Change Your Life Style: Reduce Your Stress

Who among us doesn't experience stress from time to time? Papers stack up on your desk. Projects are awaiting your attention and deadlines keep coming at you. You feel overwhelmed. You've already had several cups of coffee, but now that doesn't seem to help. You just feel nervous and jittery. You can feel aches and pain in your body. You missed lunch yesterday and the night before you didn't sleep well. You're exhausted. There's no gas left in the tank. And you know when you get home, you're not going to have any energy for anything or anyone. Sound familiar? If it does, you might want to consider carving out some time in your day to take care of yourself and practice some simple mindfulness meditation. "How am I supposed to do that?" you say, "when there is so much to be done!" It doesn't seem possible. "I'm too nervous to sit still and my monkey mind is driving me nuts!"

So even though you've heard that meditation can help you, it doesn't seem possible. How are you going to slow down and actually do it? Getting started is not easy. So let's look at a few things mindfulness can do to address your stress, and then let's take a frank look at what it may take to actually make it a part of your life.

  • Learn to Relax. Rumination and negative self talk are very common in depression and anxiety disorders. Mindfulness practice can help reduce this harsh self-talk by helping you be more aware of it, and then gently letting it go by returning your attention to your breath. You find that this simple body-based awareness allows you to relax because your mind is not so actively occupied in constant evaluations and judgments. It's surprising that when you relax the mind in this way, you also relax the body and many of the aches and pains that come with being so wound up and constricted begin to ease and dissipate.
  • Learn to balance emotions. Mindfulness affects specific areas in the brain that help you regulate extreme emotions. When you are given to extreme emotional swings you become more reactive. Your perceptions become clouded by your moods, and you are likely to say and do things that upset people around you causing further stress. Mindfulness can help you balance your emotions and hold them with more softness and spaciousness. This helps you become more responsive to yourself and others, and contributes to a significant reduction in your stress.
  • Learn to Sleep Well. It's surprising how common it is for people to not get a good night's sleep, and how important this is in contributing to significant levels of stress and anxiety. When we do not sleep well, we feel exhausted and depleted the next day. Mindfulness meditation contributes to helping you sleep better and more soundly. Following an 8 week MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) program, cancer patients reported reductions in sleep disturbance and increased sleep quality.

Can you see how these areas of relaxation, mental balance and sleep quality might help you address some of the stress in your life? If you are in agreement with me, at this point, you need to find a way to bring this kind of practice into your life. And there's the rub. You need to take a frank look at your life style and make some changes.

We live in a culture that is accustomed to quick fixes and pharmaceutical magic pills. These are fine if you want to apply a band aid, but if you want to address the root causes of your suffering, you're going to need to take a hard look at how you are living your life, and you're going to need to make some changes.

If your present life style doesn't include taking time for a relaxing lunch break, then you need to change that. If your present life style doesn't include getting a good nights sleep, then you need to change your life style. If your present life style doesn't include the possibility of being still in meditation on a regular basis,  you need to change that too. Changing your life style is not easy. We are all creatures of habit. We are surprising stubborn and resistant to changing our ways, even when we know they are contributing to our current stress and anxiety.

At the Zen Life & Meditation Center of Chicago, you'll find a step-by-step core curriculum, designed to teach you how to practice mindfulness and how to make it a part of your daily life. You'll find a teaching of practices and principles that you can apply that will help you gradually change your life style. You'll learn how to live a Zen-inspired life style that takes time to be with yourself in a way that is restorative, relaxing and surprisingly satisfying on more levels than you can imagine.

I know this is not easy. That's why we have created this entry-level curriculum to take you step-by-step in gradually learning and mastering the practice of mindfulness meditation. Many who have already taken our course report remarkable changes in their levels of stress and anxiety. If they can do it, so can you!

Robert Althouse

10 Tips for Meditating at Home

Given the current political and economic climate in our country, some are again turning to meditation as a way to address increased  stress and uncertainty. You too can harvest these benefits for yourself, but there's only one catch. You have to do it. And you need to keep on doing it. If you've already tried to meditate, then you know that it's not necessarily so easy to do. Somehow, in your busy life, you never get around to finding the time. Not so long ago, someone came to learn to meditate because her mind was so busy it was driving her crazy. When I met her on that first day, she couldn't stop talking, and I could see that she was really suffering. She came to our Primer Series of four classes where we teach people how to do mindfulness meditation. She took up the regular practice of meditation and I have noticed a significant change in her. She is now more at home with herself and calmer. And for those of us around her, it's a joy to see her, because her  innate sense of humor and spunkiness has returned.

