The Healing Circle Book Chapter Blog – Chapter 17 – How to Meditate
Read Chapter Seventeen: How to Meditate
This meditation addresses the normal experience of thinking while meditating, and teaches you how to refocus your attention when you notice your thoughts.
Blog by Dr. Rob Rutledge
One common misconception about meditation is that people believe they should feel peaceful and their minds should slow down when they practice. I’ve heard many people say “I could never meditate. My mind jumps everywhere. I can’t even sit still for five minutes!” People seem to think it’s just the moments of peace and clarity of mind that define the meditation practice. Instead, I see my meditation practice as simply learning to be with everything that happens in my body/mind/spirit at that time.
I realized after a few years of practice that sitting in meditation was really no different than my experience of being a physician in a busy clinic. For instance, I may be listening to one of my patients, and suddenly I start thinking about my busy schedule or what I need to do that evening. When I realize I’m not listening, I simply bring my attention back. They might go on to say something that reminds me of being in high school and off I go reflecting on my past– reliving a memory. When I catch myself, I bring my attention back. At other times while listening I hear something really touching – and suddenly I get caught up in an emotional response – my heart begins to ache. Other times I just get so agitated with what’s happening I want to run out of the room. But I stay and listen. With practice I’m better able to stay with the discomforts and distractions which occur naturally while listening, not get pulled away, and bring more focus on the person in front of me. I believe I’ve become a better physician for it.
Meditation practice encompasses all of our experience. By not running away from the painful feelings during sitting practice (and in our everyday lives), they can run their course, and we can heal our emotional bodies. This same wisdom is now being applied to helping people who suffer from different types of addictions. Late psychologist Dr. Alan Marlatt created a technique of paying close attention to the bodily sensations which arise when we have a craving. He noted these feeling build, crescendo, and dissipate quickly like a wave – so he coined the term ‘Surfing the Urge’. Rarely do the physical symptoms of strong urges last more than 30 minutes, and if people can train themselves through mindfulness and compassion to stay with the discomfort it appears the cravings lose their power over time.
In one rigorous experiment smokers were asked to abstain for 24 hours, then told to show up at the lab with an unopened pack of smokes. They were then instructed to prepare to smoke a cigarette in a precise sequence, with each step lasting two minutes. During the two-minute period between instructions they were guided to pay very close attention to their bodily sensations. Example instructions reads as follows:
“Get out your lighter. STOP!” …..
The smokers were guided this way for over 60 minutes (>30 instructions) – and they never got to smoke their cigarette. Compared with a control group who got the ‘stop and go’ instructions only, the smokers who were taught to ‘Surf the Urge’ between instructions decreased their smoking by 40% in the next week without being asked, and were able to break the reflex of psychological stress leading to lighting up.
The ability of surfing the waves of our ongoing urges and cravings – without getting caught up or acting on them – is one of many benefits of meditation practice. Remarkably, it’s easiest to learn how to meditate, like learning how to ‘Surf the Urge’, when we are especially loving towards ourselves.
Dr. Rob Rutledge is a Radiation Oncologist in Halifax, Nova Scotia, specializing in breast, prostate and pediatric cancers. He is also an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University.