How to Meditate Your Emotions Away

by Ryder Johanson, L.Ac

There’s a growing awareness in our society that stress can wreak havoc on your health.  I’d be surprised to find a single health care provider of any flavor that wouldn’t suggest stress management is an important part of maintaining good health.

Meditation is something I’m seeing more and more health experts recommend as a potent tool for relieving stress.  Many people are aware that it’s hard to beat meditation when it comes to stress relief, but there’s often a hang-up when I suggest that someone try meditation.  The most common response I hear is something along the lines of: “There’s no way I could meditate—my mind is just way too busy.”  Many of these people have even tried meditation before and found it an amazingly frustrating experience because their minds just won’t shut up and the harder they try, the worse it gets.  I can understand, then, why meditation doesn’t seem like the most appealing tool for stress relief.

The funny thing is that that’s kind of the point of meditation: all of your baggage, the things you’ve been avoiding, your suppressed emotions are going to come bubbling up. 

That has definitely been my experience.  When I discovered meditation and was convinced of all the wonderful benefits and experiences that it could open up, I jumped in with both feet and meditated as much as I could.   I thought meditation was a tool I could use to escape all the stressful emotions in my life.  I experienced sublime periods of relaxation and moments when I forgot all my stresses.  And that relaxation often translated into the rest of my day.

But after that initial “honeymoon” period things got a lot harder.  It became more difficult to reach the places in meditation that had come much more effortlessly before.  And the anxiety and agitation bouncing around in my mind seemed to be harder to quiet down—maybe it was growing or maybe I was just becoming more aware of it.  My plan to meditate all my emotions away wasn’t going so well.

I came to realize that the only real way to release stressful emotions was to let myself fully feel them and even express them.  I started to let myself experience the anxiety and frustration of not being able to quiet my mind.  That would lead to memories of other things in my life that would bring up anxiety and frustration.  It started to become easier to express to people in my life the things that were frustrating me.  With that came relief—the relief of getting the weight off my chest—and a sense of empowerment: it was OK for me to stand up for myself and set my boundaries. 

After a while I started to realize that there was more than suppressed anger that was agitating my mind.  Underneath my angry, teenage self was a sad, fearful, ashamed childhood version of myself—some would call it my “inner child”.  And it was wounded.  I always knew it was there, but it was something I had rejected because it was too painful to experience. 

I was blown away at how powerful it was to let myself remember and re-experience all those childhood traumas and have it be OK that I was afraid and hurt.  And despite what I had previously expected, I didn’t wallow in depression and self-pity for weeks on end.  Letting myself fully experience those painful emotions started to neutralize the “charge” they had in my mind.

I’ve learned that this is a common experience among meditators.  After the initial peaceful and even blissful experiences in meditation, there comes a time when all of the painful thoughts and emotions you’ve suppressed come up to be felt and integrated into the new “you” you’re becoming.  St. John of the Cross called it the “dark night of the soul.”

Meditation didn’t turn out to be the totally relaxing and blissed-out experience I expected, but it’s also turned out to be better than I expected.  More and more I’m finding relief from stress not by avoiding it or through coping mechanisms (which even some forms of meditation can be), but by addressing the thoughts and the emotions underlying the stress.  It’s part of what people are talking about when they say there’s “no way around your problems but through them.”

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Playing the Game

 
by Clark Zimmerman, L.Ac.

One of the first games that my daughter learned to play was Candyland.  She could sit for hours picking cards and moving around the board; she loved the colors and the pictures of sweets.  Unlike most people who play board games, she didn’t know that the object was to get to the gingerbread house and “win”.  In fact, if she were nearing the end of the rainbow path, she would start to get worried that the game would soon be over. She would get excited if she drew the Candy Cane or Gingerbread card that took her back to the beginning.  She simply loved playing the game.

    Sometime in our childhoods, most of us start to get more competitive.  Maybe it is an offshoot of evolution.  For millennia, the winner in the game of life got to survive and pass on their genes, whereas the loser would perish.  Whatever the reason, at some point we typically begin playing more to win than to enjoy the game.  While there is nothing wrong with wanting to win, a lot of times we come up on the losing side of the game.  If we happen to lose, does that take all of the fun out of the time we spent playing the game?  If so, it seems that the game would appear to be a waste of time.
 
