by Dina Wyshogrod, PhD
Get to Know Dina: how she became a meditator, and her aliya journey
15 years ago, surprising even myself, I took a basic course in meditation. I say surprising myself because before that, my strongest associations with meditation came from trying very hard, as a child, not to stare at orange-robed, bare-footed, bald men and women chanting Hare Krishna at JFK airport in New York while begging for money.
Yet here I was, plunking down hard-earned money in a tranquil office-like setting in lower Manhattan, to learn a technique that was supposed to change my life, though I still had no idea how that was supposed to happen.
My reason for trying something so far out of my usual realm of personal or professional experience was simple: three months later, I was slated to come on aliya with my family, i.e. my husband and three kids - sons no less. Aliya represented the fulfillment of a life-long dream, yet I had few illusions: The reality ahead would be tough, and I suspected that I would need all the resources I could muster to handle it. Even though I was already an experienced clinical psychologist, specializing in treating anxiety and stress, I still felt that my personal "toolbox" was not yet complete. And when I met a very pleasant gentleman - not bald, or barefooted, or begging, very grounded, in fact - who told me how meditation had helped him cope with a major life crisis, I thought, "Why not?"
Once in Israel, I worked on getting myself and the rest of the family settled and acclimated, on finding work, and, as predicted, on coping with a ready supply of stressors. The usual challenges of everyday life were compounded by the fact that this life was taking place in a strange(!) new culture, where so much had to be re-learned and re-calibrated: the ups and downs of employment (or lack thereof, at various times), figuring out the school system (including the finer points of the Bagrut), navigating all the above in a foreign tongue, one my own tongue sometimes fought to get around. And then, of course, there were those periodic, unique, "little" surprises, so readily and generously dished out in the Middle East: one war (the Second Gulf War), two intifadas, three boys facing military service, and, most recently, four weeks of war in the North. Talk about trial by fire: Although no one technique or approach has been any sort of Magic Pill, it is important to note that many of the techniques and approaches that I've been practicing have, in fact, come in handy over the years.
I'm sure none of these stressors I've mentioned come as any surprise to anyone reading these lines. Many of you, I imagine, have gone through similar transitions, are familiar with the wrenching reality of leaving behind family, friends, language, not to mention familiar sights, tastes and smells - and recreating your lives in Israel.
And the transitions are ongoing. Every stage of life and every shift in the political canvas demands yet another adjustment. What I have come to appreciate more and more, as time goes by, is just how challenging, difficult, and humbling life can be, and how awesome it is that we do our best to muddle through it anyway.
Teachers and stress
It's with this spirit that I approach writing this column, particularly for an audience of teachers, a profession I consider right up there with parenthood in the category of "Super-Important-and-Classically-Undervalued, not-to-Mention Under-Compensated." For the record, as an undergraduate at Barnard College in New York, I minored in Elementary School Education while majoring in Psychology. One semester of student teaching in the New York City public school system was enough to convince me that I did not have what it takes to do what you do: to try to impart some basic information while also serving as surrogate parent / nurse / psychologist / entertainer / clown / mediator / motivational speaker / shepherd / disciplinarian and God knows what else - and that's before adding the additional hat of "Trauma Diffuser" that you get to wear here in Israel.
I see teachers as right out there on the frontlines of society, "manning" (womanning?) the barricades and trying to provide a sheltering, nurturing environment for our kids so they can learn while holding off the hordes of. . . well, just about whatever you can name! I know that this is a huge load. So I hope that what I offer here can help you begin to ease that load and reduce the stress a bit so that you can function better, first of all, for yourselves, and subsequently, within your students.
In teaching stress reduction, I draw on my background in psychology, particularly cognitive-behavior therapy, on recent work treating trauma, and on meditation and mindfulness approaches, those very approaches I started experimenting with 15 years ago. I invite you to check out whatever I write here for yourselves, to see what's relevant and useful. Ultimately, the best source of information about what's right for you is you.
