Dr. Strange Nerve or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Daily Meditation
Meditation. It’s a concept surrounded by many misconceptions. It might conjure up visions of wise gurus or far away lands. And for some people, myself included, it’s also a word that sparks anxiety. But it wasn’t always that way.
Once upon a time, I would meditate daily. I started this practice when I was spending a lot of time in bed having been newly diagnosed with multiple autoimmune conditions. As I researched more about my condition, I found studies suggesting that improving the tone of the vagus nerve would improve my overall health. That lead me to meditation and a daily practice that lasted for years.
Not only has this ancient practice passed the test of time, but there are a myriad of scientific studies showing the benefits of meditation. They conclude that practicing meditation not only improves emotional wellbeing and mental function, it also does some things you wouldn’t necessarily expect, such as increasing immune function and decreasing pain and inflammation. Check out these studies and this one and this one for the details.
How and Why I Started Meditating
The benefits of immune-boosting and inflammation relief brought my awareness to meditation in 2013. At the time, I was in the middle of a health crisis. After more than a year of unexplained and seemly unrelated health problems, my health hit rock bottom. I was bedridden, but also extremely motivated to find a way to get better. After countless doctor visits, I finally received the autoimmune diagnosis and had a place to start finding my path back to health. I refused to accept that this would be my life moving forward.
I did a lot of research and experimenting on myself. (Look for future blog posts about the other things I learned, including strategies for health and healing when you have an autoimmune condition, the connection between autoimmune conditions and trauma, how to address “explosive inflammation,” as well as the effects of chronic stress and strategies for decreasing it.)
One of my discoveries during this time of intense investigation was about the vagus nerve and its role in creating and maintaining health.
Not All Who Wander are Lost
The vagus nerve. It’s quite the unusual nerve – it’s very long, its path is winding, and it controls our “rest and digest” functions, among other things. Its role in regulating normal bodily function is massive, and we are still learning new things about what it does all the time.
Vagus means “wandering” in Latin. It’s so named because, unlike other nerves that have mostly straight pathways, the vagus nerve meanders around the body, connecting the brain to the gut, the heart, the lungs, and more.
The Reset Button
But what does the vagus nerve have to do with meditation? Well, meditation stimulates the vagus nerve and sends a signal to your brain that you’re safe and can shift out of the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system and into the “rest and digest” parasympathetic mode.
It’s as if the vagus nerve is your body’s reset button. Meditation is one way to stimulate and improve its tone, but there are other ways to stimulate the vagus nerve, including acupuncture, applying essential oils behind the ears – even surgically implanting a device that sends electrical signals through the vagus nerve.
You can learn more about the vagus nerve and meditation here.
Time Travel with Me
Fast forward to 2 months ago. I’m standing in shiatsu class, and the instructor says something to the effect of, “You know that one change you’ve been meaning to make to benefit your health that you’ve been putting off? Well, your assignment for the next 8 weeks is to make that change, document it, and share it with your patients.” I was filled with anxiety because I immediately knew that had to be daily meditation. You see, although I had a daily meditation practice for years, I fell out of it, and I’ve been trying to get back into the routine for many months. I’d meditate one or two days in a row, and then I’d get busy, or sick, or … or … or … and then it would stop.
My Journey Back
So, knowing all of the benefits of meditation and personally experiencing them, why did the idea of restarting a daily practice fill me with dread?
I’ve struggled with anxiety my entire life. I could give a million reasons why – childhood trauma, modeling parental behavior, genetics, mental habits, nervous system dysfunction. But in the end, the cause doesn’t really matter. Lots of things make me nervous, but meditation is high on that list. Thinking about meditating makes me want to do anything else in the world. It could be because when I slow down and stop “doing” and start “being,” things get real in an unpredictable way.
You can’t control the outcome of meditation. You don’t know which path your mind will wander down or what emotions will float to the surface. I know from experience that these anxieties are worse than anything that comes up during meditation. When I can keep this in mind, it’s easier not to fight the idea of meditating.
A Rocky Start
This wasn’t a great time to start a new habit. But, is there ever a good time to start a new habit? In addition to dealing with some new health challenges, I was also in the middle of moving in with my partner. I felt physically and mentally drained.
