Meditation as Medicine

As I shared briefly in our last session, meditation can serve as a potent ‘medicine’ in the sense that it supports and enhances the body’s natural healing capacity. If we can accept that the body is a ‘natural healing system’ with its own built-in mechanisms for regulating and even optimizing all its functions and processes; then it should follow that if left uninterrupted, this healing system would simply keep humming along as its meant to.

This begs the question, what culprits are interrupting this natural state of health? As most of us know, stress is one of the number one causes of poor health and ‘dis-ease’. What is important to understand is the why. When we are ‘stressed’, what this actually means is that the nervous system is functioning in its stress-response mode or ‘fight or flight’ mode. Also known as the ‘sympathetic response’, this built-in ‘threat circuitry’ fires up when danger is present. The body releases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline to support our survival (think running from a bear in the wild).  Although this is an essential function, most of us, most of the time, do not face any actual danger to this degree. Human beings have developed the capacity to turn on fight or flight by thought alone over thousands of years of conditioning or ‘practice’ in predicting and ultimately avoiding danger or discomfort of any kind.

In simplest terms, we could say that fight or flight now switches on even at the slightest hint of something unwanted. This means that we are likely to be ‘resting’ in a state of low-grade stress or ‘chronic stress’ at any given time (that we are thinking).  Because we have become ‘wired’ to fixate on the problems and obstacles, the drama and the worry, we sort of get stuck here. Because the body has become used to this cocktail of hormones, its like we are addicted to this state of frenzy or worry, also known as anxiety, ADD, or depression to name a few. This is not to say that these conditions are not real and not to be taken seriously but simply to imply that we have more control and power than we think.

This is where meditation comes in. When fight or flight is in effect, all energy goes toward ‘survival’. Whether this is an actual crisis situation unfolding or more of a mental melodrama, the body’s physiology adapts to ‘call all hands on deck’ (think low-battery mode). Blood flow to organ systems that are non-essential such as the digestive and reproductive systems is lessened in attempts to send more through the stress response systems such as the circulatory and respiratory as well as to the extremities. This is only meant to last until the ‘stress’ is over and then the system can return to harmony. The problem is our constant preoccupation with the next stressor or the last one keeps us stuck in this place of disharmony or dis-ease.

Meditation implies a ‘neutral mind’ or a state of non-thinking. The other function of the nervous system is often referred to as ‘rest and digest’, the state in which there is very little interruption or ‘static’ to scramble the frequency of health. Since so much of our thinking goes toward avoiding unwanted circumstances and we see how this can evoke a stress response, we can clearly see how a practice of not thinking, would be a wonderful antidote to the debilitating effects of stress. Conceptually this makes sense but in practice we realize it’s a tricky state to achieve. It is important to realize that we aren’t aiming at locking into a state of no thought but rather using meditation as a ‘reset button’ for the physical and subtle body (nervous system) to create a ‘backdrop’ of homeostasis that's more sustained. Even just brief moments of no thought can have a powerful impact on our total health.

Like anything, the more we practice, the more we develop this skill. It’s helpful to think of improving our ‘comeback rate’ from stressful experiences and sticky thoughts as a way of teaching the body to spend more time in rest and digest (balance, harmony) and less time stuck or obsessing over the issues, traumas, grievances etc. We can think of it as the ability to ‘trick the body’ into believing all is well even when things we have a lot going on as a way of maintaining optimal health (#lifehack).