I've seen hundreds of people make serious transformations in their lives from practicing meditation, so I'd like to give you 10 tips to help you establish a meditation practice on your own. I hope you will find these helpful, and I do hope you will give meditation a chance because it's not necessarily a quick fix, so it may take some time before you begin to experience the benefits of this practice.

1. Set Aside a Meditation Space in Your Home If you have an extra room in your house or a corner in a room, try to set this aside as the space where you go to meditate. Keep it clean and orderly. As you continue to meditate some natural order and clarity will begin to arise and this will gently spread out from where you meditate and begin to organize the rest of your living space.

2. Use the Power of Ritual Ritual has the unconscious power to create a context that can encourage you to meditate. Ritual doesn't have to be religious. It can be very simple things, like burning a candle or incense. When you smell the incense, you body knows its time to meditate. If you are religious, you might use symbols of your faith to remind you of important teachings. You might want to create an altar in your meditation space. Again, there is no one way to do this. Make it something that resonates with you. Something beautiful from nature, a rock or a flower arrangement – perhaps a photo of a spiritual person who inspires you could be on the altar. Ritual can help put you in the mood, and give you permission to carve out the space and time for doing meditation practice regularly.

3. Unplug all the Gadgets I know this one might be difficult, but please give your self a moment of peace and quiet, free from your cell phone. Turn it off. If you have to answer the phone when it rings – unplug it. Turn of the TV and the radio. And by all means, turn off your computer.

4. Avoid other Interruptions If you have other family members or roommate in your home or apartment, explain to them that meditation is not so easy to do, and you need some uninterrupted time to do this practice. If they still don't understand why this is so important to you, explain to them, that they'll find you a more agreeable human being to be around after you've meditated. If you have kids, you may need to carve out times to meditate when your kids are asleep or not around.

5. Creating Structure can Help you Meditate Like ritual, structure can help you create a context that is more conducive to meditation. Many people find that having a regular meditation schedule is helpful. Since we are creatures of habit, you are creating a new, constructive habit in your life, and as you begin to do it regularly, it will get easier and eventually, you'll do it without thinking about it too much. This tends to be a more effective approach than just doing the meditation when you feel like it. This approach assures that you will get the meditation practice done. You don't have to like it. You just have to get it done.

6. Set a Fixed Time for Your Meditation Figure out what is a period of time you can sit still comfortably before you start getting restless. If it's 10 minutes, then commit to that time. Get a clock and make sure that you sit 10 minutes – not 4 or 8 or even 9, but 10 minutes. Resist the temptation to jump up because you are suddenly feeling restless or anxious about something. Sit through until the time is up. If you do this regularly, you are training yourself to approach difficulties with more confidence and resiliency.

7. Don't Create a Standard Any meditation you do is good. It doesn't matter what judgement you have about it. So don't compare what you are doing today with something that you did at some other time. Maybe the meditation you did last week seemed really great. Let it go. Don't use that to make a comparison to what your meditation is like today. Don't use that to create a standard by which you will now measure every meditation you do in the future.

8. Don't be Too Ambitious or Idealistic Don't try to do too much. If you try to meditate too long, and you're not ready for it, you'll simply get discouraged and quit. Be kind and gentle with yourself. Meditation takes time and patience. Don't be in too big a hurry to get some kind of  results.

9. Meditate Early or Late in the Day Of course, you can meditate anytime you want, but many people find it easier to meditate early in the morning before their busy day is upon them. Often people also find that sitting meditation at the end of the day, when their busy work schedule is behind them is easier. Since meditation is not so easy to do, it helps to pick times of the day, when it's easier to give yourself permission to be still in this way.

10. Respect the Limitations of Your Body It's important to respect your body. Sitting cross legged on the floor is a good posture for meditation because it supports your back, but if you are not limber, it may be difficult to do. You can sit in a chair too. The most important thing is to be upright. There is no one way to do meditation that is right. So approach this practice realistically, acknowledging your own physical limitations. If you really want to sit cross legged, that is probably a good thing, but you may need to work up to that gradually, through stretching, or doing some yoga practice.

I hope you will find some of these suggestions helpful. Please write and comment on this blog and let me know how your meditation practice is going. What tips have you found that are helpful for you that might help others?

Robert Althouse