Teaching new techniques without a foundation and without understandable goals is bound to lead to failure, disinterest, or self-recrimination for not doing it right, thereby increasing anxiety. Many meditation practices are intertwined with Hindu and Buddhist teachings taught by gurus; however, those taught within IM centers are secular and presented as tools to achieve peace and maintain focus in the midst of every day stressors.
Transcendental meditation (TM) and mindfulness are perhaps the 2 most common meditation practices in the West, with many years of research supporting them. TM, sometimes referred to as a one-point meditation, uses a mantra — a single-syllable sound — as the point of focus to quiet the mind, with the goal of transcending thought to no thought. People unable to go through the formal teaching can use this technique by incorporating an affirming one-syllable word such as love, hope, joy, health, or peace, thereby adding an affirmation to help quiet the mind. TM typically is a 20-minute sit twice a day.
More commonly practiced in America is mindfulness, sometimes referred to as a 2-point meditation: breath as the point of focus and nonjudgmental awareness when you notice the mind has wandered. The truth is that thoughts start well before we are consciously aware of them. In times of crisis, those thoughts are often negative, spiraling into anxiety and/or depression. The metaphor monkey mind is often used to describe jumbled thoughts. Just as monkeys jump indiscriminately from tree to tree, our thoughts jump indiscriminately from idea to idea. The wandering mind is often triggered by somatic sensations in our bodies or psychic thoughts in our brains. A sensory sensation gets processed in the mind creating an emotion. Likewise, a psychic thought gets held in our bodies creating tension. As a result, in both cases during crisis, negative thoughts or painful feelings can double one’s suffering. A 3-breath exercise in one of the above positions (breathe in filling the lower lungs, slight pause, then exhale, with a long pause after 3 breaths) almost always calms the mind and changes the tone and energy of a crisis moment.
These 3 simple steps establish the foundation of meditation and can be presented in a common area or private place. If it resonates, patients can continue beyond 3 breaths and be referred to an IM practitioner to get additional grounding in the practice or to CancerCare’s free meditation app with experienced teachers and hours of calming music. Perhaps most important, is to leave people with the feeling that doing it just once can help, and avoid leaving them with the feeling that this has to be a disciplined practice to reap the benefits. People confronting cancer are already feeling that they have to do everything right. Letting patients know that they can use this tool as they wish, and feel good about doing it when they do, can be the reward in and of itself.
Richard Dickens is director of Client Advocacy at CancerCare.
Are you tapping the endless power of breathing? The Art of Breathing Online website. http://www.theartofbreathing.com/. Accessed April 23, 2019.
Hurley D. Breathing in vs. spacing out. The New York Times Magazine; January 14, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/19/magazine/breathing-in-vs-spacing-out.html. Accessed April 26, 2019.
Kabat-Zinn J. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness New York, NY: Bantam Books; 2013.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Science of Being and Art of Living: Transcendental Meditation. New York, NY: Penguin; 2001.
Meditation basics. Yoga Basics website.
http://www.yogabasics.com/practice/meditation-basics/. Accessed April 24, 2019.