Be the mountain

Grounded! What is the first thought that comes to mind when you hear that word? If you’re a child, you probably associate it with the punishment of being confined to home for a while. A pilot might also view it as punitive, not being allowed to fly. But someone who is trying to connect with awareness and being present in the moment sees “being grounded” as something quite beneficial. Are the positive and negative definitions really so far apart?

I started thinking about grounding yesterday during some restorative poses in yoga class. Our teacher was talking about surrendering to gravity, letting the earth support us, and how gravity is such an elemental force in the universe. Sometimes we need to reestablish that connection to solid ground, especially after times of intense activity or stress in our lives.

Children want to “fly” most of the time. They have so much energy and they are growing so rapidly that sometimes they go too far, too fast, and a time-out or grounding is necessary. As adults, we can self-impose our time-outs, but, like children, we don’t always recognize that we need one. Or, if we do acknowledge the need, we delay it until we “have time”.

Periods of disruption to our daily routines, such as a lot of travel, caring for a family member, or even preparing for holidays can make us feel as if our feet have left the ground for a while. Sometimes we have the luxury of being able to take a few days at home to rejuvenate, but most times we don’t. In those cases it can be helpful to have some tools to help us stay grounded even in the midst of turmoil.

  • Mountain Meditation – there are several versions of this meditation. I use one from Frank Jude Boccio with my students:   Start by sitting in a comfortable, stable and supported position. Imagine a very tall, impressive mountain; think about how the mountain might change with the seasons or the weather, sometimes visible, other times covered with clouds; sometimes green, other times snow-covered. But throughout the changes, the mountain remains stable. Think of your posture as mountain-like, and think of your emotions and experiences as coming and going like the clouds and the sunshine. You have the ability to maintain stability just like the mountain.
  • Get your hands dirty – Jeff Brantley and Wendy Millstine recommend this practice in their book, Five Good Minutes:    Spend some time digging in sand or dirt, working in your garden, or even repotting a houseplant. Focus on how the soil feels, and what it nourishes. (Bread-making, or working with other kinds of dough, would provide a similar experience.)
  • Restorative yoga – this type of yoga practice requires little in the way of experience or special ability. It uses lots of props such as blankets and blocks to support you while you rest in different postures. For a good overview of the practice see the Yoga Journal web page.
  • Take a sensory walk – this walk will serve to focus your awareness and heighten your experience of your surroundings. Be sure to turn off your phone before you start, and bring along some food or gum for the taste portion of the walk:  Go for a walk, and spend three minutes or so concentrating on each sense one at a time. So, first focus just on the sounds around you; then the smells; next, touch everything that you can; and finally see everything around you as if for the first time. After that, find a place to sit down and close your eyes. Spend the last three minutes on taste, using the food that you brought with you. When you are finished, get up and walk again, using all of your senses. Allow yourself to experience whatever presents itself, without too much planning or judgment.

John Muir said, “I never saw a discontented tree. They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast rooted they travel about as far as we do. “

Relax into better health

Last Thursday, I was privileged to hear Dr. Herbert Benson, a leader in the field of mind-body medicine, give the keynote address kicking off Mind-Body Week D.C. Although he reiterated much of the material found in his many books and papers, it was still a treat for me to hear him discuss it.

Dr. Benson started his research over 40 years ago as a young medical doctor. At a time when doing research into the connection between mind and body, and spirituality and healing, could be a sure-fire career-ender, he was brave enough to pursue it. In doing so, he defined the effect known as the “relaxation response” and conducted study after study showing how it could be evoked, and what its benefits are.

Benson believes that medical care should consist of what he calls the “3-legged stool”, where the three legs are self-care, medications and procedures. In order for us to have optimal wellness, all three legs must be utilized as needed. His life’s work has been to show how our ability to use the first leg, to heal ourselves, is real and powerful.

In his ground-breaking book, The Relaxation Response, first published in 1975, Benson explained how the relaxation response could counteract the effects of the stress (or “fight or flight”) response. In fact, the relaxation response is the direct opposite of the stress response. In essence, we cannot be stressed and relaxed at the same time.

Benson also demystified meditation for people. While his initial research started with transcendental meditation, he demonstrated how the relaxation response could be achieved using some basic elements of T.M., without needing a mantra or a spiritual guru. Anyone can access it without cost or special equipment. Here are the steps he recommends:

  • Choose a word or phrase on which to focus (some examples are words such as love, peace, or one; or words with religious meaning).
  • Sit quietly in a comfortable position that you can maintain for some time.
  • Close your eyes and relax your muscles.
  • Breathe slowly and naturally, repeating your focus word as you exhale.
  • Maintain a passive, non-judging attitude. If your mind wanders, keep coming back to your breath and your word.
  • Continue in this manner for 10-20 minutes (beginners should try for 5 minutes at a time).

Using mental focusing techniques to bring about relaxation is not radical now as it was in 1975. But it is still not fully a part of Western medicine. Integrative medicine centers exist at many hospitals, but it often seems that they function alongside, rather than as full partners with the traditional departments. That’s too bad, because over the years, Herbert Benson and others have developed a body of research that shows that regularly practicing relaxation:

  • Can lead to lower blood pressure and lower heart rate
  • Reduces metabolism and breathing rate
  • Reduces the harmful effects of stress
  • Leads to changes on the genetic level in areas that control inflammation, aging, and insulin use

By calling upon our ability to relax, we can reduce the physical symptoms of stress. We also have the potential to reduce our use of the health care system since a majority of doctor visits are for stress-related complaints. We can take more control of our health.

Deepak Chopra has said “Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering into the quiet that’s already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day”. When we regularly experience that quiet, it can also open a mental door that allows us to be receptive to ideas. In that way, a regular relaxation practice can also help us learn, be more creative, and think more clearly.