person meditating as a tool for survival

Meditation is a Superpower

Meditation is part of our survival instincts. Meditation is a kind of superpower that nature installed in our bodies. It lets us recover from stress very quickly by relaxing, resting up, and recharging. The actual practices of meditation are totally simple. They basically involve, noticing that you are alive and being grateful for another moment of life. This is an impulse of love and feels like giving in to the deep yearning to let your love flow. You can begin to activate your meditation response just by taking a breath and letting it out slowly. This signals your body to enter a state of relaxation combined with alertness. Meditation is very handy for adapting to challenging situations.

In a physiology lab, meditation looks like the mirror opposite of the stress response. If you measure factors such as metabolic function, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and muscle tension, stress sends them up and meditation lets them settle down. It makes sense that Nature or the Goddess would give us a “Mantra and chill” response, just bring your own playlist. Of course, Nature, in her genius, would send us forth into this world with a built-in healing and recovery capacity, a magic power we can access whenever we need. If we think a soothing thought, whatever OM is for us, the body mobilizes in the opposite direction than it does in stress. The whole system starts to create relaxation and restfulness.

Selecting the Pathways to Practice

Meditation works better if you select the pathways you love, and there are tens of thousands of different styles to select from. Buddha said in a sermon, “Monks, I have given you 84,000 different dharma doors for all the kinds of people there are.” The hint here is that we all need to customize the techniques so that they fit us superbly and act like a healing session that balances our constitution, our hormones, all of the ways our energy is flowing.

It is like there is a red button and a blue button. If we push the Red button by thinking a scary thought or perceiving something that we interpret as scary, our body mobilizes to deal with the emergency. Our heart starts to race a little, adrenaline and other stress hormones are released into the bloodstream, our digestion slows down, muscles tense up, and all the systems of the body are affected (the cardiovascular, respiratory, endocrine, gastrointestinal, muscular, and reproductive systems). If you push the Blue button by thinking a soothing thought or attending to your senses in a calming way, your body immediately begins to relax.

One remarkable finding from decades of research at Harvard Medical School and other research centers is that when a person meditates in an effortless way, the body enters a state of rest deeper than sleep in about three to five minutes. This profound restfulness is a spontaneous side effect of hanging out with a beautiful thought of your choice. I have spent the last 52 years having an hour or two of this deeply restorative rest every day, and let me tell you, it’s powerful. Knowing that you can just sit down and invoke this kind of a healing state for yourself changes everything. Rest, including sleep, is a way of allowing the body to get busy healing itself. This is why we need to sleep for hours and hours every day. Meditation is similar to sleep, except that we are awake inside.

Over the years, scientists have studied lots of meditators and found that a daily practice has many benefits. All of these benefits are just incidental side effects of experiencing more relaxation and alertness. The theory is simple: Stress makes everything worse. More precisely, when a person is exposed to chronic stress, they may experience wear and tear on any or all of their body systems. When someone meditates every day, they are giving their body and mind a chance to reboot and reset. The deep relaxation and safety of meditation are a place where the nervous system can work out the kinks.

Benefits of Meditation Include:

  • Improved Ability to Focus
  • Increased Creativity
  • Deeper Level of Relaxation
  • Improved Perception and Memory
  • Development of Intelligence
  • Natural Change in Breathing
  • Decrease in Stress Hormones
  • Lower Blood Pressure
  • Reversal of Aging Process
  • Reduced Need for Medical Care
  • Reduction in Cholesterol
  • Increased Self-Actualization
  • Increased Strength of Self-Concept
  • Decreased Cigarette, Alcohol, and Drug Abuse
  • Increased Productivity
  • Improved Relations at Work
  • Increased Relaxation and Decreased Stress
  • Improved Health and More Positive Health Habits

Meditation, Stress, and Rest

Chronic stress often interferes with our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. So people can get stuck in a negative cycle – they need rest desperately, but the body-mind system has taken some damage and is not able to access its built-in healing system called sleep. Millions of Americans take some kind of pill to try to fall sleep, and about half of adults say they have trouble falling asleep at least once a week.

One thing wrong with a lot of the thinking about stress, both in science and in meditation gossip circles, is the idea that stress is bad somehow. It’s not. Stress is wonderful. It’s a genius capability that life put into our bodies. You could be deeply asleep and if you smelled smoke and realized there is a fire, you could zoom around like a superhero, gather up the dog or baby or both, and race out of the house.

There is not one degree of stress, it’s not on or off. Your stress button actually has a hundred stages. Think about what you feel in the suspenseful phase of your favorite movie, when the characters are in danger. This is thrilling and you may even crave that feeling.
There are a wide range of responses we can have to novelty, when we see anything new or surprising. Good things are stressful, like getting married or having a child, or sending your child off to school for the first time or off to college. Skiing down a steep slope, going out on the dance floor, talking to a stranger, learning a new skill, all involve some degree of stress and the whole thing can be interesting and challenging. We are built to crave challenges and love exercising our skills to the utmost.
Meditation looks like the mirror opposite of the stress response on the level of physiology, but in experience, meditation is as dynamic as a movie, only you are the heroine. If you have a busy life, most of your meditation time will probably be spent thinking about your to-do list, sorting through your priorities, and releasing tension about unfinished projects and conversations. If you have a love life, much of your meditation will be spent feeling nuances of emotions and sensations about your loved ones. Your chakras will be singing to you and to each other and going through an inner process of lining up all their forces so you can give your all to your love. If you come home from work, plunk down on your sofa, and meditate for 25 minutes or so, you’ll experience a whole series of adventures as you let all the tension and worry wash out of your muscles and nerves. This is intense. The reward is, when you open your eyes half an hour later, it’s a new world. You have a fresh start on the day, like you just woke up from a profound sleep. All of this is as natural as breathing.
Oddly enough, the real challenge of meditation is not the techniques. They are simple. Just select any aspect of the life force, pranashakti, you love and want to melt into.

There are several levels of challenges in meditation.

One level is learning to handle the healing and fast recovery mode that an effortless meditation allows. We no sooner relax than we are hit with sensations of what we were tense about. Relaxation can often feel like a video game. Our muscles let go a bit, then we are flooded with the sensations of stress release as well as the movies of the stressful situation that have left their imprints on our nerves. Then we break through to the next level and are flooded with a sense of well-being as we recover. This realm of meditation feels very much like receiving a massage.
Another realm of obstacles in meditation has to do with intimacy. The practices of meditation are like making love to pranashakti, the life force. We are exchanging breath with the universe of prana, like lovers. We are taking in this magic substance of air, of oxygen, and it feeds our inner fires. We are being touched by the flow of air in our most tender tissues, as the air flows in and out. Listening to mantras is like listening to a very personal love song, in which the Spirit of Creation is singing us into existence. This is a bodily experience with all senses alive and continually being surprised and enchanted: vision and inner vision, hearing, touch, balance, metabolism.
Meditation is a realm in which we can work out some of our issues with intimacy with other people. It’s a learning ground within, a place where we can learn and practice life skills and love skills. As we all know, long-term intimate relationships are some of the most challenging things in the world!

Meditation is a Key Tool for Survival

For people who live in the world and have busy lives, with jobs, pets, friends, and lovers, meditation is a blessed refuge. Yet it is also very intense. And here is a great secret: when we challenge ourselves, then have access to rest and recovery, we come back stronger. This is true with our physical bodies, our emotional bodies, and our spiritual bodies. This is how meditation is key to our survival.

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