Eastern Help for Western Stress, Part I

You're fired!

Losing your job, having your spouse divorce you (or boyfriend or girlfriend break up with you), experiencing the death of a loved one, being filled with anger, or just feeling endlessly bored are types of serious types problems we all face from time-to-time.

Some people aspire to a calm life without any problems.  But such a life does not exist.  We are each in our own little boat, headed in a direction, and must navigate daily waves and storms.  Our job is to be able to move through these waves and storms, which are sometimes ripples, and are sometimes tsunamis washing away everything.

In the past, when such overwhelming experiences have happened to me, I found myself constantly ruminating on them, sometimes to the point where I could not work for many months.   But not being able to work did not help my problems;  if anything, it only made the problem worse, and gave me even more time to ruminate.  In other words, it kept me from moving ahead with my life for far too long.  If I had had the tool of meditation available in those times, it would have helped me greatly.

One common problem, especially younger people (and many older people, too), is the problem of constant boredom.  Our minds flit from one thing to another, and these days, we often use technology as  a solution to boredom.

But what if we are in a situation where we have no access to technology, or are stuck in a very boring and uncomfortable situation for many minutes, hours, or even days?  Meditation practice (not a religious practice), used as a tool, can enable one to just “switch off” boredom, and become fully present in that moment.

What is meditation, exactly, and how can it help?

While there are many traditions and ways of meditating, what they all have in common is that these methods are TOOLS used to turn off the left brain.

Over the years, I read several books on meditation.  Yet, whenever I tried it, I could never seem to concentrate or do the exercises; they seemed silly, boring, and pointless.

How can sitting and focusing on watching one’s breath, in and out, or chanting a mantra, ever be helpful?  For many years, I never got past this basic question (which I’m sure is one many others have, and with which I hope this article will help others).

There are several types of meditation practice. One type involves watching one’s breath. Another type involves chanting a mantra. Yet another type involves a special type of walking while counting steps, and paying attention to breathing. What these things have in common is that they are TOOLS; they are not the end in and of itself. Each of these tools bring the same result; they are a way to FOCUS THE MIND calmly on JUST ONE THING.

The main principle here is that your thoughts, your emotions, and your mind are not YOU.  The mind is a possession which  produces thoughts and emotions; it is something which needs to be trained and disciplined in order to restore tranquility to your soul.

Why? When the mind is not trained and disciplined we are at the mercy of our thoughts and emotions. The benefits to be derived from training our mind involve becoming much more present in our daily lives, doing away completely with the problem of boredom, and not being whipsawed around by our emotions, no matter what storms or big waves which  life may throw our way. We remain calm, focused and present.  This helps everyone.

Finally, I have had some success with meditating, although I am still a neophyte.  Reading a different book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Zen Living, which is written for Western readers with real lives, I was finally able to persevere using some of their suggestions, and obtain sudden breakthrough.  (What I liked about this book was that most books only talk about one type of meditation practice, and never get to the part about how it helps you; this book talks about different types of meditation practice from different world traditions, explains which parts are optional or can be adjusted to your needs, and discusses how meditation practice actually helps you.)

What it Feels Like When the Left Brain Switches Off

What does this right-brain breakthrough feel like? It is a very particular feeling. I would like to use the description I had of an experience of learning to draw to describe this feeling.

Unitl the age of 25, I did not know how to draw and was still drawing stick-figures.  Then I had a chance to take a six-session adult-education drawing class from a master art instructor.  We used the text, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards (which I highly recommend).

At the first session, the instructor had us look at a chair and draw our best representation of it.  Next, we had to look at our hand and do the same thing. We also had to look in a mirror and draw our best self-portrait. Last, we were given a photocopy of a difficult drawing by a famous artist, and told to copy it to the best of our ability.  We dated these drawings.

At the second session, the instructor explained the 90-10 system of drawing (looking at an object 90% of the time while moving the pencil, and only looking at the paper 10% of the time while moving the pencil). She also taught us the technique of using a pencil at arm’s length to measure sizes and approximate angles.

Demonstrating the “arm’s length” drawing technique for measurement.

This time, with music playing, we were asked to again draw the chair, using the 90-10 system.  We were then asked to turn the famous drawing UPSIDE-DOWN and copy it to the best of our ability, again using the 90-10 system.  Upside down? We were in shock.  But the results were AMAZING.

The third session, the instructor gave us a very difficult pencil portrait of a woman with loose, flowing hair in great detail.  We all thought this would be impossible for us to draw.  Again, she told us to turn the portrait upside-down and work while she played music.  The results were stupendous; they looked as if we had been studying art for years!

