Exhale stress, inhale success

by Ariel Tilson, The University Daily Kansan, November 20, 2008

Meditating to ease your mind can be as simple as breathing

Lawrence, Kansas  (USA) -- It’s 10 p.m. on a Wednesday and you just got off work. Tomorrow you have a paper due, which you haven’t even started, your roommate still hasn’t washed the dishes from two days ago, and your bank account has $15. Basically, you feel like you’re going to blow a fuse. So, what are your options? For many students, it’s tempting to hit the bars when times get rough, but next time stress threatens your sobriety, consider a different alternative: meditation.

You don’t have to follow a specific religion or make friends with new-age hippies. Meditation is ideal for anyone who is juggling too much and just needs a breather. In other words, people like you.

Although meditation takes more work than does chugging a few beers to ease your mind, it has many benefits without the hangover or the regrets. Practicing daily meditation for even a few minutes can train your mind to react to stressful events without the emotion or anxiety that amplifies problems.

A study done two years ago at the University proved that regular meditation increased performance and concentration. Omri Gillath, assistant professor of social psychology, and one of his graduate students, Ben Clark, compared the performance of people before and after they started meditating. They chose people from the community who had little or no meditation experience, gave them informal training and sent them home to practice. Two weeks later, they compared the results. Not only did their subjects have improved performance, but the people who meditated by chanting words like “family” or “love” also showed reduced stress levels and increased pain tolerance.

Chanting, or reciting mantras, is one form of meditation, but if you’re more of a visual person, it might work better to close your eyes and visualize something relaxing. Since she was 12, Gaywyn Moore, Wichita graduate student, has used visualizations to counter stress. When she has the racing thoughts and speeding pulse that accompany anxiety, she thinks of the number one. First she takes a deep breath and allows the frantic thoughts in, but as she exhales, she imagines drawing the number one with a pencil until her anxiety fades.

“When I breathe in, I can think whatever, but when I breathe out, I can only focus on the one thought,” Moore says.

No matter what method of meditation you use, one thing holds true: You have to practice. Zach Holden, Topeka senior, has practiced meditation for more than four years, and says regular meditation helped him handle the strain and frustration of studying for the GRE this fall. He tries to practice meditation when he wakes up, or at night if he’s clear-headed and not too tired.

Holden practices shamatha, or calm abiding meditation, which he says was taught by Buddha and is the simplest form of meditation. He says that it trains you to let go of emotional attachments.

“When you feel sad, you generate thoughts that perpetuate sadness,” Holden says.

If letting go of your emotions sounds as difficult as letting go of your computer, it might help to get someone to encourage you when you’re frustrated. Holden learned his skills fromYongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a Buddhist monk from Nepal who visits the University every two years. Holden even had the opportunity to live at Rinpoche’s monastery in Nepal and now uses the lessons he’s learned to teach others who are interested in meditation.

Holden says that the basic concept is to rest while staying mindfully alert. To start your first meditation session, remember three things. One, watch your back. No matter what position you decide to sit in, always keep your back straight. Good posture increases consciousness and minimizes awkwardness or discomfort.

Second, pick a sense. Holden says you should focus your attention on one of your senses. For instance, if you think you need to close your eyes to focus, try listening to all of the sounds around you without judging or reacting. If you’d rather keep your eyes open, then focus on an object in front of you and study it’s shape or texture. If everything fails to hold your attention, just watch your breathing.

Finally, don’t give up. Holden says meditation is like aerobic training, and you can’t expect to run a marathon in your first few attempts. When you’re starting off, aim for less than a minute of meditation, two to three times a day.

The most challenging part of meditation can be silencing your thoughts. In his book, The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness, Holden’s teacher, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, says that while some thoughts are easy to let go of when you’re meditating, others can distract you and lead to a chain of related thoughts. When this happens, don’t punish yourself or get frustrated, just bring your focus back to your breathing.

The more you’re able to set aside time to practice meditation, the more natural it will become, and eventually you’ll have the skills to handle stress without sweat or inebriation.