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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

When all else fails... meditate

Paris, 2012.


When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence - that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality. This is always exhilarating and sublime. Henry David Thoreau, Walden.

A little bit over seven years ago, baby A was born, a beautiful, healthy little girl who would add even more joy to our family, already blessed by the arrival of R, two years earlier. I was the happiest woman on earth.

Rewind. Erase.

I was not the happiest woman on earth. In fact, as much as it pains me to say, I was probably experiencing one of the lowest times of my life.

It had nothing to do with sweet A and even sweeter R, of course. They were doing their best (which is not much when you're respectively a few weeks old and two and a half years old). To be honest, they were adorable. 

It did, however, have to do with the constant pressures of early motherhood.

For one thing, I was sleep-deprived and exhausted. "They" make me laugh when "they" blame postpartum depression on some hormonal imbalance. Try sleeping 4 hours a night and spending the other 20 hours a day listening to strident screams, dealing with diaper overflows, and enduring sore, engorged breasts (when it's not cracked and bleeding nipples! Just the thought of it makes my toes curl!) Not to mention a mirror reflection that is a pale (and usually fat and discheveled) picture of the woman you used to be. Who wouldn't feel depressed at some point?

Add to the "newborn package" another "sweet" child, this one at the height of her "terrible-twos", and what you get is a 5-letter word: chaos.


A rare moment of respite for mommy:
A is sleeping, R is "reading", both under the vigilant eye of our friend F.


I am not writing this to whine about motherhood, which is the best present I was ever offered, but rather to - hopefully - help other mothers feel less guilty and overwhelmed. Early motherhood is not glamorous, and it's incredibly demanding! I certainly did not make it any easier on myself by being a perfectionist freak, either.

In any case, the place I was seven years ago was not a good one, despite all my blessings. I could feel I was making my way down a dangerous spiral, both physically and psychologically. I had to do something about it.

My friend K had told me about her incredible yoga instructor, L. I figured I had nothing to lose, and registered for a series of classes.

Getting out of the house by myself for the first time in ages was not easy, but once I was sitting in the car, crazy fantasies invaded my thoughts: the little devil on my shoulder was telling me to hop on the highway and drive, and drive, and drive, all night long, then all day long... never to come back!


Scotland, 2005.


Of course I wouldn't have lasted more than a few hours. Sooner or later I would have started to miss the kids. Either that or my boobs would have started to leak with milk (I've always had enough to feed triplets).

So instead I went to my first yoga class.

This was a real yoga class. Not the kind you get in gyms, yoga that "flows" so fast between one pose to the next you feel like you're white water rafting more than listening to a peaceful stream. 

L's yoga class was the kind where you are asked to first ground yourself, and where you are reminded of staying grounded during the whole practice. You just cannot ignore your internal state. 

L had us stand up straight but relaxed, head up but shoulders down, and feet well planted on the floor. She brought to our attention the earth beneath us and the sky over us (despite the fact that we were indoors). She had us focus on every nut and bolt of our body, in a compassionate, nonjudgemental way. We were only there to notice, not to evaluate, she said. 

Then we started focusing on our breathing. Did you ever really focus on your breathing? It's incredibly powerful.

Five minutes into the class we were still standing still with our eyes closed, and from the outside it would have seemed like nothing was going on, but inside of me was a cascade of sensations and emotions that had been ignored for too long. Everything I had been successful at repressing came to the surface. Physical discomforts, of course, but mostly psychological discomforts. The ugly truth splashed all around like a giant beach ball held under water for too long: I was a complete mess. The dam I had built for myself was dismantled: I started crying. (Silently, so as not to distract fellow yogis.) I felt overwhelmed and relieved at the same time.

The rest of the hour is blurry in my memory. I only remember the last pose, which is fine based on what L always told us: the corpse pose (savasana) is the most important one in yoga. In fact, according to L, the yoga practice in its entirety serves the purpose of preparing you for a good  savasana. Or meditation. With L our yoga practice ended with either one or the other.

When I drove back home, that night, I felt both exhausted and rejuvenated.


Fleuve St-Laurent, Quebec.


Within a few weeks, I realized that L was right when she said: "Without making any conscious modifications to your life, if you practice yoga and meditate regularly, changes are going to happen for the better. You will naturally start making good, healthy choices."

It was true. Yoga and meditation have a way of bringing everything to our awareness, but in a serene, accepting way. It helps us make the right decisions, whether they pertain to the physical or psychological sphere.

In fact, research has shown time and again that meditation in particular will help in the many following ways:

  • Less information overload, stress and fear
  • More serenity, peace of mind and happiness
  • Better decision making
  • More harmonious relationships
  • Improved well-being and overall health


Meditation has been shown to have benefits in many common (and sometimes serious) health problems when used as a complement to traditional medical treatment. (Of course, a traditional approach, be it medical treatment or psychotherapy, according to your specific concern, should remain a priority.)

