In response to last week’s “Rethinking Stress” article, a number of readers noted the relevancy of meditation to the insight. Meditation, of course, isn’t something that changes our outer circumstances. It’s an inside job, so to speak. It can change our processing of stress by shifting our relationship to ourselves and to our own cognitive responses and emotional patterns. The result? We over time come to view our own reactions and feelings from a more grounded distance. We learn to observe our emotions instead of letting them run the show. We learn, in essence, to talk ourselves down from our own trees.
Meditation can seem like such a lofty thing, but it doesn’t need to. Anyone can do it, and everyone can benefit. So today I’d like to explore meditation; the health benefits it confers, how it may fit into an ancestral framework, and how to get started. Let’s jump right in.
Fancy pillows and various techniques aside, the crux of meditation is this: being present. Fittingly enough, that’s pretty well in keeping with one of the 10 Habits of Highly Successful Hunter-Gatherers. The modern disconnect, I’ve said, is rampant distraction. This isn’t just about smart phones and media screens everywhere. It’s about what goes on in our own minds – all the mental blah, blah, blah that taxes our brains and frays our nerves. When you consider meditation as a spiritual practice in one regard or another, being present is meant to reclaim our own “spirit” – the self or deeper humanity that exists behind the barrage of biographical happenstance, cultural identifiers and ongoing story lines. It can be a real trip to peek behind that, let alone throw the curtain aside. What you feel is something so essential and simple you can feel like you’ve come home. The experience, you could say, is the ultimate slap in the face to Facebook cultivation and all the other individualistic stylization we participate in/attempt to dodge in modern daily life. Maybe that’s why it feels so comfortably Primal.
As with all things good and Primal, meditation isn’t just a good idea in theory. Research has demonstrated time and again that a regular meditation practice imparts striking changes to our physiological functioning and even our brain structure. Several studies have shown that meditation can lower blood pressure and reduce the activation of certain brain regions associated with worrying and anxiety. Likewise, meditation over time thickens the brain and increases the connectivity within the brain. Insular gyrification (the folding of the brain’s cortex), the researchers found, increased with added years of meditation practice. Associated with these structural changes are benefits like faster processing, better memory formation, and more integrated decision making.
Plus, there’s my personal favorite. Yes, all you epigenetic junkies out there, this one’s for you. A recent study examines the epigenetic profiles of those who received eight weeks of meditation instruction and practice. In less than two months, meditation was enough to upregulate several genes related to “energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion and telomere maintenance.” Likewise, genes related to inflammation and the body’s stress response were downregulated.
With all these great physical bonuses, our ancestors must have meditated, right? It would only make sense – by evolutionary logic – that an activity this rewarding played a role somewhere, no? While hunter-gatherer societies certainly experimented with altered states, there’s no real evidence that formal meditation as we see it today had any part in human cultural activities more than a few thousand years ago.
That said, let’s break it down further. When we get to the bones of it and examine meditation as a practice for staying present, we’re onto the real Primal trail. There’s the necessity of being in the moment for survival sake. More than that perhaps is the nondirective attention of meditation. In contrast to the focused ruminating and analyzing we often engage in (directed attention), the casual, detached observation inherent to the nondirective meditation experience, so to speak, is akin to the nondirective attention we experience when outdoors. Sure, we can bring our mental chatter to the most beautiful trail hike, but what does it feel like when we don’t? As Rachel and Stephen Kaplan theorized many years ago, the soft fascination we experience outdoors restores us. So, in a sense, does the “soft” observation we cultivate in meditation practice.
Okay, so maybe you’re convinced. But where’s the time? How do I make this happen without becoming deranged by the random itches and distractions that inevitably creep up whenever I sit down to “quiet” myself?
First off, let me say that I’m no guru. Let’s just say it doesn’t come naturally to me. But, influenced by my wife, I have picked up a few things over the years, and do have enough experience to feel comfortable offering up some advice.
To start, set a low threshold goal. Don’t expect to do an hour “sit” in at the beginning. Longer times yield deeper peace, sure. It’s not for everybody, however, and that goes double for beginners. Remember, small wins… Carve out as much time as you can – when you can. Even if it’s only ten minutes, make them ten solid minutes. Once you begin to feel the benefits, you’ll likely prioritize meditation in a new way and create more time for it. Think of it this way: meditation can allow you greater peace, concentration and sleep. This all means you can be more efficient. Just those gains alone will bestow upon you the extra time to invest in your practice. Kinda like exercise, no?
While you likely can’t make it to the local meditation center every day, consider trying a weekly group practice to develop the discipline. You’ll learn a great deal from the instruction and just absorb the good energy of a group sit. (Yup, there’s something there, however woo, woo it sounds. I wouldn’t label it anything mystical. Call it community.) Plus, it’s human nature to understand we’re more likely to stick with the sit if we’re in a group. No one wants to be the jerk who got up in the middle of the session or who makes a ton of noise scooting around. We’re on our best behavior with our fellow cavefolk. With time, that behavior sets in as the “normal” default come meditation time. From there, we can transfer the discipline to our home practice.
Use the power of habit to your advantage. After you’ve attended a a group setting for a while, when the teacher says, “Prepare to receive the bell,” you can begin to slip under in the same way Pavlov’s dog began salivating. You will associate the space, the cushion, the set up, the bell, the time of day and any other salient details with the meditative relaxation response. Create the same associations at home by trying to practice at the same time of day or in the same space for a while at least. Make a calming space in your home or yard. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy – no specialty catalog shopping required. That said, once you’ve gotten the hang of it, there’s no need to save meditation for home or your nearest Zen center. I know a bike courier who needs to hang around downtown all day and finds spots in local parks for some meditation time each afternoon.
As for technique, start simple. Sit up straight on a folded blanket or comfortable pillow. Use a chair if you prefer, or even lay on the floor if you think you can stay awake.
You’ve likely often heard to focus on the in and out breath. Do it. Don’t try to manipulate the breath or do it any special way other than breathe into the abdomen. Otherwise, just follow it. Do this alone for a few minutes to try and empty the mind. Notice thoughts come and go. If one starts to take hold, release it without self-judgment. Notice your body’s sensations. Feel where the tension is bound up. Release it progressively, using the breath as a center point and rhythm for the release if it’s helpful. The concept here is to let go of all you can – mentally and physically. With practice, you may not need to focus on the breath. You’ll be able to come back to that clear, silent awareness, but the breath can always recenter you. Again, group instruction or even a good CD recording that allows some instruction time with some silence can be helpful for many people.
Other techniques assume the ability to get beyond the restlessness of the moment and focus more on emotional distance and equanimity. If you’re up for it, bring an “intention” to a particular sit. You’re not there to pull anything apart cognitively. Just present the intention and let it go. The process is still about getting underneath the mental chatter, letting the scripts of our feelings fall away and sitting with the “raw energy,” as Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron (among others) explains. With time we can learn to more casually observe the emotional energy and how it feels in our bodies.
Meditation, when we give ourselves time to explore it, can be a progressive means to getting out of our modern hyper-rational minds and letting something deeper, more instinctually and solidly Primal fill the space. In meditation, we let ourselves dwell there for a short time, but the experience can dramatically change what we bring back to daily living.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Hands – meditators? What’s been your experience with meditation, and how do you see it in relation to your Primal living?