One of the dictionary definitions of stress is “a force that deforms a body.” Anyone with atrial fibrillation understands how stress deforms a body. Over the long run, stress accumulates, whether by littles (like a taxing commute) or by lots (losing a job, getting a divorce). As we age, we are less and less able to combat its effects, until something bad happens, like afib.
To reduce the cumulative effects of stress, we have to chip away at it every day. A vacation once a year with a few holidays sprinkled in between doesn’t do the job. I have found meditation to be an effective antidote to chronic stress.
Over the 15 years I have taught meditation, I have found that many people give up on meditation because they find it impossible to empty their minds of thought.
Emptying Your Mind
Often meditation instruction includes the direction to “empty your mind of thoughts.” Most people find this a difficult thing to achieve. How do you NOT think? Right now, don’t think about a lemon. Don’t think about the yellow color or how it makes your mouth water. Our minds think, that’s what they do. Trying to stop our thoughts just puts us in a wrestling match with our minds that we can’t win.
There is a way around that fight. I call it “thought watching.” With thought-watching meditation you don’t get into that wrestling match. Or when you do you have a way out. An easy way to watch your thoughts is to think of your mind as a river, sometimes raging, like when you’re mad; sometimes barely a trickle, like when you’re in nature. But it’s always moving.
Now pull yourself to the banks of that river. From that perspective, imagine your thoughts as leaves on this stream of consciousness. Label each thought as it appears with the emotion that it carries, and then let it go. Another thought will come; label that one and let it go. If the thought doesn’t carry an emotion, label it as a thought about the past or the future, or maybe it is a to-do list thought, whatever it is, label it and let it go. This allows you to put some distance between you and sources of stress.
Eventually a thought will come along with enough emotional content to absorb your attention and pull you into the river. If you notice that has happened, take a deep breath, label the thought and let it go. If you don’t notice that your attention has been absorbed by your thought-feelings – and most people don’t – you will spend that time lost in thought, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you can’t meditate, only that you lack practice. That’s the way it is when you try something new. Over time, with practice, you get better at detaching from those thoughts, and that reduces the stress that you feel.
The Pertinent Question
Meditation is great, but it is the practice of meditation that reduces stress and makes your life better. The secret to stress reduction using meditation is making it a habit.
Meditating every day seems like a big commitment, and people often object that they don’t have the discipline. If you brush your teeth every day, you have the discipline to meditate every day. Here’s why the daily-ness is so important – practice isn’t optional; you’re always practicing something. If you aren’t practicing getting relaxed, then by default you’re practicing getting stressed. And since we all know practice makes perfect, the pertinent question is where are you going to be when you perfect stress?
As an afib patient, you may already know the answer to that question. Tens of millions of Americans end up with high blood pressure or CVD or diabetes because they are perfecting stress every day.
Between us, my wife and I have meditated every day for more than 55 years. We have not done that because we are deeply disciplined – one look at either of our offices proves that. We have done it because we made it easy, and that is what we tell the people who take our classes – make it easy and make it your own. There are plenty of websites and gurus and organizations who are willing to tell you how to meditate. We’ve done our share of those, but they didn’t work for us. Here’s what worked: Sit still, do nothing.
How to Do Nothing
Doing nothing doesn’t come easily or naturally to most people because our to-do lists are so long. Here’s an easy technique for accomplishing it:
- Sit comfortably –Unless you are accustomed to sitting on the floor, don’t sit on the floor. A comfortable chair is perfect. We use recliners on our couch in our living room. You want to sit so you can expand your belly and breathe deeply.
- Close your eyes. Take several deep breaths, but then release that and breathe normally.
- In your mind’s eye, imagine the stream of consciousness and pull yourself to its banks and label the first thought that appears and let it go. Another thought will appear, label it and let it go.
- Do that until your heart rate moderates a little, at least five minutes. If you find it relaxing, do it longer.
- Come back tomorrow and do it again.
It may help if you set a timer so you won’t be constantly looking at your watch.
This is a simple technique, but practiced daily, it will produce a relaxed state. At first you will have to set aside the time, but after a few weeks, you will look forward to this time.
If you’re thinking you don’t have the time for this self-care, I would like to offer this reframe: My wife and I sit for 20 minutes a day, which is less than 2 percent of our waking hours. Surely you deserve 2 percent of your waking hours just for your own mental hygiene. Only you can do self-care for you.