The greatest news about meditation is that the benefits persist after the meditation session is over. (Some even go all the way to say that if a critical percentage of the population meditates, the whole population will benefit! I'll let you do your own research on this.)

It truly is a panacea!

Yoga and meditation, however, elude many people. I've had at least two friends tell me that the pace of yoga was too slow, that it was too silent, and that they only felt like giggling and running around in circles. I understand that feeling. I've been there. The mindful practice of yoga and meditation forces us to slow down to a point where it feels uncomfortable to most of us "rat-racers". It also demands/creates an awareness that we might not be used to deal with. The reason why meditation is not the same as watching TV or napping is that it puts you in a state of relaxed vigilance. Even the brain "behaves" differently during meditation, with an increase of slow alpha or theta wave EEG activity.


Fleuve Saint-Laurent, Quebec.


Of course, meditation, like any other new "activity", has to be practiced for a while before you get the full benefits. One has to first get used to this increased awareness, and one must learn to accept what comes out of it with detachment. At first, it's not the best feeling. We're not used to hearing the sound of our own soul (and, according to some, the sound of the whole cosmos!)

According to Roger Thomson, the reason so many people do not meditate is "because it puts us in the middle of ourselves, which is not always where we want to be. Often, we want to fix things rather than accept them the way they are. Many of us feel as though we can't afford the time and energy to meditate, when in fact we can't afford not to."

What we need to remember when we talk about yoga and meditation is that mindful does not mean explicited or verbalized or intellectualized. Mindful means being present in the moment, a sort of detached vigilance. You pause and notice. The physical feelings. The mental thoughts.You don't judge. You simply notice. Then you let it drift away, like a cloud in the sky.

If you do that often enough, the rewards are endless. You might even experience bliss!


Tall Ship in Halifax.


Have you ever tried yoga and/or meditation? How does it make you feel? What's your favorite way and your favorite place to meditate? Sitting? Walking? Indoors? Outdoors? Do you have any issue in your life right now that could be helped by some mindful practice and increased awareness? Anything you want to add that I might have forgotten?



For more on the benefits of meditation


Psychology Today (various articles):

http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/meditation

Mayo Clinic: Meditation: A Simple, Fast Way to Reduce Stress:

http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/meditation/HQ01070

Huffington Post: Meditation Health Benefits: What the Practice does to Your Body:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/30/meditation-health-benefits_n_3178731.html?utm_hp_ref=healthy-living

Science Daily: Brain Waves and Meditation:

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100319210631.htm

Wikipedia: Research on Meditation:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Research_on_meditation

And this nice blog, on yoga and meditation:

http://yogadork.com/


Paklenica, Croatia, 2002.

7 comments:

  1. Hi Julie! Very well thought out post. I'm often "in the zone" so deeply when I exercise that I can't hear the music in my ears. Some people say that is some form of meditation when I'm that focused that I forget about everything else.

    Otherwise, I think it is very good for me to sit in a lawn chair in the sunshine doing nothing for a little while. Time slows down. I know why people like to go fishing and gardening, because both are so meditative.

    :-) Marion

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    1. Meditation can happen in the most surprising places! :-)

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  2. I was just looking into taking some yoga classes - funny you should write about this today.

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  3. The first time I was in a class with a guided meditation I instead just focused on the sounds of birds outside the window. In a very little time I had an out of body experience! I could feel myself leaving and going somewhere. It felt wonderful but scary. I later talked to an experienced friend of mine about it all. She told me that I will stay connected to this plane by a thread and not to worry that I won't come back, but if I don't, it won't matter :-)

    I believe my daily Zazen of running for so many years is a moving meditation and that was why I had that experience so easily.

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    1. You were present, open to the experience, and ripe...that made it possible. :-)

      I've always come back from my out of body experiences. But if I didn't, I don't think I would notice. :-)

      Sometimes it's even more than "leaving and going somewhere"; sometimes it's akin to transcending the whole "here and now", to escaping the material limitations of the body and the mental limitations of the ego. You just "float around immaterially", not even aware of any distinction between yourself and the rest of the universe anymore.

      Powerful.

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  4. I love your posts - this one in particular struck many chords. My daughter experienced postpartum depression and it scared the hell out of all of us. Medication and exercise helped her out.

    I have been practicing meditation on and off my entire adult life. At 56 I finally 'get' that the heavens won't split open, nor will the angels sing. It is an effort, takes persistence, and does not deliver instant enlightenment. Working with a dharma teacher is helping my understanding. And those subtle and not so subtle shifts are happening. I think if we all meditated, the world would be a much more harmonious place. My interior is more harmonious at any rate.

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