Of all the places to experience the power of meditation, the Exhibit Hall at the annual meeting of America’s Health Insurance Plans (an industry trade group) would probably not be near the top of the list.
Yet there I was in Nashville this past June as a Stress Management Specialist for the Ornish Healthways Program for Reversing Heart Disease. Our booth provided an opportunity to learn about this integrated lifestyle modification program, which Dr. Dean Ornish conceived around four equally weighted elements: nutrition, exercise, stress management, and group support.
Having worked countless conferences as a corporate spokesperson over the past 20 years, I was familiar with the scene. Conference centers are vast, functional and cold – literally and figuratively. Add carpet fumes, florescent lighting, fast food, and noise and… well, it’s not the kind of vibe I ever seek out.
The theme of this year’s AHIP conference was “More Value, Better Care,” with a focus on making consumers’ health care experiences simpler, more convenient, and more affordable. At our booth, I would sit with strangers for just a precious few minutes and take them through a guided meditation on the breath.
Meditation and breathing are an integral part of the Ornish Stress Management component, which also includes gentle movement, deep relaxation, and imagery. It’s also what I always begin with in one-on-one yoga therapy sessions. Why? It’s the easiest place to begin. We all know how to do it.
If you’re alive, you’re breathing – maybe not mindfully or to your fullest potential, but breathing nevertheless.
Everyone can start with the breath. And because breath is the bridge between mind and body, it can change our physiology in a matter of seconds.
Still, I had my doubts that anyone could benefit in such a noisy environment as the Exhibit Hall. Distractions abounded in that busy, cavernous space.
One by one, folks dropped by, either solo or in pairs. I invited them to have a seat and spoke briefly about the Ornish program’s integrative approach.
I asked if they had any experience with meditation. Many said that they’d tried but gave up because it was too hard or their mind was too crazy, or, or, or… Many also said that they knew they needed to do something for their stress. They just couldn’t find the motivation or stick-to-it-iveness.
Eventually, I asked each person to put down their belongings, close their eyes and bring their awareness to their breath.
Can you hear the sound of your own breath?
Is it restricted in any way?
Is one nostril more congested than the other? Notice which one.
What is the quality of the air you are breathing?
Notice the temperature on the inhalation.
Notice the temperature on the exhalation.
Keep going for a few seconds longer.
Focus on the breath at the tip of the nose.
If your mind wanders, just notice.
Where did your mind go to first?
Perhaps to upcoming plans.
Perhaps a distant memory.
Perhaps current concerns or worries.
Just notice your thoughts, without judgment – and in the same way a loving parent might guide a child – bring your awareness back to the breath at the tip of the nose.
In and out.
In and out.
In and out.
Feel the rhythm of life expressed in the breath.
Keeping the gaze down for a few moments, slowly open your eyes.
Awaken all your senses to the environment around you, and gradually and gently reenter.
Without exception, every person who sat with me, amidst PA announcements and other trade show distractions, opened their eyes at the end of three minutes of practice and radiated joy and contentment. They looked childlike and grateful.
And I felt so happy. Never before in such a cacophonous environment had I experienced being of service in a way that made a brief, but truly palpable difference to people.
People asked me how to keep it going, and I offered them the advice that I share with all my clients:
- Set yourself up for success.
- Start small.
- Practice daily so that your body/mind starts to crave the benefits. Try to practice in the morning by getting up 10 minutes earlier. Or alternatively, practice at night, before bedtime, for an easier transition into sleep.
- Practice anytime you need to unplug from the distractions of life, so that you can refocus and be present for whatever life is serving up.
One of the most memorable encounters I had was with a woman in her 50s who told me she’d always thought she was “doing meditation wrong” because her mind never quieted. She’d long ago given up, feeling as if she was a failure. I told her that she was, in fact, succeeding: The act of noticing the thoughts is the whole point. It’s through mindfulness of the “monkey mind” that we learn to witness, detach, and come back to the breath – or mantra, or prayer, as you prefer.
Over time, like a puppy being trained, the mind begins to obey and become quiet.
Yet the process is never over. Life throws curveballs. Life can be hard. But how worthwhile to be able to step back for a few minutes and return with renewed energy, clear vision, and presence!
If such a simple tool can have a perceptible effect amidst noise and chaos, imagine how beneficial it could be in an environment of your choice!
Give it a try. We’d love to hear your feedback.