A short practice to increase our strength

O Adonai, and Leader of the house of Israel, You appeared to Moses in the burning bush,
and gave him the Law on Sinai: come and save us with an outstretched arm.

As Christmas draws closer,  the Christian liturgy chants the ancient “O Antiphons”  originating in the 5th Century. They testify to the desires of people down through the ages, and our ongoing human needs based on the different situations we find ourselves in. This one asks for  strength and protection, –  a strong arm to support us when we ourselves do not feel strong. It’s imagery comes from the story of the escape from slavery in Egypt and the journey across the desert.

There are so many times that we need to take in strength, to remind ourselves of our resources. One of the things which the mind does when we are stressed or depressed is to underestimate our resources and overestimate the threats which we feel. We divert our energies into the defense against threats, fearful that others may disappoint or take advantage of us.  These ancient words are a metaphor for what happens in those moments. The Hebrew word for Egypt – Mitzraim –  means “a narrow place.”  The escape from captivity in Egypt means the escape from the narrow places where we are stuck, to a wider place, a place where we can breathe freely. We can feel trapped in our lives,  in different forms of captivity. We can frequently feel as if we are travelling in unfamiliar territory, unchartered waters, and this can overwhelm us. We feel fortunate if we get through a day, or through the night when our fears come to worry us,  let alone know where we are going in our lives.

At times like this, we need to keep our focus on words and ideas that give us strength, that link us into to our fearless nature. We can try this simple exercise to increase awareness of the resources we have:

Find a quiet place and sit, gently closing your eyes. Become aware of your normal breathing and the wider sense of your body sitting here. See if you can sense the energy  in the core of your body. Notice your breathing, how it is constant and has a strength of its own. Feel the solidity in your posture, the strength in your upright back and shoulders, the dignity in the way you are sitting, the support in the contact with the chair or the floor. Become aware of the way your body functions in getting you around day after day. Consciously focus on your own strength, savouring this awareness, taking it in and drawing it out.

Now, picture in your mind something in nature that feels strong, like a mountain, noticing how massive and unmoving it is. In your mind’s eye, bring the mountain into your own body so that you become the mountain – your head the top,  your body the solid base,  rooted on the cushion or on the chair. See if you can imagine a sense of uplift, the strong quality of the mountain deep in your own spine. Invite yourself to become like a breathing mountain, unshakeable and still.

Now let that sense of strength sink into you and rest in you. Imagine it and prolong it. Breathe it into your emotions. Feel it in your spine, your head,  your chest, the muscles of your face. Let it become part of you, breathing it in deeper and deeper. Gently, let it touch the places in your life where you feel challenged or weak. Keeping the sense of the mountain in your awareness, seeing if you can place the difficulties in relation to that, almost like the clouds that pass over a mountain without affecting the mountain itself. See if you can make the awarenss of strength the present reality, even if just for a moment. If this is too difficult just do it briefly and return to the awareness of the mountain.

Rest in this awareness for five or ten minutes, if it feels right. Make conscious,  as best as possible,  the strength which is in your body and in your mind. Register it in your bones and in your muscles, your thoughts and your emotions. Continue to breathe gently as you finish the exercise and resume your daily activities.

Things to do this weekend

Modern culture keeps sending all these messages that the people who know how to live properly are always doing something.

The great question “What are you doing this weekend?” keeps coming up, as if that defines us. We hear talk about lives where everything is “so busy that I do not have time to think”, or “I am so busy I never have time for myself”, or “I am so busy I am exhausted”, and this word, busy, busy, busy comes up time and again, and it starts to sound like an epidemic –  an epidemic of busyness.

Abbot Christopher Jameson, The Big Silence, BBC2

The use of meditation in medicine

Some kind of meditative practice is found in all the world’s wisdom traditions, and has been around for thousands of years, says Shauna Shapiro of Santa Clara University, co-author with Linda Carlson of the book The Art and Science of Mindfulness. Most include focusing attention and letting thoughts and emotions go by without judgment or becoming involved.

However, it is striking to note how in recent years meditation is progressively going mainstream, and is now the subject of research in scientific journals. A U.S. government survey in 2007 found that about 1 out of 11 Americans, more than 20 million, has meditated in the previous year. And a growing number of medical centers are teaching meditation to patients for stress and pain relief, as  conventional medicine increasingly embraces healing methods once dismissed as “alternative medicine” and combining them with standard treatment. Jon Kabat-Zinn credits the “colossal shift in acceptance” of meditation to accelerating research on the benefits of meditation.

His enthusiasm is shared by practictioners on the ground, like Dr. Barrie R. Casselith, from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s Integrative Medicine Service in New York: ”It’s not invasive, it has no side effects, it has tremendous benefits that are very well documented and it’s something patients can do on their own so it doesn’t cost anything. It’s not a cancer treatment….but… ‘it deals with quality of life and helps with symptoms. It can relieve pain, lower blood pressure and heart rate. It can make people feel calmer, it enhances mood. It does lots of good things.



How to improve our wellbeing

We expend a lot of effort to improve the external conditions of our lives, but in the end it is always the mind that creates our experience of the world and translates this experience into either well-being or suffering

Matthieu Ricard

Meditation reduces the perception of pain.

A recent study, conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford,  has found that our physical experience of pain is influenced by the mood we are in at that moment. In other words,  our brain influences how we perceive and deal with the pain we are going through, as a low or anxious mood  disrupts a portion of our neurocircuitry related to regulating emotion, causing an enhanced perception of pain. The low mood may go as far as to drive the pain and make it feel worse. Mind and body are intimately linked when it comes to health and wellness.

Mindfulness meditation has been shown to affect the way we attend to what is happening in our lives at any moment,  and can impact upon mood in a positive manner. Therefore it is probably not surprising to read that a 2010 University of Manchester study, to be published in the Journal Pain,  noted that experienced meditators found pain  less unpleasant than did non-meditators. It seems that regular meditation can train the brain to anticipate pain less and reduce its emotional impact.

Dr Christopher Brown, who led the research,  stated “Meditation is becoming increasingly popular as a way to treat chronic illness such as the pain caused by arthritis. Recently, a mental health charity called for meditation to be routinely available on the NHS (the National Health Service)  to treat depression, which occurs in up to 50% of people with chronic pain.”

The finding is a potential boon to the estimated 40% of people who are unable to adequately manage their chronic pain. Dr Brown suggests that the reason meditation works  is due to the fact that it is a training in remaining focused on the present moment and not anticipating future problems: “The results of the study confirm how we suspected meditation might affect the brain. Meditation trains the brain to be more present-focused and therefore to spend less time anticipating future negative events. This may be why meditation is effective at reducing the recurrence of depression, which makes chronic pain considerably worse.”

You can read more on the University’s website: http://www.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/news/display/?id=5801