By Felicia Ferguson
Support the spouse. Raise the kids. Help the cause. Finish the project. Please the boss. Get the promotion. Do the shopping. Pay the bills.
The heart pounds and anxiety surges as responsibilities mount and nice-to-dos become must-dos. The Joneses have this and do that, so I must have and do the same—if not more. Because she who dies with the most toys . . .
It is so easy to lose ourselves in the hectic and demanding pace of life, work, and home. We take a breath and notice another year has passed, another milestone has been reached. And yet we feel less alive, more anxious, and mostly unfulfilled. Peace seems to be the ultimate unattainable—the holy grail for the modern human.
But (cue Laurence Fishburne voice here), what if I told you there was a way to find an inner peace that seeps into the pressures of life and eases both self and circumstance?
There is. It is an ancient method that is igniting curiosities and invigorating souls. But like most things, there’s a catch: it requires a bit of dedication and carving out a few minutes from the frenzy.
It is meditation.
There are two different branches of meditation, Western and Eastern, with subsets to each category. Western meditation practices are found in Judaism, Catholicism, and Christianity and involve focusing on God, Jesus, or scripture verses. These techniques fill the mind with good, positive truths with the ultimate goal of drawing closer to God and recognizing His presence and power in one’s life. They embrace God’s love and mercy. Divine joy and peace replace stress. Eastern disciplines, such as those found in Hinduism and Buddhism, encourage an emptying of the mind and a focus on empowering oneself, often by chanting a particular word or phrase. They reinforce the idea that people can become one with God or the Universe and direct their situations and outcomes. Stress is relieved through controlling one’s thoughts.
Though often at odds with faith and religion, science has begun to study the practice of meditation and its impact on physical and emotional health. And the results confirm what proponents of meditation have intrinsically known for thousands of years: it’s good for you!
Multitudes of studies have revealed that the brain changes for the better after meditation and prayer. Test subjects’ frontal lobes—responsible for executive function or the ability to think through situations and make rational decisions—increased in volume after meditative activities. The parietal lobe (which processes taste, temperature, and touch), the limbic system (primarily responsible for emotions), and the thalamus (the relay station for sensory and motor signals) have all demonstrated documented changes in activity after meditation. Additionally, the autonomic nervous system, which operates without conscious thought, has shown decreases in heart rate and blood pressure and positive changes in cortisol and endorphin levels, among other benefits.
There are even promising results specifically for those who have dementia. According to a 2018 Reviews in the Neurosciences article on mindfulness and meditation and their impacts on cognition and stress in dementia, “All studies reported significant findings or trends towards significance in a broad range of measures, including a reduction of cognitive decline, reduction in perceived stress, increase in quality of life, as well as increases in functional connectivity, percent volume brain change, and cerebral blood flow in areas of the cortex.”
And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. —Philippians 4:8 NLT
Now, if the science babble makes your eyes roll to the back of your head, here’s something more anecdotal. The Huffington Post presented the “Top Ten Things People Want in Life but Can’t Seem to Get” in 2016 and 2017 based upon interviews of seven hundred clients of success coach and writer Kathy Caprino. The regular practice of meditation could support, if not attain, six of those reported desires (happiness, peace, joy, balance, stability, and fulfillment).
All of this sounds good, right?
But, according to a 2012 interview study by the National Institutes of Health, only 8 percent of adults in the United States practiced any form of meditation. If there is so much documentation of its benefits, why do we not move meditation closer to the top of our list of things to do—or even put it on the list in the first place for that matter? Why do we instead choose to pile on more stress and take on more responsibilities and hope somehow busyness will equate to fulfillment?
Maybe those early proponents, Christianity’s Apostle Paul, Buddha (the originator of Buddhism), and others got it wrong. Perhaps there is no peace to be found in the modern day. Maybe the times have changed too much for this to be pertinent to today’s society. But before you brush meditation off as an out-of-date solution, perhaps these giants in their faiths and regular practitioners of meditation have some insight. The Apostle Paul certainly understood the struggle. He wrestled with how to choose life-giving actions in his letter to the Roman Christians of his day telling them point blank, “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.” (Romans 7:15 NLT). Buddha himself, said, “There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting.” So, it would appear this struggle isn’t confined to one period; it is part of humanity as a whole. And if that’s the case, and these men were able to overcome the battle, then it should be possible for us today to do the same.
Perhaps the title of Tami Forman’s 2017 article for Forbes.com provides some insight: “Self-Care Is Not an Indulgence. It’s a Discipline.” Ah! There’s the rub! Discipline. Like many other d-words (e.g., dentist, diarrhea, diet), discipline doesn’t evoke feelings of fun and excitement, often requirements for stress relief. Forman wrote, “It takes discipline to do the things that are good for us instead of what feels good in the moment. It takes even more discipline to refuse to take responsibility for other people’s emotional well-being. And it takes discipline to take full and complete responsibility for our own well-being.”
Easier said than done. When everyone and everything needs you, how can self-care in general and meditation in particular be priorities without the side of guilt that seems to come free of charge these days? If boundaries are the primary struggle, perhaps there’s something that you need to do before adding meditation.
Doctors Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s multimillion-copy-selling book, Boundaries, offers excellent insights and examples for setting and maintaining, well, boundaries—with self, family, friends, and coworkers. Having boundaries is a significant first step to putting ourselves and our self-care back on the list. Setting the limits and losing the guilt will result in some bruised egos and hurt feelings, but it is well worth the effort to begin the discipline Ms. Forman mentioned.
Once the boundaries have been set and are respected, then it is time to find a meditation practice to incorporate into daily or weekly life. Whether one chooses the Western or the Eastern version, be sure to make it a priority and don’t compromise the time set aside for it. In the end, it is the intangible rather than the tangible that is the most fulfilling and life-giving.
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Felicia Ferguson holds master’s degrees in healthcare administration and speech-language pathology. A practitioner of Western meditation techniques, she demonstrates their use in her fiction book series, The Paths We Walk, available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Felicia finds inspiration in lakes and gardens and is blessed with both at her Destin home. More details may be found at FeliciaFergusonAuthor.com.