Avoid stress – the recipe for a long, healthy life is genius in its simplicity, but in practice tends to be difficult to implement. However, with a few simple spiritual exercises we can discover peace and happiness within our daily struggles. It’s worth a try!
When stress doesn’t last long, it can act as a motivator. It’s worse when we are exposed to it for longer periods. Then, we may start to experience low mood, panic attacks, insomnia and many other disorders. Stress spreads through our body. Our breathing becomes shallow, blood circulation favours internal organs over the hands and feet, we feel cold, we sweat, we feel dryness in the mouth. The heart is disturbed; it begins to beat irregularly, in a distorted way. It signals to the brain, which only strengthens and amplifies the chaos. As a result, our higher cognitive functions – such as logical thinking and control of emotions – are impaired. This is why stress makes us explosive, argumentative and impulsive. In this state, we cannot acquire any new knowledge and our memory will begin to fail us. A fast-paced life and a few extra tensions are enough for our body and mind to enter this state.
Meditation is one of the most effective tools for calming our minds. This word makes us think of the smell of incense and the monasteries of the Far East. It may seem that Western culture was not aware of these techniques until the first hippies returned from exotic voyages to India or Tibet in the late 1960s. However, this is not the case. There are dozens of different types of meditation. Instructions can be found in every religion, Christianity included. Once scientists became interested in these matters, meditation lost its spiritual connotations and evolved into mindfulness techniques. One does not need to believe in any higher power to meditate. And, as both priest and scientist will confirm, it really is worthwhile meditating.
There are many methods of working with the mind. Put simply, the aim is to distance yourself from your own thoughts, becoming a calm, passive observer. We allow them our thoughts flow freely, without becoming attached to any of them. This is never easy; the mind behaves like a crazy monkey, our thoughts running in all directions – just chaos. This is what it’s like at the so-called best of times, let alone now! Over recent months, reality has been shaken to its core. The pandemic has impacted every area of our lives. All plans have had to be changed; fear has become the loyal companion of our everyday lives.
Let’s get started then. Are you sitting comfortably? Maybe you’d rather lie down? Do it. Close your eyes. Lay your hand on your heart, so you can feel its beat with your fingertips. You can stroke it gently, like a beloved child’s head. Forget about this unfortunate year. Think back to a better time. Maybe your last carefree holiday? That time you lay in the sun, stretched out like a cat, with the gentle sound of the azure sea in your ears. A moment ago, you and your friends had been sitting in the bistro, the food was delicious, and the wine so pleasantly chilled. You can hear their laughter. One of your favourite songs is playing on the radio, as if on demand. You smile to yourself. It’s blissful. May this beautiful moment last! Do you remember? Now, as you think about it, you feel the same way. You realize that your breathing has calmed, and your heartbeat is slower than when you first placed your hand on your chest. You feel warm, as if you really had lain in the sun and not under a blanket on a gloomy, winter evening. You have calmed down. Your mind is pleasantly empty.
Both then, when you experienced it in reality, and now, when you recalled that memory, you managed to enter heart coherence. This state is the opposite of all the processes that occur in a body subjected to long-term stress. The heartbeat synchronizes with the rhythm of your breath. That generally means a tempo of four to seven breaths per minute. Immediately, your blood pressure falls, and so do the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Levels of DHEA, the youth hormone, increase. So does tolerance to pain. In this state, there are no issues with concentration, the mind is fresh and clear; you can solve problems, make decisions, be creative. You’re in a good mood. Any challenges now seem less daunting and you feel the strength to face them. Your body and mind are effectively at their optimal settings. In this form, you are the best version of yourself. Others see it, too. You radiate positive energy. We rarely experience this state, yet it is natural to us.
Heart or mind?
We have grown used to the idea that in taking decisions we must listen either to our heart or our mind. However, there are scientists around the world whose work focuses on the interactions between the brain and the heart. Their discoveries are forcing us to rethink our understanding of this relationship.
James Doty is a professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University. He has worked on many different projects and, after years of research and a year-long sabbatical in 2007, together with a group of other university employees, he set up the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. It’s a surprising name for a research group led by a neurosurgeon, isn’t it?
Scientists only started to take a serious interest in this topic fairly recently. For the last 30 years, The HeartMath Institute for Research has been looking at the mechanisms connecting both these organs. They have examined our emotions and their connection to physical reactions: blood pressure, heartbeat, hormone levels and brain waves. It has been known for a while that stress impairs many of our body’s functions. But, if so, then how do positive emotions impact us, and which are most beneficial to our health?
