People with health problems in our culture have often been conditioned to want a drug or a surgical procedure that instantly and magically relieves the symptoms. (Never mind that new symptoms appear as a result.) But as more and more people find conventional care to be lacking something, they are increasingly turning to alternative medicine in various forms, with varying success.
The hardest thing for people to understand and accept is that the body-mind has a built-in wisdom for healing itself. Instead of the approach of attacking an enemy — which is the Western medical model — the guiding principle is strengthen the normal. (The Chinese term translates “tonify the righteous Qi.”) When the normal Qi is weakened, and the person is not in harmony, disease processes can manifest.
Another barrier to understanding is that we are conditioned to believe the solution to a problem is doing something. We are always doing, pushing, striving, making an effort. But finding harmony, and the healthy ability to adapt to change, sometimes depends more on what we don’t do. It turns out that one of the best ways of dealing with the effects of stress is to sit still, shut up, and do nothing. This is meditation, the kind that stills the mind and calms the spirit. Meditation without an object will engage the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms everything, slows the heart rate, deepens respiration, and benefits digestion. It is the antidote to the fight-or-flight response, our continual push to action, when a lack of true energy is made up for by our adrenal hormones. We have to learn how to truly relax.
One of the easiest ways to begin is to meditate on the breath.
- Find pleasant surroundings that are not too distracting.
- Many people find it helpful to do some yoga stretches before meditation, or to walk for a while before sitting.
- Sit comfortably and sit up straight. You can sit in a firm chair, or on the floor or ground, with a cushion or folded blanket. Do not sit in soft furniture, which isn’t conducive to good posture. Sit right on your sit bones with a firm seat.
- Feel as though a string is attached to the top of your head, lifting you up and lengthening your spine.
- Tuck your chin slightly, and half-close your eyes.
- Simply “watch” your breath. You can be aware of the movement in the belly, or you can feel the sensation at the rims of the nostrils. Watching the belly has the advantage of getting you out of your head, and into your body.
- Thoughts will come and go. Do not attach to them, and do not push them away. Suzuki-roshi gave a lovely image: your thoughts are “like clouds in a boundless sky.” Clouds come, clouds go, but the sky remains.
- When you catch yourself not watching the breath, gently come back.
- Begin with just five or ten minutes each day, and gradually lengthen your meditation time. Set a goal and sit that long. One traditional way of timing your meditation is to burn a certain length of incense stick. When it finishes burning, you are done.
- At first you will experience great effort to sit straight and watch the breath. If you continue in your practice, you will learn how to “do nothing.”
© 2016 Kim Bonsteel