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I was a sporadic meditator at best for years, only to really commit to meditation when, just after turning 39, I discovered a mass in my right breast.

From the point of discovery of the mass to getting the necessary tests, waiting for results, waiting for surgery, waiting to see if the newly diagnosed cancer had spread to lymph nodes, waiting to see what treatment I would have, and so much more, there were times that I didn’t think I could physically tolerate much more anxiety. I knew I had to do something to manage the stress and that I would need to make it a way of life. One of the weapons I chose was meditation.

Now before this, my thoughts about meditation followed the lines of, Everybody says that this is a healthy thing. I probably should be doing it. Some of the people who talk about meditation seem a little flaky. I guess I sit here and watch my breathing. Am I doing this right? Is this doing anything at all? Oh, look, there’s another article on the benefits of meditation. I guess I should give it another try.

After the diagnosis of cancer, I began meditating regularly. Sometimes I missed a day or two, but I kept returning to the practice. What I found was that, while I didn’t notice results overnight, eventually I noticed a few improvements:

  • A calmer mind. If my mind was frantically hopping from thought-to-thought (“monkey mind” or “wild mind”) at the beginning of a meditation session, by the end, it was always at least slightly calmer.
  • A brief rest from being anywhere other than the present. When my mind was filled with anxiety, it was always about that moment of time in the future that I might die or hear that I’d lost my job or something else. While in meditation, time and thought ceased.
  • Increased awareness of mental and physical state. I became more aware of my emotional reactions. A benefit of meditation is that it can help you almost step outside of yourself during a crisis and note things like “my stomach feels tight” or “my agitation over my boss’s email is really escalating.” Meditation seems to make you more aware of the choice to slow down and choose your reaction rather than just be helplessly tossed by patterned waves of emotion.

Fear and the Unknown

I had the opportunity to speak with spiritual counselor and meditation teacher Don Simmons about meditation, and he echoed my findings about meditation and fear. “Meditation can help someone move through fear. When you deal with the unknown, meditation helps you observe everything that takes place without judgment. Then you move from reaction to action.”

Right now, most of us are dealing with a great deal of the “unknown.” With ubiquitous reports of a failing economy, layoffs, and families in despair, we may wonder if we’re going to be the next casualty.

As Don told me, meditation enables you to tell yourself what is real and what is not. When you focus on breathing, you are focusing on one of the most basic ingredients of life. You are silently reminded that “My fears are not reality. I am here, right now. This is what truly matters–that I am alive, that I have wellness, that I feel good.” A wise friend once told me, “any time you worry, you are living someplace other than the present.”

Surprise: Meditation Helps with Productivity!

I would wager that many interested in productivity don’t immediately think of meditation. After all, you’re just sitting there, aren’t you? How is that productive?

What I have found is that there can be as much false economy with time and energy as there can be with money. If I work four, 16-hour days in an attempt to get ahead, I’ll ultimately wind up more tired and less productive than if I maintain balanced days.

In discussing this phenomena with Don Simmons, he described humans as having a masculine and feminine side. “It’s not about being straight or gay; it’s about listening and talking, hearing and creation.” Your feminine side is that which dreams, incubates, and expands. Your masculine side is the action and manifestation. Don illustrated this with a boat: The rudder (feminine) guides the boat and asks the question “where do I want to go?” whereas the  engine (masculine) follows through with the physical action to get you to your destination.

The key, says Don, is to be in perfect harmony.

And surely you’ve experienced harmony. Do you remember a time in which everything just seemed to click? You were “in flow.” You seemed to have the Midas touch. You were on top of the world! This balance, this flow, is necessary for continued productivity without exhaustion.

So How Do I Meditate?

I have a few techniques that I use, but the most basic is simply to sit in a chair or on the floor and focus on my breathing. I use a digital timer that I set for 10 or 15 minutes. What does it mean to focus on your breathing? Literally, focus on each breath as it enters your nose, slowly expands your lungs, and then leaves your body. Breathe naturally. If you wish, you can tailor this to your desires, such as saying silently, “I breathe in peace; I exhale stress.” This is a simple technique but very effective. Later you can become more advanced and read about hand positions (mudras), sitting positions, etc., but they are unnecessary for a successful beginning meditation practice.

What is absolutely necessary to meditate:

  1. Choose a position that will respect your practice and keep you from falling asleep. Honor your body and bring integrity to your practice. Don says that “when you are in meditation, you are meeting yourself.” If you were meeting someone you respect, you would likely make sure your body is clean and neat and dressed in clean clothes. You wouldn’t slouch.
  2. Try to meditate daily. Meditation, like learning a language, isn’t for the weekend warrior. It is better to have short sessions of 5-10 minutes daily than sporadic, long sessions.

How Do I Know I’m Doing it Right?

Did you fall asleep? Did you get up before your time was up? Do you feel at least slightly better after meditation than you did before? You’re doing it right. The goal is to simply focus on your breathing, releasing thoughts as they come. Attempt to stay in a state of compassion and nonjudgment.

Don shared an interesting illustration of work he has done as an animal trainer. As soon as the dog finally performed the trick, he was rewarded, and the training for the day abruptly ended. Why? Because the dog “got” it. You want to end on a positive note. Essentially, “you are training your mind for success,” says Don.

Training your mind for success–an idea that’s absolutely in harmony with productivity! And If you still feel meditation is a little too “out there” for you, then consider the recent research that reveals actual physical changes in the brains of those who meditate compared with those who don’t. Here are a few supportive articles and sites that may help convince you that meditation is a worthwhile habit:

The Benefits of Meditation – Psychology Today

For Stress Reduction, Just Say Ommm – CNN

How Monks Find Their Happy Groove – CNN

The Mystic Path – Don Simmons

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