Why Stress is Useful: Meditating With The Radiance Sutras
Summary: Stressing the body makes you stronger – as long as you have time to rest and recover. This is the basic principle of working out. Exercising challenges the body. And when you sleep, the body rebuilds itself to be stronger. The same is true of our subtle bodies, our emotional and mental bodies. Scientific research over the past 50 years has found that effortless meditation techniques
allow the body to quickly enter a state of rest deeper than sleep, even in beginners. Giving yourself half an hour or so a day of this meditative rest helps the body to heal up from the wear and tear of stress, and to bounce back renewed. Also surprisingly, everyone can meditate
–it’s a built-in capacity of the human body.
The Flow of Opposites
Life is just a bowl of contradictions. We have to breathe out in order to breathe in again. We have to go to sleep and lie there unconscious for hours and hours in order to be alert and functional when we awaken. To be able to fall asleep, we need to tire ourselves out by running around all day doing our thing, using up our life force, our prana, so that we fall into blissful slumber. Daily life is a flow of opposites.
Another contradiction that always boggles my mind is that working out is not what makes you stronger. Working out tears you down on a microscopic level. Whatever form of exercise you are doing, if you challenge your muscles to the point where you are sore a few days later, this soreness is due to microscopic muscle damage. Sleep is what makes you stronger. When you are resting, your body looks at the challenges you have been experiencing and says, okay, let’s repair that damage and go even further – let’s make the body even better than it was before.
Athletes in training work the science of these contradictions. They create sequences: work the body > feed the body good nutrition > sleep. This is what builds strength. If you train without enough rest days and time spent in deep sleep, you might begin to suffer from overtraining, in which damage accumulates faster than it can be healed. The body can go a bit haywire when we are full-on into the overtraining syndrome. We might get stuck in compulsive exercise, lose our appetite or eat compulsively, ache all over or have headaches, feel exhausted, have trouble sleeping, and have a lower immunity. This is where massage, meditation, dancing, and hot and cold baths can help us to get back into a healthy relationship with our bodies.
There is a kind of ecstasy to the swing between opposites. There is a joy to using our capacity to the utmost, to putting every bit of our pranashakti, our life power, to work in doing what we love. That long hike, yoga class, or weight training session, are deeply gratifying. The buzz of exhaustion is a body mantra, the hum of our motor purring in satisfaction at having been used. Then later in the day, the total relief of being able to fall into deep restorative sleep. One of the purposes and gifts of a daily meditation practice is that it helps you to fine-tune this rhythmic flow of opposites. Meditation is a totally contradictory state of consciousness. You are resting and relaxing at a deeper level than ordinary sleep, and yet you are simultaneously wide awake and even more aware of your body than ever.
If you meditate in the afternoon before dinner, this gives the body-mind system a chance to play it forward and clear away any obstacles that will keep you from falling asleep at night and getting that needed repair. Try this at home, today. Just put on some music and lie down for 20 minutes and drift. Because you are awake while meditating, you can say, “Bring it on,” and welcome whatever stresses are exciting your nerves, and combine the surge of adrenaline with relaxation and restfulness. Meditation is the practice of accessing inner states of serenity while facing our fears and life challenges. This works. It’s measurable.
The Opposite of Stress
Hang with me for a minute while we talk about the impact of meditation on the body. I started meditating in a physiology lab at the University of California at Irvine in 1968. For the next ten years, I participated in physiological studies there and at UCI Medical School. Year after year I would go into the labs, get wired up with electrodes all over my head, and have needles stuck in my arms to measure blood chemistry. Then when the men in white coats got all their instruments calibrated, they would say, “Okay, now meditate,” and measure what happened. They measured brain waves, blood flow, blood chemistry changes, stress hormones, body temperature, oxygen consumption, and other variables. This was crazy. I still have little scars on my wrists and on the inside of my elbows from having catheters in my veins for hours in the lab while I sat there meditating. All those hours when I could have been surfing!
One surprising finding from the physiological research at UC Irvine, UCLA, Harvard Medical School, and other labs, published in many scientific journals, is that meditation – if you are practicing with a sense of ease and naturalness – invokes a state that is the mirror opposite of the stress response. Heart rate slows, breathing slows down, digestion does its thing, blood sugar levels normalize, muscle tension decreases. The whole body enters a state of restfulness, relaxation, and ease, in about three minutes.
There was a lot of head-scratching among the scientists. What are we seeing here? How is it possible that someone can just sit here in the lab, and we say, “Okay meditate”, and in a couple of minutes they settle into a level of rest as deep as that which occurs after hours of sleep? So they said, “Okay, if there is an integrated physiological response to stress called ‘The Fight or Flight Response’, then meditation invokes ‘The Relaxation Response’.”