    This makes me think of playing cards–I used to play a lot of cards.  One of my favorite games was Euchre, which is a game similar to Bridge.  In my 20s, I used to take it pretty seriously.  My friends and I would have Euchre tournaments in which the prize was bragging rights.  Some of the games got really heated.  I remember getting upset when my partner didn’t play the right strategy, or when the cards wouldn’t fall my way.  Eventually I began to see the absurdity in this approach to the game.  When I became less attached to winning a funny thing happened: instead of having the overall quality of my night depend on what the scorecards read, I began to enjoy the conversation more. I started to enjoy the company more.  I even began cheering on my opponent when he got a really good hand or made an especially good play of the cards.  My ability to have fun on Euchre nights was greatly improved.  

    This is similar to life in general.  We often think of “winning” as finishing or succeeding.  We may think that we will win once we reach retirement, or when we finally purchase that certain car.  When we orient ourselves towards such goals, we look so far ahead that we miss the moment. Though it can be helpful to have goals, we must be careful not to define happiness or success by these measurements alone.  If we forget that the present moment is all we truly have, we are constantly motivated by our clinging to the past or desire for a certain future.  This is a recipe for suffering.  Sometimes things go the way we want them to go, sometimes they do not.  It is often the case that even when we get to the goal that we have dreamed about, whether we retire or get that dream car, the “success” that we experience eventually seems hollow or less grand than we imagined it would be.  When we untether our happiness from a certain outcome we allow the fullness of life to express itself in beautifully unexpected ways.  We make it less about winning and more about enjoying the game. Then the real winner is the one who has the most fun.  The real winner is the one who fully plays the game.
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Developing a Photographic Memory

by Clark Zimmerman, LAc.


  My grandpa was a character.  By the time I knew him he had retired from a university professorship and moved to a farm in southern Illinois.  He chain-smoked generic cigarettes and drank cheap beer in front of a small television set in his basement.  He was indeed from a different era.  He was also an exceptional card player.  I remember countless games of Gin Rummy in that smoky basement.  Even though my siblings and I were his grandkids, he never let us win.  Grandpa was nearly impossible to beat because he had a photographic memory.

Needless to say, I grew up intrigued with the idea of having a photographic memory.  I loved the idea of being able to remember everything that I read.  Fast-forward thirty years:  it seems that a different sort of “photographic memory” is becoming more common.  This sort of memory is influenced by the widespread use of digital cameras and smart phones.  Research conducted by Linda Henkel of Fairfield University has demonstrated what she refers to as “photo-taking impairment effect.”  This term describes how taking more pictures is related to a decrease in people’s ability to remember an event.  It seems that the brain doesn’t work as hard at remembering something if you can count on a picture to remind you of details.  Like our muscles, the brain benefits from being challenged with tasks.  It’s like the saying goes: “use it or lose it.”  When we rely on something to do a task for us, we risk an increased likelihood of atrophy.  It’s like if a healthy person refused to walk and chose instead to use a wheelchair to get around, it wouldn’t be too long before the person actually needed the wheelchair because their body would lose the ability to walk.  So when we use a tool to remember things, we gradually lose our ability to recall things in an optimal way.  Henkel also pointed out that when we document everything with photographs, we compromise the elastic nature of memory.  A photograph is a “snap-shot” of a specific moment in time, but the shot is fixed in that it is only one perspective.  When we look back at a photo of an event, we tend to see it through that limited, one-dimensional view.  This can compromise the wholeness of a memory, confining it to an overly streamlined view.  In addition to these things, relying on photos to remember things means that our memory of an event doesn’t have room to evolve.  We think of our memories are being fixed in stone, but research has shown that our memories of events actually change over time.  As we grow and our understanding and wisdom continue to develop, our relationship with the past changes with it.  This allows us to mine new information from our past that helps us evolve into more complete human beings.

   Of course, there are other potential issues with the overuse of digital photography.  Most of us know of the overwhelm that happens when we begin to unpack all of the photos that we have taken.  The process of sorting through and deleting photos and videos can take hours.  We can be so intimidated by the process that we avoid it altogether, until we have thousands of photos that we never look at.  Then we simply collect photos without them meaning much.  Another issue is that rather than being present in the moment, too often people experience a place through the lens of a camera.  This myopic view limits the fullness of the moment.  I recently witnessed this on a trip to the Grand Canyon:  everyone was looking at this amazing vista through a small screen.  It seemed to me to be a missed opportunity to take in the real magic of this special place.

     To be honest, I take pictures with my phone.  I’m sure that there are times that I overdo it.  As I think about maintaining balance in my life, I have been increasingly leaving the camera in my pocket, or at home.  If I do use it I am practicing taking one or two photos and realizing that this is enough.  I am more frequently focusing on being in the moment, rather than photographing the moment and trying to experience it later.  If I ever were to develop a photographic memory, I would want it to be like the one my grandfather had, not the diminished capacity that is more typical of modern times.

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