Despite my hesitation, I decided when and how I was going to meditate. I would add it to my bedtime routine, starting with 5 minutes a day with the goal to build up to 20 minutes per day. The first night wasn’t so bad, and I questioned why I had been fighting it for so long. I was exhausted from moving boxes, and meditation helped me relax physically and mentally, as well as clear my mind for sleep.
The next night wasn’t as smooth. After another day of moving boxes, I couldn’t go more than 1 second without my mind wandering away, and I felt fidgety and restless. It was 5 minutes of frustration, and I ended my session feeling annoyed.
Both feelings and experiences were common during the first 2 weeks. During this time, I experimented with different types of meditation, going back and forth between mindful meditations and concentration meditations, as well as switching up the time and location.
The first week I meditated 6 days; the second week only 3 days. I committed to doing better moving forward.
By the third week, I was feeling less aggravated while meditating. I had figured out that I enjoy meditating in group settings and have done this as much as possible since then. I also discovered that meditating while receiving acupuncture was one of my favorite ways to practice.
At 3 weeks, I increased my daily meditation sessions to 10 minutes, and at 6 weeks I increased to 15 minutes per day.
I still would have days when I was easily distracted and restless, but they became less frequent as time went on. The days when I enjoyed meditating and ended my sessions feeling happier and relaxed also increased.
Thinking about meditating no longer fills my mind with anxiety, and I now look forward to this daily habit. I’ve re-established a daily practice, and I think you should give it a go, too!
What is Meditation?
Stepping back. What is meditation, actually? Meditation is being fully present in this moment in time. Now in this moment. Now in this moment. Now in this one. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
First, let’s address some myths around meditation. Then I’ll give you some steps to get you started on your practice.
Meditation Myth 1: Empty your Mind
Great news. Your goal need not be to clear your mind. The benefits from meditating come not from “clearing your mind,” but from noticing that your mind has wandered and redirecting it back to the present moment.
As humans, we never get to a state in which our minds are fully empty. The goal of meditation isn’t to stop your mind from thinking. It’s about learning how to work with your mind instead of against it. It’s getting to know its paths of least resistance (where do your thoughts go when left to their own devices?). Meditation is an act of witnessing (mindful meditation) or refocusing the mind (concentration meditation). (More about the different types of meditating further down the page.) As one monk puts it, the goal of meditation is to make friends with your monkey mind.
Meditation Myth 2: It Makes You Instantly Happy
Meditation is not about blissing out while sliding down the rainbow of eternal happiness.
It does improve overall mood over time, but it’s not a drug, and it doesn’t happen instantaneously. Generally speaking, people start noticing an improvement in mood after 1-3 weeks of daily practice.
Meditation Myth 3: It’s Religious
Meditation does not require you to believe in any specific dogmas or subscribe to any religious or spiritual beliefs. You can hold your own spiritual/religious beliefs, be an atheist, or agnostic and still benefit from meditating. Although there are some who use meditation as a religious practice, the simple act of meditating will not interfere with your personal, religious, or spiritual beliefs.
Meditation Myth 4: Sitting on the Hard Floor in the Lotus Position
For most Americans, sitting crossed-legged with their feet resting on their thighs is uncomfortable! It’s also totally unnecessary for meditation.
You want to make sure that you’re in a comfortable position, and that your spine is straight. You can achieve this by sitting on a chair, a cushion, or the floor. If you prefer or if you have physical needs that make sitting uncomfortable, you can also get into a relaxed position with a straight spine by lying down.
Steps to Get Started
Step 1: Commit to Starting the Practice
Notice I say practice because starting a meditation practice is like starting a fitness routine. But, instead of training your body, you’re training your mind. You wouldn’t expect to see immediate improvement after going to the gym once, but you know that going to the gym consistently will yield results. You’ll have days when it’s easy and enjoyable, and you’ll have days when it’s a struggle to get motivated or the work seems more difficult. The same is true of meditation. Commit to the practice. Have faith in the process. Start now.