I think that labeling meditation as the Relaxation Response is over-simplified, but in science you try to make things as simple as possible and then add nuance as needed. Let’s take a more nuanced look right now.
The Internal Asana Flow
What happens in meditation is an internal “asana flow.” The body-mind system flows through a whole series of inner states. First there is the Ahhhhhh of physical relaxation, restfulness, a sense of relief. Then there is Ouch! as you feel into the tension in your muscles and nerves. If you stay there and tolerate the pain, the Ouch tends to turn into OM, a hum of exhaustion, and then Ooooooohhhhhh as you feel your body being flooded with healing energy. Meditation is called antar yoga in Sanskrit, where antar = within, interior.
In my PhD research, I spent thousands of hours listening to meditators describe what they are experiencing moment-by-moment. These were not monks, just regular people with busy lives. Based on what they report, a more detailed label for meditation is: “The Rest Relax Review Repair Restore Reorient” response. We get to rest up, our muscles tune themselves to an optimum level of readiness, we review and learn from our experience, our tissues and nerves undergo repair, we get restored to a sense of health, and then we re-orient to the outer world again. A lot happens in a few minutes of meditation, if we get out of the way and allow it. A major challenge of learning to meditate is developing the skills for handling how intense and rapid your recovery process is. Meditation is both wild and serene.
When we approach our own personal meditation practice as a natural state, we give ourselves access to a kind of relief we have been craving. We are in essence setting our own healing powers free to work on us. In yoga terminology, we are surrendering to the power of our own life force, to do its thing.
The difference between sleep and meditation is that in meditation we are awake and all our senses are alert and noticing, and yet we are exploring realms of restfulness and letting go that are actually deeper than the night’s sleep. Just as during the night’s sleep, we experience wild dreams, so in meditation we experience all kinds of wild energies on the level of sensation as all our instincts are activated, all our chakras join in the overall symphony.
The real mantra is the hum of life flowing through your body. Every area of the body has its own vibration, its note, of Ah and Ooh and Mmmm and Wheee and Wow that it contributes to the Song of Life that is your body and soul joined together.
Continuous Flow of Love
People who love often think about those they love continually during meditation. They may start with a breath or mantra, and then the current of love takes over and they are aware of a pulsating flow of love energy between them and their loved ones. The love mantra is the real mantra.
In interviewing parents with young children, babies, or kids who have left the house and are off on their own, those who are thriving in meditation and in life welcome this flow of love energy. The connection can feel like worry, repetitive thoughts, with lots of visualizations and sensations. Skilled meditators welcome the whole flow and revel in it. They don’t care what someone from the outside would think. The texture of the current of love changes every second, like music, and resonates with all kinds of notes, and then usually resolves itself into a hum of life.
From this we see that the generic expectation of meditation as “stopping the flow of thought and focusing on the mantra,” is not useful for people on the path of intimacy. The phrases “mind wandering,” and “monkey mind,” are toxic and harmful for people who live in the world, have a love life, and a to-do list. These old terms are based on a misunderstanding of what the mind is and what the purpose of meditation is.
In thousands of hours of interviews, I asked people to tell me what they are thinking about when “their mind is wandering.” Basically, people just think of their to-do list and inwardly they are choreographing a series of actions to make the world a better place to live in. Work is love made manifest. When you are meditating and start thinking about the dog’s water bowl and maybe you need to clean is, this is not mind wandering. It’s visualizing a little action of love.
Learning to thrive in meditation and enjoy the practice involves developing the skills
of meeting yourself in your inner spaces as you join up with your own pranashakti, the power of your own life force.
It’s All About Survival
Bodies are genius. Your body. My body. Anybody. A human body, a horse, cat, dog, bird, shark out in the ocean, butterfly, even the tiny body of a cell. Life is a dance of matter and energy that Nature has been developing for billions of years.
Bodies love being challenged. And if we can sequence a good flow of dealing with stress, then getting some nutrition, then accessing deep relaxation and restfulness, we come back stronger. This has been going on your whole life, every day, as you flow through the three basic states of consciousness we all know, called Waking, Sleeping, and Dreaming.
We can refer to meditation as a Fourth State of Consciousness. In practice, meditation is a combination of all the other three, plus little moments of awakening. In yoga terminology this is sometimes called turiya, the fourth. Meditation is often intense and wild
, but in reality, it’s not as weird as sleep.
