Thursday, June 19, 2014

Guided Meditation: How it's silencing the chatter in my mind



Last week, I attended my first guided meditation class at the studio where I practice yoga. While I do have a morning ritual of sitting quietly, relaxing my body and mind while trying to be present, I often am not sure if I am doing ENOUGH to actually still my mind and allow myself to gently yet mindfully transition from sleeping into wakefulness. This time of day, many practitioners contend, is the best time to focus on spiritual pursuits – before the hectic/rational part of the day crowds out the contemplative/reflective portion. Often, I fight the urge to complete a task that I think will make my quiet time more relaxing (like picking up the dog toys or tidying up the shoes by the door…) which then leads to another equally important task (like cooking or cleaning out the refrigerator), which sometimes snowballs into still more tasks (like touching up my most recent rough draft or answering an email), until the moment is missed and I find myself full-force in the midst of my day feeling reactionary and not one bit purposeful or mindful at all. I have been curious about pursuing a more formal method of meditation for a while because, left to my own devices during my quiet time, I sometimes feel like the blindfolded “it” in a mental round of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, grasping and groping at things as I come across them, placing them here and there simply because they feel promising.

I had no idea what to expect when I attended my first class. Evening rush-hour traffic was in full swing, and by the time I reached the studio I wondered if the stress of navigating it had actually created a deficit in my level of “inner peace” that would only allow me to come back to my original starting point by the conclusion of the class. My mind was already racing.

The fragrance of incense greeted me before I entered the studio; soothing music beckoned me into the dimly lit practice room. Setting up my mat, blanket, and yoga blocks I wondered how I would ever sit still for the 30-minute duration of the class.
Sitting still can be tough.

Tonya, the teacher, entered the room and with a soothing voice instructed the other students and me on how to set up the yoga blocks as a seat so as to keep our legs from falling asleep during the 30-minute meditation. I was dubious. She encouraged us to sit on our knees, straddling the blocks with our toes touching behind us, legs positioned as if we were in a wide-leg child’s pose, hands gently resting palms up on our thighs.

“Let’s begin,” Tonya encouraged as she guided us to bring an awareness to each individual toe on each foot, naming each one: “The big toe on your right foot, the second toe on your right foot…”. Immediately my internal dialogue kicked in: Did I lock the car? I don’t think I locked the car. I can’t get up and check to see if the car’s locked. Why didn’t I double check the lock? My toes aren’t touching. Will this work if my toes don’t touch? What is the purpose of the toes touching? If I shift and make my toes touch will it distract everybody else? (shifting slightly) Nope, not comfortable. I can’t relax if I’m forcing my toes to touch behind me. Is everybody else’s toes touching? I’ve got to switch back. Yep, that’s better. I don’t care if they don’t touch. SHOULD I care if they don’t touch?

And then I brought myself out of my head and back into the studio, allowing myself to really listen to Tonya’s words while the prattling voice inside my head gradually fell into silence. At her instruction, I focused on feeling heaviness in my extremities, one at a time beginning with each individual toe and moving throughout my body. It invited me outside of my head and into an awareness of my body. Then we were instructed to feel lightness in each part of our bodies as Tonya named each appendage in her smooth, even voice. Over the period of 30 minutes she talked the class through allowing ourselves to feel different temperature extremes (the bitterly cold one triggered a huge wash of emotions that only manifested in a trickle of a tear down my cheek due to the state of near-total relaxation that I had surrendered to) and a few different states of being (floating on air, drifting on water). By the end of class, I felt as if I’d just awakened from a long nap – rested, but not groggy.

I’ve attended meditation class several times since then, and each time I’ve picked up some strategies that I have incorporated into my own quiet time at home. Throughout my day, deep breaths are easier and more automatic now, allowing me to calm myself in what might normally be a tense situation (like getting stuck in traffic or when one of my dogs downs a wad of chewing gum off the sidewalk during a stroll). I feel a stronger sense of overall calm than I had before.

