Staying Centered in Stressful Times: How Meditation Can Help

Jeanne Ball
From the Huffington Post
by Asheville TM teacher Jeanne Ball
Opening The Huffington Post to scenes of political confrontation, revolution, earthquakes and meltdowns, I watch with awe and compassion as our planet heaves and reels with transformation -- masses of people demanding reform, while others stagger from the terrifying impact of natural disaster.
Whether it's one's own world crashing down or others' lives falling apart, one feels vulnerable. Can strengthening our connection to the calm, unchanging depths of our being through meditation bring steadiness and resilience in the face of change?
As a meditation teacher, I find that people are often drawn to turning inward during periods of personal crisis, seeking to anchor themselves. It's not uncommon for someone to come and learn meditation after receiving a devastating medical diagnosis, while going through a divorce, after losing their job or when just feeling overwhelmed by life. Rather than numbing fears and anxieties with alcohol, drugs or something from outside themselves, it's encouraging that more and more people feel confident that the mind is powerful enough to provide strength and stability from within.

What Happens During Meditation
Our attention is usually absorbed in outer demands -- pressures from work, family responsibilities and issues with friends. Meditation can reverse that outer directedness and allow attention to turn inward, not just onto more incessant thinking, but to quieter, subtler, more powerful levels of thought, until the faintest impulse of thought is left behind and the mind is wide awake to itself, not thinking anything, just pure Being.
This is called transcending -- the experience of human consciousness in its state of pure potentiality.
There are many venerable forms of meditation, with their own goals, methods, and benefits. As many of my readers know, I happen to teach the Transcendental Meditation technique, which is specifically designed for transcending. This inward settling of the mind happens effortlessly during TM practice because the technique allows the mind to be naturally drawn to levels of increasing charm within -- levels of greater peace, energy and intelligence that reside deep within everyone.

A Preparation For Action
This experience of inner wakefulness resets our natural ground state and better prepares us for whatever comes our way. In a recent meditation class, I had a worried mother who complained of insomnia, a businessman with debilitating anxiety and a student struggling with ADHD. Yet even new meditators as these, whose lives were fraught with stress, could sit, close their eyes and transcend to find comfort in their own inner silence -- not escaping, but going to a deeper level where pressures of work, unpaid bills and exams don't intrude. Balance and clarity is regained. Within a few days of learning to transcend, the common experience is that worries are less, and one's eyes are open a little bit more. With a fresh mind and calm spirit, ideas and insights come easily, and life's challenges are more manageable.

How The Body Benefits
Stress is the enemy of good health, and the deep rest of the transcendent obliterates stress. Medical researchers have found that TM practice consistently brings down high blood pressure in hypertensive patients.1 A clinical trial funded by the NIH found a 50 percent reduction in heart attack and stroke among elderly at-risk patients who learned the TM technqiue.2
A distinct style of brain functioning is associated with transcending. Research shows that a state of heightened EEG coherence is produced during TM practice, which overtime improves brain performance and changes how our brain deals with stress.3 Other studies on TM show faster recovery from sleep deprivation and a healthier response of the nervous system to stressful stimuli.4
By researching bodily changes during meditation, scientists are identifying the physiology of deep transcendence, as distinct from other mind/body states. A more restful heart rate, slower metabolism, increased skin resistance, stillness of breath, greater reduction of blood lactate and cortisol and widespread alpha coherence all indicate a neurophysiological state not seen during sleep or ordinary eyes-closed relaxation, and also very different from meditation practices like contemplation, concentration or watching your thoughts.5
The deeper we go in meditation, the greater is the rest to the body and the more we harness our inner resources.

Meditation In Times Of Tragedy
A trusty meditation technique may be our best tool for remaining cool, calm and collected in the face of change, disappointment or catastrophe. A student in last week's class said she came to learn meditation because after recently losing her father, she was impressed with how her brother, a long-time meditator, had handled their dad's passing.
Meditation cultivates self-reliance. It allows us to fall back onto our self to access that most wise, timeless, unbounded field of human awareness that remains hidden or unavailable to us if we neglect it or never go there.
We need to help others in times of tragedy, with food, supplies, medicine -- everything. But we can only help others if we have the wherewithal and can react supportively, exercising our highest powers of judgment and acting from the better angels of our nature. As science has confirmed, transcending develops the brain's executive functions, quickens reaction time and improves moral reasoning -- exactly what's needed in a crisis.
In times of tragedy or when people are struggling to survive, meditation is not a luxury. Transcending attunes you to the deep, underlying evolutionary force that not only strengthens the human survival mechanism, but creates the presence of heart and mind to more gracefully endure hard times and turn them into something better.

Scientific references:
1. Hypertension. 26: 820-827, 1995.
2. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2006; 166 (June 12): 1218-1224; Circulation. 2009; 120: S461.
3. Consciousness and Cognition. 8, 302-318, 1999; International Journal of Neuroscience. 14: 147-151, 1981; Cognitive Processing. 2010 11(1): 21-30.
4. International Journal of Neuroscience. 1981 15(3): 151-157; Psychosomatic Medicine. 1973 35(4): 341-349; American Psychologist. [42] 879-81, 1987.
5. Dreaming. 1994 4(2): 91-104; Biological Psychology. 2002 61(3): 293-319; American Journal of Physiology. 1971 221:795-799; Physiology and Behavior. 1987 41(4):347-352; Progress in Brain Research. 1980 54:447-453; Cognitive Processing. 2010 11(1):21-30.

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