If you want to think of any of the four states of consciousness as weird, it would be sleep and dreaming. Getting enough sleep takes forever. You have to lie there for hours and hours and hours. And you are unconscious. Nature knocks you out. Then dreams take over, and you experience a dozen or more entire movies that your brain writes, directs, acts in, and witnesses. You are flying, fighting, having sex, searching, facing fears, and meeting the lost parts of yourself. After hours and hours of this you wake up refreshed and ready for a new day.
Meditation only feels weird because everything happens so fast, and you are awake to feel it and see it. It’s common for beginners to close their eyes for 60 seconds and then open them and say, “Oh My God, there are millions thoughts of ALL kinds flying around in every direction!” During the release of stress phases of a daily meditation practice, it can feel like an ordeal to sit there for half a minute, enduring pins-and-needles types of sensations as blood flow is restored to muscles that have been tensed.
The Thrill of Aliveness
A good working definition of meditation is “savor the thrill of aliveness.” Prana has a rich set of definitions, including “The breath of life, respiration, spirit, vitality. Vigor, strength, inspiration.”
The yoga tradition has gifted us with thousands of techniques for savoring the flow of prana, dancing with prana, enjoying and celebrating this miraculous flow of life. Meditation is what we call it when we allow our attention to delight in this flow of vitality, as it glides through every part of our bodies and relates us to the whole ecology of this planet, the oceans, and the Sun shining on us all.
Every breath is a direct and intimate connection with not just the Earth’s atmosphere but the Sun and the whole Solar System. We breathe tens of thousands of times a day, and each lungful of air is a gift from all of Creation.
Meditation techniques use all our senses: touch, smell, taste, motion, balance, vision, hearing, and temperature. We also have many inner senses informing us of muscle and tendon stretch, levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and blood sugar levels. Hunger and thirst are senses, based in measuring our need for nutrition and hydration. To meditate, use any or all of your senses, in any combination, to enjoy the flow of liveliness, the flow of prana, in your nerves, muscles, energy centers.
Giving yourself time to meditate every day is just common sense. If we did away with the word “meditation” we could say, “I am just going to give my body permission to enter an intense state of rest, relaxation, and recovery.” Our word join is from the same root-sound as yoga. To use a little yoga jargon, we could say, “I am just going to join my conscious attention with the miraculous restorative powers of my own pranashakti. See you in half an hour.”
We actually need stress to function at our best. We crave it. Think about all the movies and shows you love. In every movie, people are being challenged and often stressed to the breaking point. They are forced to reach deep inside themselves to find resources they did not know they have. Each challenge we face in the outer world calls forth inner resources of power, resilience, intelligence, and adaptability. This is the human adventure. Meditation is a special capacity that nature built into our bodies, in which we can dive deep into the adventure of living and let our challenges activate our hidden talents and powers of survival.
Anyone can learn how to do this. The techniques are simple and healthy and have to do with allowing yourself to love the current of life flowing through your body.
There are two major challenges to learning to meditate.
The first is customizing the practice so you love it so much you want to meditate. You want to feel at home in yourself right away. This is how you get the most benefit.
The second is learning to face the wild and unpredictable course that your “unstressing” will take today. People often report, for example, that their best meditations happen when they are angry, passionate, full of lust, lonely, or exhausted, when they begin. When they welcome all this and surrender to the journey, they emerge on the other side deeply refreshed.
So stress is not to be avoided. Don’t worry that the stresses you are facing are going to damage you irreparably. The nature of life
is to come back stronger.
Your busy life with all its challenges is like an intense yoga class that works your muscles, your sense of balance, and your willingness to endure weird sensations. The challenge of all this sets your body-mind system up to dive into deep savasana and rest up. When you go for it in life, take on your challenges, and then make time to meditate, you are giving yourself the time for deep recovery. You can meditate for half an hour before dinner, and emerge with a sense of freshness, and have a great evening. In essence, meditation is just a gift you are giving yourself, a training time so that you can function at your best in work, play, and love.
Meditation Teacher Training
Dr. Lorin Roche began practicing with the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra in 1968 as part of scientific research on the physiology of meditation. He has a PhD from the University of California at Irvine, where his research focused on the language meditators generate to describe their inner experiences. He is the author of The Radiance Sutras and Meditation Made Easy. With his wife, Camille Maurine, he wrote Meditation Secrets for Women. A teacher of meditation for 46 years, Lorin’s approach centers on how to customize the practices to suit one’s individual nature. Lorin leads the Radiance Sutras Meditation Teacher Training, a 200 hour certification program registered with Yoga Alliance. Lorin teaches regularly at the Esalen Institute and around the world.