My palms were sweating.
My heart was beating out of my chest. I could feel a bead of sweat trickling down the center of my chest.
Sounds like I’m about to go skydiving, right?
In actuality, I was about to give a 20-minute presentation to about 80 of my peers.
Thoughts were racing through my mind. “What if I forget what I’m supposed to say—what if they think I’m stupid—what if someone asks me a question I don’t know the answer to—what if…”
Public speaking has plagued me since I took my first required speech class in high school. Although these days, I actually volunteer for this form of torture. Why? Once I’m up there talking about something I’m passionate about, things just seem to flow.
And after it’s over, I have a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. So why does that fight or flight response still kick in?
We have evolved to a point where tigers aren’t chasing us and we don’t have to run for our lives, yet for many of us, our amygdala is still in over drive.
Here’s what helps me, and maybe it can help you as well.
I was first drawn to meditation after a divorce had left me devastated and desperate for answers. I started attending a Zen temple and learned zazen, a strict form of meditation. I ended up feeling like a failure because I kept getting lost in thought, and judging myself for not being able to just drop into samadhi.
Then Joseph Goldstein taught me to make a subtle mental note of whatever was happening at the moment:
Instead of resisting what was actually happening, or grasping/desiring for something else to happen—I learned to sit with what was happening.
This was something I could carry over into my every day life!
Although scientific data is prolific on the benefits of meditating, I think the most profound benefit of it is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to know what’s going on in your head without getting carried away by it. By viewing our thoughts and emotions as an observer, we don’t have to just blindly and automatically react to them.
We build this mindfulness muscle by practicing meditation.
Think about it—many of the most embarrassing things we do in life are from getting carried away by our emotions—we fire off that ill-advised email, we make a stupid comment that ruins the next 48 hours of our marriage, we eat five donuts, etc.
When mindfulness is a practice and we get lost, we begin to notice we’ve gotten lost, we can see our thoughts and emotions for what they are—passing impulses in the mind without necessarily much connection to reality.
How does body focused attention help train the mind? When we pay close attention to our breath we’re actually learning how to control the sensory volume knobs in our brain. We begin to master the ability to tune something in or out.
It doesn’t have to just be when we sit and focus on our breath. The simple act of attending to the body sensations on the soles of our feet as we walk is a form of mindfulness practice. When we check in with our sensory experience—viewing it with a curiosity—it can have huge benefits on our well-being.
Another area mindfulness has helped me in is recognizing and identifying what is happening in my physical body. In becoming more in touch with my mind-body connection, it allows me to more readily access information stored in the body.
For example, I can feel my heart contract when resistance to a particular experience arises. I’m sure this has always happened, but in the past I just acted. I resisted. Now I can notice the contraction or feeling of resistance and decide to open to it. My experience has been that by doing this, by turning toward these feelings instead of away from them, it is actually easier. Resisting discomfort is much more difficult than just opening to it.
If you’re taking a walk, ruminating about some problem, remember that you can look inside. You can look for anger. Where is it? Is it that tightening in your face? Is it the energy in your body? Or the thoughts you’re having about someone?
It’s an experience—just like everything else.
For example, the appearance of a rainbow is an experience—a collection of water, air, and light—but you can’t discount the experience. Is it real? Yes, but it’s not really real. It’s just an appearance of conditions.
Mindfulness training will ultimately lead to wisdom—an uprooting of defilement. Greed, hatred and desire get weakened, and then uprooted by wisdom. How does it feel to lie? There is a direct link between our thoughts and behavior and how that feels in our body.
Studying mindfulness = selflessness.
We are typically caught up in desires, hopes, fears, and anticipations. Instead of perceiving everything as revolving around ourselves, we begin to look outward, and perceive things from the perspective of others.
When I am about to walk on stage to give that presentation, I can make a subtle mental note of what’s coming up, but not get too caught up in it. I also expect that feeling to come—it’s not so bad if you can just say “okay, body, I hear what you’re telling me, you’re giving me those familiar signs that something might be wrong.” But it’s okay.”
Author: Shari Taylor
Apprentice Editor: Lindsay Carricarte/Editor: Travis May
Image: Flickr/Sean Lamb