It’s been nearly 20 years since I first meditated. It was at a Jain ashram in India, and we were in a large room sitting cross-legged on a cold, hard floor. I remember feeling uncomfortable as my back began to hurt due to lack of any support behind it. More glaringly, I remember how my legs went numb as they fell asleep and then the tingly feeling turned into sharp, shooting pains. That was also the last time I meditated.
Yesterday, I attended a session at Stanford titled “Mindfulness Meditation” – one of the many free programs Stanford’s Cancer Supportive Care Program offers current and former cancer patients. I had envisioned a studio-like dynamic where we’re all sitting cross-legged on the floor facing forward with a teacher guiding us from the front of the room. Instead, there were eight of us sitting around a conference room table staring at each other. Unsurprisingly, I was the youngest person in the room. The facilitator asked us to go around the table and share what brought us to that class. My immediate thought was “because I like free stuff,” but I figured that might be an inappropriate response. I had to think on my feet, but as I started talking, I realized I had more reasons than I even realized. I shared how I was diagnosed after Mira’s birth, how after chemo and two mastectomies, I’m now focusing on surgery recovery and undergoing the reconstructive process, and most importantly, how with two young kids and a full-time job, my “normal life” going forward will be pretty busy. I not only needed to learn how to calm my body into a meditative state, but I needed a forcing function to make me do it.
I did learn a few things during the session. The first was how our body is like the ocean – there might be a lot going on on the surface, ranging from gentle waves to a vicious storm, but how deep down below, the water is very calm. Similarly, we each have that “calmness” deep within ourselves, but it can take effort to tap into it. This is where the “mindfulness” in “mindfulness meditation” comes in. It’s all about being mindful, cognizant, focused on that inner calmness. This can manifest itself by closing our eyes and focusing on our breathing, counting each breath or labeling them in our mind as “in” and “out”, as well as focusing on how our body feels as we feel the air fill our lungs, causing our stomach to expand and then slowly deflate. Alternatively, mindfulness meditation can involve doing a mental body scan where we focus our mind to think about each part of our body from the toes up to our head as if we were a researcher analyzing each part. I have pink nail polish on my toes…I can feel goosebumps covering my arms…etc. Coincidentally, my dad sent me an article a few weeks ago titled “Harvard Unveils MRI Study Proving Meditation Literally Rebuilds The Brain’s Gray Matter in 8 Weeks.” The article states that “The participants spent an average of 27 minutes per day practicing mindfulness exercises, and this is all it took to stimulate a major increase in gray matter density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection…Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.” Meditation practitioners have been touting the benefits of meditation for thousands of years, but you really know it’s legit when Harvard says so.
The second topic we discussed in the class was the healing benefit of meditation. Apparently, there is a strong tie between our breathing rate and our heart rate, and a lower heart rate is calming to the body. So not only do we feel more relaxed, but since stress attacks the immune system, meditation helps our body heal faster by reducing stress and boosting the immune system. I liked how the teacher distinguished between “pain” and the “experience of pain.” We all have pain that we can’t control, but we can control our experience of that pain. Our mind magnifies the feeling of pain, drawing our attention towards it, making it easy to forget that much more of our body is pleasant (or at least neutral) than is in pain. Conducting mindfulness exercises that focus our attention towards those neutral areas and away from the pain can actually alleviate our body’s experience of that pain. After the first meditation exercise we did in the class, one patient said she “forgot about” (i.e., did not experience) her post-surgery shooting pains as her mind was so focused on the exercise.
There is one particular challenge that I, and most (if not all) others in the room, struggled with: staying focused. It’s easy to get mentally distracted and have your mind wander. What I learned here, however, is that meditation is not about trying to control your thoughts or stop yourself from having thoughts. Not only is it nearly impossible to wipe your mind clean of thoughts, but thoughts are actually indicative of a healthy mind. So, we don’t need to control them, we just need to recognize that we had them and then come back to focusing on our breathing or body scan or whatever it may be. Your mind is like a toddler – you can’t control it from wandering here and there, all you can do is try to guide it back to what you want it to be doing.
I believe there are benefits to meditation and I don’t want another ~20 years to go by before I do it again. It’s not, however, realistic of me to go down to Stanford whenever I need to meditate, as driving home in rush hour after the class offset any potential benefit the meditation class had had. Instead, I’ve downloaded a smartphone app called Headspace (“a gym membership for the mind”) that includes a variety of 2min to 1hr guided and non-guided meditation programs. It includes a free 10-day program that teaches the basics of meditation in 10 minutes per day – yea free things! Perhaps a smartphone app isn’t what the good folks at the Jain ashram would recommend, but I’m happy to embrace this 21st century approach to learning how to meditate. Cheers to reduced stress, expedited healing, and rebuilding the brain’s gray matter.