, meditation can help reveal when we are facing stress mostly of our own creation, which might be more often than we care to admit. The situations of our lives often have features that we cannot control, that we cannot physically withdraw from. When the external situation is immovable, if we are desperate enough for peace, what is left is to permit something inside our perception and interpretation to be changed.
This may mean allowing a belief to change about how the world works. I may need to clarify what I value most. I may need to reorder my priorities.
This may mean I consider more viewpoints and let my attitude change. My perception could be broadened or shift positions entirely, if I want peace more than I want to hold on to my old ways of seeing.
This may mean I choose to do less, to choose to let go of control, when doing the opposite has not been producing the peace I have sought, or has made things worse.
This may mean I consider changes in my lifestyle and habits. My lack of sufficient sleep, lack of sufficient nutrition or presence of ‘anti-nutrition’, my lack of mental or physical rest, my poor breathing patterns, my lack of sufficient movement and things like that might be causing more of my misery than I have realized. I want to blame other things, but what I have needed to find better health and peace is a mirror.
Meditation gives us a chance to slow down, listen and take a more thorough and accurate inventory of what’s really going on inside the body and how the body is interacting with the physical and social environment. What we discover is not always easy or pleasant to deal with, but it is always good because it gives us the opportunity to change something that is within our power to change.
The punch line is this: we are often caught up trying to change the things that can’t be changed, or that don’t really need to be changed, while ignoring the internal life which is well within our power to change. Genuine meditation practice provides us the opportunity to confront that negligence.
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