Step 2: Commit to When and Where You’ll Meditate
Deciding what time of day to meditate can make or break your practice. Many people find that meditating first thing in the morning works best for them. It’s easy to find excuses not to meditate once you get busy with daily tasks. Other people like to use meditation as an exercise to focus the mind after a long day and practice before bed.
Whatever time you decide, commit to meditating at the same time each day. This has a couple of benefits. First, it makes it easier to start the habit because you can plan for it without having to decide each day when to do it. Second, meditating at the same time helps create the routine. Set an alarm on your phone if you need to. (I definitely need to.)
If, after a few weeks, you find that the time of day you selected isn’t working for you, try another time and stick to that for a while. It’s also helpful in the beginning to meditate in the same space each day for the same reasons that it’s helpful to meditate at the same time.
Step 3: Start Small
Start with an amount of time that you know you can do. I started with 5 minutes a day. If that sounds like too much, start with 2 minutes a day. You can start anywhere, as long as you’re consistent. Over time, increase the length of your sessions.
Go at your own rate. If the idea of meditating is stressing you out or causing anxiety, decrease the length of your session, and see if that changes anything. After 8 weeks of meditating, I’ve built up to 15 minutes a day, although there are days when I do 10 minutes when 15 feels like too much.
Step 4: Experiment with Different Types of Meditations
There are about 4 trillion different ways to meditate, but most of them fall into 2 categories.
These types of meditations involve focusing the mind on something that’s happening in the present moment. It could be focusing on the breath or repeating a word in your mind.
Whenever your mind wanders off topic, you kindly redirect it back to the point of focus. When thoughts come up when I’m meditating, I like to imagine them as thought bubbles in a comic book, or sometimes I mentally wrap them in a soap bubble and let them drift out into space.
The most common type of concentration meditation is the breathing meditation. (Learn how to do a simple breathing meditation.)
One of my favorite concentration meditations, I call the Hear Every Sound game. Just notice what you hear. Give it a try.
This type of meditation asks you to observe your thoughts and emotions without trying to change them and without placing a value judgment on them. There are no “good” or “bad” thoughts or emotions.
Be still. Be curious. See where your thoughts lead. Thinking about a demented Santa? That’s interesting. Thinking about what’s for dinner? Right on. Feeling anxious about tomorrow? No problem. Just notice it and follow your mind.
After a while of practicing mindful meditation, you might start to see patterns arise. Be curious about them, and you might be surprised by what you learn about yourself.
Meditate With a Friend
This can be in person or online. Starting a new habit with a friend not only increases social pressure to stick to it, it also gives you someone to talk with about your experiences.
Meditating in a Group
Some people find that their nervous systems quiet down faster when they’re around other friendly people who are also quieting their nervous systems.
For those of you in Austin, AOMA provides free weekly Community Wellness Hour, which includes NADA treatments and a silent meditation. While you’re there, try meditating with needles in! It’s amazing 🙂
Track Your Progress
It can be helpful to use an app for the timer function and log your meditations. There’s quite a few of them out there. I personally like Insight Timer. It’s simple, well designed, has lots of great guided meditations, and there’s a social component if you’re into that. Plus, it’s free.
Adjust as Needed
As with all practices, you might not get it exactly right on the first go. Or, you might find that your needs change over time. Know that all of these are guidelines, not rules. If something isn’t working for you, ask yourself what needs to change, and listen for your inner voice to provide the answer. This can take practice too if it’s not something that’s already a tool in your toolbox. Sometimes, that voice speaks very softly, and you’ll need to listen carefully. Other times it might shout it at you.
Meditation Benefits Everyone
If everyone on the planet meditated, we would be living in a very different world. I imagine it would be a world where people felt more at home in their bodies, were happier and healthier, and felt more connected to their fellow humans and the rhythms of nature. It could create a world where people talk through their differences instead of resorting to physical and emotional violence. It might be a world without war. You never know. It starts with each of us.
I hope that this post encourages you to try meditation. If you’d like to learn more, I have all the links from this post and more on our Meditation Pinterest board.
If you have any questions, or if you found this post to be valuable, please leave a comment below and let me know! I’d love to hear your thoughts.