We are used to thinking of the heart as a giant pump and nothing more. However, it creates a magnetic field, which reaches far beyond the boundaries of the body. This field can be sensed by other people, as well as by our animals. After all, you must have seen it many times; cats jumping onto the laps of jolly, calm guests? Dogs that run to some and avoid others?
Researchers from the institutes mentioned above believe that the heart and brain work in tandem and that their functions are similar. Our perception is not only down to brain activity, but also that of the heart. Emotional intelligence manifests itself in both these organs independently of one another, as if the heart was capable of processing information by itself.
Thanks to this knowledge, we have been given the tools that take us along a sort of shortcut. We do not need to subject our minds to hours of exercises. We can instead use the riches that are already within us. We have all experienced situations in which we felt love, gratitude and compassion. Each of us can recall a blissful memory. Do you remember days when everything went smoothly, as if in line with your will? This is sometimes referred to in English as flow. When you have flow, you are creative, effective and ideas come to you easily. You have the impression that the whole universe is supporting you in your efforts to accomplish your goals. We feel this way when we are in love, when we are successful at work, or when we receive good news. Everyone has had the chance to experience situations like this. And now, when reality has become rather overwhelming, it is worth using these resources to defeat the demon of stress and prevent it from taking over our bodies and minds. If we learn to return to the space within our hearts, we will find peace and a feeling of unity with everything that surrounds us. The best part of us, that which overcomes the barriers of time and matter, lives in the heart – a fairly small muscle. Life in its purest form, not yet split across individual personalities and bodies. Shared.
You no longer have to be embarrassed that you prefer lying under a blanket in a comfortable bed to lotus flowers and meditation cushions. Heart coherence exercises can be done in any position, as long as you enjoy it. You can exercise in the park or at home, or even at the office. All you need is a few minutes of concentration on positive emotions. Don’t believe me? Does the idea of a magnetic field surrounding the heart sound a bit unlikely to you? OK, that’s fine. There’s no need to suppress any feeling. We have the right to absolutely all of them. Above all, we must be understanding and kind to each other, we owe this to each other. We deserve it!
I encourage you to try a little experiment. Stand up in an area where you have room to both sides. On one side is the place for all your negative memories. Try to visualize yourself throwing them down onto the floor to your left. Do you remember when you were betrayed, cheated, humiliated? Search your memory for such situations and imagine yourself placing them, one after another, in that one spot. Keep adding them. Something from preschool? Why not? Each discomfort, each fury. Once you’ve built up a decent pile, leave it for a while. Look to your right. Here’s where you’ll gather all your good memories. The Greek holiday ones, the ones about love, your family. All the situations when you felt supported, appreciated, brave. Everything that is full of affection; gentle and warm. Go ahead, fill the space up to the ceiling! Now, stand straight again, looking straight ahead. Take a step towards the sad pile. Walk into the middle of it. How do you feel here? How does your body react? Are you feeling warm or chilly? Observe yourself carefully. Take as much time as you need. Once you’re ready, go back to the centre. Look ahead. Shake off once and for all the state you were in a moment ago. Now, take a step to the right, into the middle of all the good things. And again, focus on how you feel. Are you tense or relaxed? How is your breathing?
This exercise will probably make you hungry for more. The internet is full of heart coherence exercises. You’ll find them easily. Choose the ones that appeal.
In these trying times of isolation, I suggest a loving friendship exercise. Sit down comfortably and close your eyes. You will notice that your attention is focused somewhere in your head, at the back, at eye level or a bit higher. Feel it. Breathe calmly, easily. When you’re ready, imagine that this point is slowly moving down through your body, towards the heart; slowly, slowly downwards. To make it easier, you can put your hand over your heart again. When you feel that your focus has got there, recall all the faces of your loved ones. Friends – those you’ve seen recently and those who you haven’t been in touch with for ages. Think of those who you care about the most. Take them all into your heart and continue breathing deeply. You will get the feeling that your chest is opening up, radiating energy in all directions. There is more and more of it. The positive energy is filling the room. You can smile and look at these faces with a feeling of gratitude. Look how many wonderful people are part of your life. Is it not deeply moving? There is no way not to feel gratitude! Allow yourself to feel it and stay in this state for as long as you want to.
Just a few minutes is enough for your immune system to strengthen. And that could turn out to be really useful in the near future. I wish you successful, joyful exercises!
Translated from the Polish by Annie Jaroszewicz
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