Have you ever felt deterred from meditation due to an impression that you might be asked to sit still and “clear” your mind? Most of us feel this is unobtainable, and rather than risk failure, we avoid meditation entirely.
There can be some misunderstandings about the purpose and practice of meditation, which unfortunately might cause many to miss out on its benefits.
The goal of meditation is not to totally clear the mind.
You wouldn’t want an absolutely clear mind, just as you wouldn’t want your heart to stop beating. However, meditation can be used to harness activity in the mind in order to improve the ability to problem solve, and increase the body’s resilience to stress, which in turn contributes to such physiological effects as improving inflammatory markers and hormone regulation during and after stress, enhancing quality of sleep and recovery, and decreasing body fat.
Research shows that meditation changes the structure and function of one’s brain to increase learning, cognition and emotional regulation, and lessen anxiety, fear and stress. It is in everyone’s best interest to use the power of the mind for the greatest good.
The mind instinctively weighs pros and cons before taking any immediate action. As wonderfully complex as the mind is, without neurologic and emotional training such as that offered by meditation, an impulsive action could turn out to be reckless or even deadly.
Just as an untrained puppy is apt to run around with many distractions, an untrained mind may be apt to meander without focus. If the puppy is to be an attentive companion, it needs consistent training. Similarly, if the mind is to have the habitual ability to center concentration, it needs consistent meditation practice.
According to Amishi Jha, a neuroscientist and one of the leading researchers in mindfulness and meditation, “Wherever attention goes, the rest of the brain follows”. The power of that kind of attention affect s perception, and perception affects how one performs under pressure.
Stress and a wandering mind negatively affect attention and fog up judgment when it’s needed most. And what job requires acute attention to detail and fast, accurate judgment for actions which can mean the difference between life and death? Public Safety.
We Are of Two Minds
Have you ever had a conversation with yourself? For example, have you ever been lying in bed as one part of your mind cycles through the lyrics of a song while the other part of your mind yells, “Be quiet and let me sleep”?
What are these two parts of the mind having the argument? Eastern philosophy teaches us that one part of the mind identifies with the basic elements that make up who we are on Earth, e.g., male or female, tall or short, rich or poor. We’ll call that part of the mind, “ego”. The other part is the higher or “all knowing” part of the mind that does not judge, but rather observes and accepts. We’ll call that part of the mind “consciousness”. Consciousness is the same part of the mind with gut instincts, unexplainably knowing the right answer in a tough situation.
Meditation offers exercises and techniques to strengthen the consciousness part of the mind. Strengthening the conscious mind means to get to know it better, to trust it, and to give it a platform where it can observe the ego as it runs around “without a leash”. This same platform of meditation then gives you the power to put the leash back on, and tell the ego to “sit and stay”.
Meditation allows a non-reactive observation of what is true about every given moment, without the need to judge it, or to change any part of it.
Translating Meditation to Emergency Medical Services
Matt Charnetski was a Critical Care and 911 Paramedic in Central Iowa. He currently works as the Director of Simulation Based Education and Research at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. I asked him several questions about meditation such as why he started, how he practices, why he thinks meditation is difficult for the EMS culture to embrace, and at the same time why he thinks it should.
Here are his responses:
“I was really struggling with a lot of mental health and focus problems and looked to meditation to try and alleviate my anxiety and my difficulty sleeping. Much like mobility work for my body, if I had found meditation a little earlier I might have (stayed on the job) a bit longer. Practicing meditation made me more comfortable in my own skin, personally and professionally.
“The pop culture version of meditation is always a little bit ridiculous and depicted in a kind of silly way. Sometimes I get a little turned off by some of the fuzzy wuzzy woo woo. My experience in EMS is that we tend to be pragmatic and want to focus on the issue at hand. Relating meditation back to a practical function makes a huge difference.
“It takes a little practice and a little time to become familiarized with the techniques and get in the habit. Trying to sit and do a long meditation session right out of the gate just sets you up for failure. I try and do 3-4 longer sessions of 15-20 min every week. And then I try to fill in the rest of the days with a quick 5 min check-in at least once a day. I slow down and meditate focusing on the reaction in my body, trying to identify the stimuli. I think focusing on practical applications and starting with little bites of time will make the biggest difference.
“Being a paramedic is hard, for all the reasons we all talk about, but it also takes a toll on you over time. And it’s not always the big bad and obvious things. We cringe when people ask what’s the worst thing we’ve ever seen. But I think the constant sense of vigilance, of being on the verge of being called and needing to be 100% ready whenever that call comes, that’s the thing that really starts to chip away at you. Meditation and practices like it are about increasing resilience and capacity. It won’t make you bulletproof, but it can increase your capacity to carry and manage that load, whether it’s physical or mental.
“There is no question in my mind that meditation would be beneficial for EMS.
Start Meditating Now
You already have everything you need to start a meditation practice. You can meditate
seated or lying down, standing still or moving. Although no prerequisite training is
required, guidance from a teacher is helpful. When one sits to meditate, he or she is
asked to focus on a specific technique or “meditation object” that is given by a teacher or
whoever is guiding the practice. Examples of these techniques include repeating a
phrase to yourself --traditionally called a “mantra”-- creating measured breath patterns,
internal visualization, observation of your own movement, or observing an outside object
such as a candle flame.
While the conscious mind focuses on a meditation object, it can simultaneously observe the ego mind as it naturally wanders. Thoughts may include: I’m bored. Am I doing this right? What time is it? I’m hungry. Did I just fall asleep? Is falling asleep bad in meditation? The point is for the conscious mind to recognize these thoughts, and then systematically and calmly return to the meditation object. That is how one trains to stay in the meditation driver’s seat. If we negatively judge ourselves for having distractions, needless frustration occurs.
In the same way a dog’s chew toy provides the ability for our four-legged friends to focus attention, a meditation technique can provide our way to one-pointed focus, the meditation technique being the “chew toy” for the mind. The more one meditates, the more one can recognize when the ego is “off leash” running to destructive patterns and thoughts, but then also the easier one can use tools to bring it back and “heel” at the desired focus.
Try this simple 15 minute audio meditation as your guide. In this exercise, the meditation object is inward visualization. All you need to do is listen and watch your thoughts, and you will be successfully performing the practice. And then the next day, do it again. You will have become someone who meditates.
Written by Olivia Mead
Originally written for EMS World
Olivia Mead is Founder and CEO of the non-profit organization YogaShield® Yoga For First Responders® (YFFR). YFFR offers tools such as yoga, breath and mindfulness in a manner that is job-specific and culturally informed for public safety for the purposes of processing stress, building resilience and enhancing performance. Olivia has traveled around the country training thousands of first responders and military personnel in the methodology she developed for YFFR. Her work has been featured in O, the Oprah Magazine, CBS This Morning, National Geographic, Reebok and more.