One of the key components of guided meditation, for me, is exercising my ability to detach my brain from my body. It’s not as whacky as it might sound. I often work with clients who are physically consumed by the effects of stress, and it is a familiar territory to me as well. A few decades ago, during a years-long period of grief over the sudden death of my brother, I suffered from anxiety attacks during the night, overwhelming and debilitating depression during the day. My hair was falling out. My digestive system was a mess. My heart would often beat in palpitations so strong that the pressure of it would cause me to cough. My doctor experimented with medications and various tests. Nothing helped. I did not know how to break out of the cycle that I found myself trapped in. Some counseling coupled with teachings and lectures at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (where I attended nutrition school) by Dr. Andrew Weil, Deepak Chopra, Aleta St. James, and others equipped me with a means to break out of that stress-spiral. Strategies that I developed under their guidance kept me from getting back into the cycle that once plagued me on a regular basis. There is always benefit in building on a foundation, though, and that is how I view this venture into guided meditation.

Buddhist teaching stresses the importance of allowing a thought to pass through our minds without mentally grabbing hold of it and wrestling with it or acting upon it. When it is simply a thought, rather than something labeled as good or bad, it loses its power over us. Guided meditation is a great way to practice that. It’s a way to separate your mind from your body, creating a DMZ of sorts.

To explain the relationship between our bodies and our emotions, I often give my clients the following examples: 

Have you ever been so worried or scared that you thought you were going to have a sudden bowel movement? 
Do you recall playing hide-and-seek as a kid and you were so excited or scared that you felt as if you were going to wet your pants? 
When walking to a podium to speak in public, do you ever feel sick to your stomach or shaky? 
Ever get so angry at someone that you can’t catch your breath? 

Emotional states of being have an impact on our physical bodies. Sometimes, the stressors of other people in our lives – our partners, our children, or our workmates – physically affect us, too. While we may not experience a strong emotional-physical reaction every day, there are encounters – and even thoughts – that have the potential to negatively manifest themselves in our physical bodies on a daily basis. Over time, this can cause a host of problems. 

While I’ve gotten pretty good at being able differentiate myself from my loved ones and their various crises and issues, it is my own mind that causes me the most consternation. Guided meditation offers a means to buffer – or even eliminate – those effects. It is a way to mentally step back from a given situation or thought and allow it to simply exist – apart from the physical body. Just as with many skills, the more you practice it, the better you get at it.

During this week’s meditation class, I actually stepped back so far that I waded into an interesting state of what I can only describe as “bliss,” and it happened three times. I was in a prone position called constructive rest, atop a folded blanket, but I did not fall asleep. The only way that I can explain what I experienced is that I completely lost contact with what I was physically feeling, hearing, touching, and entered into a state of total peace in the present while still somehow alert. It's as if the Universe said, "Here you go, just be." But, just like a kid learning to ride a bike, once he realizes he’s on two wheels and no one is holding onto the bike anymore he freezes up and puts his feet down, I lost my balance and came back into the physical part of me. None of it felt scary, instead was pretty cool and cozy.


I think that people who are struggling with seemingly insurmountable issues would benefit from learning a strategy like guided meditation, but it can also be helpful for anyone else. While some might feel that it is a tad too unconventional and perhaps threatening to their spiritual norms, it’s nothing more than a way to quiet the mind of the constant chatter that entices us to look backward into the past (which we can do nothing about no matter how hard we wish otherwise) or imagine scenarios of the future (which are RARELY accurate anyway), rather than allowing us to be fully present in this moment. Give it a try (or several). I’m betting you’ll be glad you did!

Guided meditation classes are taught at the Brentwood, TN location of Hot Yoga Plus on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6pm. 

Elly Haddad, of Elemental Fit, is a certified holistic health & wellness coach based in Nashville, TN. She is a writer and public speaker. She also works with individuals, families, and groups, helping them to understand the strong influence that diet & lifestyle have over their health, happiness, and overall wellbeing. Questions and comments can be directed here.

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