This feeling we got while drawing upside-down to music was a feeling of being “in-the-zone,” where everything was working perfectly and smoothly.  We all lost track of time, and were surprised to find that two hours had passed.  Our teacher explained that this trick of drawing upside-down confuses the left brain and TURNS IT OFF.

Why Turning Off the Left Brain Is Useful in Times of Stress

Meditation techniques teach you to TURN THE LEFT BRAIN OFF, especially in times of stress.  When we are bored, emotionally upset, or ruminating on a problem,we are using our left brain.  Meditation turns off your logical left brain, and turns on your creative right brain. How does it do this?

As a new practitioner of mediation, the hardest thing is to get past the one or two-minute mark.  However, once you manage to get up to three minutes without breaking your concentration, it suddenly becomes much easier, as you shift into the right-brain state.   It becomes MUCH easier and faster in subsequent sessions to turn off the left brain at will.

So, how much time does it take daily before one can experience the benefits of meditation practice?  Personally, I started experiencing the benefits once I was able to get to five minutes a day.

Benefits start once you reach five continuous minutes a day.

Having the first three-minute breakthrough makes it much easier, in exactly the same way that learning a foreign language is most difficult at first.  Once you have a basic level of vocabulary, it becomes much easier.

Meditation practice has nothing to do with religion (although some religions do use meditative practices).  It is simply a tool for training and calming the mind.

–Lynne Diligent

Part II:  Practical Help for Meditation Success

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7 Responses to “Eastern Help for Western Stress, Part I”

  1. Abdelmjid Seghir Says:

    Very inspiring and useful, as usual.
    If there is anyone in the world who needs this, it’s me.
    I can get too stressed that sometimes my legs feel very numb and week, or even get at the verge of hallucination!
    I’ve tried meditation but it never worked for me. Why? Because whenever I sit and relax and close my eyes, I get too conscious. That is; I start thinking that I’m doing that because “I’M NOT OK”, and that I’m sick to the point that medicine and western science is not capable of healing me. A lot of these negative thoughts invade my mind and scare the hell out of me! So, instead of feeling relieved, poorly practised meditation makes my situation worse and worse!!
    I hope you understand my situation and can suggest some solutions, I’d be really thankful!
    Great article, Lynne!

    • Lynne Diligent Says:

      Abdelmjid, these thoughts you are having are exactly the kinds of thoughts that meditation is designed to relieve and control. But it is not the MEDITATION which does it. It is the state-of-mind achieved through regular practice of meditation which enables one to stop focusing on those kinds of thoughts. Rather than going into detail here, I will write a follow-up post addressing these questions of yours in more detail. Thanks so much for sharing them, they make a perfect example. -Lynne

  2. Judy Says:

    I found Tai Chi a similar useful tool for achieving the same thing. It’s often called a ‘moving meditation’ for that reason. Like you, I’m no good at simply sitting still and trying to do it on my own. Have you seen Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk about her experience when a stroke turned off her left brain? I just loved this quote from her “I realized, ‘Oh my gosh! I’m having a stroke! I’m having a stroke!’ The next thing my brain says to me is, ‘Wow! This is so cool! How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain from the inside out?’”

  3. Judy Says:

    Oops I see my hyperlink didn’t work … here’s the link to the video of the TED talk http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html

    • Lynne Diligent Says:

      Judy, I saw this talk when it came out and thought it was great. But it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it and I forgot about it. I will watch it again, and thanks so much for sharing it with my readers!

  4. expatlogue Says:

    Hi Lynne, I’ve been meaning to leave a comment on this for a while. This post is highly relevant to me at the moment as I’m taking part in a research study that uses mindfulness in depression relapse prevention, and documenting my progress on my blog. I knew as soon as I began the study, that it would be of great benefit to my writing, indeed anything creative, as you mentioned about the drawing. (I want to get that book).
    I’m finding the whole left-brain/right-brain thing fascinating and have begun free-writing after meditating in the mornings, scribbling down whatever comes to mind.
    Thanks for giving a clear and concise explanation of meditation and for reminding me of how I used to feel when I drew as a youngster. I was definitely riding the alpha-waves!
    Now I’m off to check out that TED talk that Judy mentioned…

  5. family counseling Says:

    These are great pieces of information on how to deal with stress. Since there are a lot of people who are struggling with such, this article is indeed very helpful. Thanks for sharing.

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