Too Stressed to Meditate?
Here’s a problem with stress.
We know—and the research backs me up on this one—that mindfulness and meditation can really help reduce stress. But sometimes, you might think, as I sometimes do, that sitting down to meditate when the mind is spinning so fast is, itself, a non-starter. So what to do?
Fortunately, there are many ways to practice mindfulness, even when sitting down and following your breath might just feel like too much. You just need to think outside the box. Here are three suggestions.
1. Mindful Walking
If you're really in the thick of it—if you're fully stressed, thoughts racing, adrenaline pumping—it can be nearly impossible to sit down to meditate. So what if you didn't sit down? What if you went for a mindful walk instead?
Now, there are some differences between a mindful walk and just… a walk. Here’s what I do. First, I leave my phone at home. Next, I set the intention to simply be aware while I'm walking. Then I just walk like a normal person—this is not the ultra-slow “walking meditation” that you may have seen or done before—except that when I'm seeing, I know that I'm seeing; when I'm hearing, I know that I'm hearing. I feel my body moving as I walk along. This little shift, imperceptible to anyone else, turns walking into meditation. Wow!
2. Mindful Conversation
The second idea I have for you is to try a mindful conversation.
In one way or another, most of us are talking all day long. We're talking on the phone, talking on video chat, we're emailing and texting and direct messaging, and all the rest. But, like with mindful walking, there’s a difference between a mindful conversation and just… talking.
When I teach mindful conversation on retreats, I'll usually split people into pairs. First, one person speaks while the other listens. The one speaking talks with mindfulness, knowing thoughts, feelings, and the physical sensations of talking. The one listening listens with mindfulness, knowing the sound of a voice and also their own thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. Then, after a few minutes, I have people switch.
Now, this might sound contrived, and to a certain extent, it is. But during the pandemic, talking with my partner in this way, every day, worked wonders on my stress level. It was so helpful just to know that my fear, sorrow, hope, disappointment, ideas, and all the rest were being heard for a few minutes every day.
3. Okay, But Also Meditate
Finally, I do think sitting (or lying down) meditation is really helpful in times of extreme stress. You just have to adjust your process a little. Maybe you’ll need to go for a walk first. Or maybe try this after you get some exercise. Or maybe right before bed when you’re starting to wind down for the day.
Whenever you do decide to meditate, if you’re stressed, it can be helpful to have a calm voice in your ear. Joseph Goldstein is one of my main teachers, and so I like to listen to him on the Ten Percent App when I’m really amped up. I find that my friend JoAnna Hardy has a very reassuring voice. Alexis Santos is really good at helping people fall asleep. Maybe you have your favorite teacher that you could put on.
I also recommend doing some kind of body-awareness practice for at least part of your session. Try to focus on what you are physically feeling, instead of what you are thinking and worrying about. Easier said than done, of course. But the body can be a huge support during this time, especially if you tune into the way it rests on your cushion or sofa, or bed.
The key here is just to set realistic expectations. If you feel just a little bit better after five minutes of meditation, great. If you can try ten minutes and feel even better, also great. But if all else fails, you’ve always got the one-breath meditation to back you up – mindfully breathe in and mindfully breathe out, and then go on with your day. This provides a helpful pause right in the middle of everything.
Remember, whatever you do, do it with kindness. Give yourself a break. These times call for a boatload of warmth and understanding, for yourself and for everyone you meet along the way.
Devon Hase began intensive meditation training in 2000. She has studied at monasteries in Nepal and India, and practices in the Insight and Vajrayana traditions. Currently, Devon teaches at the Insight Meditation Society, Spirit Rock, and throughout North America and Europe. Along with her life partner nico, she is the co-author of How Not to Be a Hot Mess: A Survival Guide for Modern Life. Devon lives together with nico in urban retreat in her hometown of Ashland, Oregon, splitting each week between teaching and practice. For more info visit www.devonandnicohase.com.