The fear grips my chest.
Instinctively, I sit cross-legged on my living room floor to meditate, remembering an exercise a coach guided me through a few years ago.
“If you could see its color, what would be the color of the fear?” She would ask me.
Today, the fear is dark brown.
“Where is the fear located?”
In the chest.
“What is its shape?”
A roundish ball, with some spikes.
“Can you move it slightly to the left or the right?”
That requires a lot of concentration. I take a few deep breaths.
Eventually, I can move that ball of pain to the right of my chest. I know then that I have regained control. I can distance myself from this fear rather than the fear controlling me.
The last two companies I worked for closed down because of the coronavirus pandemic. Like millions of people, I face a pandemic wall confronting us with some of our deepest fears of death, isolation, and bankruptcy. And now, I am cloistered between the walls of my home to avoid the smoke from the California fires.
I want to run away from this nightmare. But I’ve learned that what I need to do is face these walls and meditate the same way that zen meditators sit down facing white walls to meditate on their thoughts.
The mind is like the ocean. Its surface is agitated. But its bottom is calm. Meditation and mindfulness practices like a walk in silence and breathing exercises help us become aware of the transient nature of our thoughts and emotions to let them pass instead of letting them crash us. What we think about is a better predictor of happiness than what we are doing, emphasizing the need to watch our thoughts.
“Meditation is not about emptying our minds or stopping our thoughts, which is impossible,” says Dr. Judson Brewer, Director of Research and Innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center. “It’s about changing our relationships to our thoughts.”
People have been meditating for thousands of years as part of a spiritual practice, but the training and calming of the mind can be practiced without the spiritual component.
The brain is like a muscle. Unrelenting exercise tears down muscles, and leads to injury. Athletes know to alternate between periods of stress and periods of rest. The mind also needs rest, especially in this intense Zoom period, where we don’t get to stretch our legs walking from one conference room to another between meetings.
The process of returning one’s attention to breathing and the present moment helps train the mind to stay present and control otherwise automatic responses to stress, intrusive thoughts, and negative emotions. Functional MRI studies show that meditation is associated with the activation of brain regions involved in cognitive and emotional control.
The most studied mindfulness practice is the eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s. A randomized clinical trial of veterans with PTSD showed that MBSR decreased PTSD symptoms. The MBSR group also showed improvement in depressive symptoms.
Mindfulness apps have gained popularity. College students with elevated stress reported decreased stress after an eight-week meditation program with the Calm app and again at the 12-week follow up.
Chronic stress can lead to an overwhelmed immune system. Meditation has a positive effect on the physiological markers of stress, such as blood pressure, cortisol levels, and heart rate. Some Harvard and MIT scientists think meditation could be used as an adjunctive treatment against COVID-19 because of its anti-inflammatory properties.
A mindfulness practice, including monitoring of present moment experiences and acceptance, reduces the feeling of loneliness which could be beneficial during the lockdown.
The goal of meditating is not to bliss out, but to stay still through the emotions shaking us so that they do not control us. Compassion is essential. Our mind wanders 50 percent of the time. Observing that our mind wanders is a good sign that we’re becoming aware.
We don’t always have the time to meditate, and a few minutes of controlled breathing help us rebalance our fight-or-flight response.
Meditating might surface past traumas, and for some people, it is advisable to practice with trained instructors. Being alone in my meditation practice forces me to face my deepest fears, without anyone to guide or comfort me. But being alone is also reassuring; I’m the only one seeing the crazy thoughts my mind creates.
I used to worry that meditating would make me passive. On the contrary, meditating has helped me become more aware of my thoughts and emotions.
Back to meditating every morning 15 to 30 minutes, I still feel anger, stress, and frustration, but these do not control or stop me anymore. Instead of falling into worries spiraling me down, I tap into my resourcefulness and break through the walls.