Basics about stress:
What is stress?
In daily speech, we often use the word "stress" to refer to all the difficult external challenges of life that beset us, including, but not limited to, relocation, language, the matzav, dealing with kids, financial worries, etc.
We also use the word to describe the physical sensations we feel when we are struggling with all of the above, such as quick, shallow breathing, pounding heart, muscle tension, sweating, clammy hands and feet, etc.
So what is stress? It's actually both: the pressures of life and the distress we feel as a result. To reduce the confusion, some writers refer to the external circumstances as stressors, and call the internal reactions "stress".)
Is the stress reaction always bad? No, on the contrary: It's what can keep us alive when we're facing acute danger. In fact, you may already know this reaction by its other name: the fight-or-flight reaction.
From moment to moment, we are always assessing what's happening around us. If we assess that we are in acute danger, the brain immediately revs up the entire body in a split second to provide us with energy (glucose and oxygen) and increase our muscle power and our resistance to pain and infection. That's why we can suddenly run faster, jump higher, see more clearly, hear more acutely, and escape more effectively from danger.
I emphasize this because many of the symptoms of the stress reaction - pounding heart, sweating, having to run to the bathroom, muscle tension, etc. - don't necessarily feel good. They're not supposed to: They're supposed to get us moving. . .fast!. People often misinterpret these symptoms as signs of trouble, rather than as indications that the body is working amazingly well and exactly as designed-- to protect us and keep us alive. Just understanding this can often reduce our stress about the stress symptoms.
Once the threat is over, we return to baseline. Post-crisis relaxation is often accompanied by a variety of symptoms: What seems like uncontrollable laughing or crying, shaking, yawning, fatigue. Then all that passes, usually with no ill effects, and with a great story to tell the folks at the Shabbat table.
So when is stress bad for us? When we can't turn off the fight-or-flight reaction and it becomes chronic. It's like the stress reaction gets stuck in the "on" position. This can result in all kinds of chronic illnesses and conditions, e.g. chronic tension and anxiety, chronic pain (head / stomach / body aches), intestinal problems (e.g. Irritable Bowel Syndrome), short-temperedness, inability to focus and concentrate.
What can we do about this?
Once we are out of danger, we no longer need to maintain the same level of vigilance. The trouble is that, being human, we can often crank up the stress reaction simply by thinking about being in trouble. Such is the power of the mind. The good news is that we can use the power of the mind to our advantage as well. We can actively decide to turn off the "on" switch in order to give our bodies and brains a chance to rest and recuperate.
How can we change the stress response to the relaxation response?
This, of course, is meditation. Meditation simply is a systematic way of being aware. That's all. It's not about being bald, orange-clad, or about chanting or going to India or anything exotic. It's about paying attention - something we already know how to do, though we can all do it more consistently.
- One way to do this is by shifting your focus away from all the scary thoughts flapping around in your mind to something else:
Imagine some pleasant image (e.g. lying on a lovely beach, with the water lapping gently nearby, the sun's rays just warm enough, the sand soft and golden, a cold drink within reach, etc., etc.). You might even keep a photo nearby of just such a perfect place (it could even be your screensaver) and give yourself a quick mini-vacation every once in a while. See if you can really get into it--let all your senses get in on the action, for a moment or two. Then check how you feel.
- Another particularly powerful way to reduce your stress is to train yourself to focus on the breath:
- Sit comfortably, with your feet firmly on the floor so that you feel supported and stable, your back straight but not stiff, your hands resting comfortably on your lap. Your eyes can be either open (focused softly on some point in front of you) or closed.
- Notice that there will be sounds around you, that you'll might be aware of the temperature and space around you… maybe you'll feel aircurrents moving around you… Let them be there; just notice them, and accept that you don't have to change them in any way.
- Now, bring your attention to the fact that you are breathing.
We are usually most aware of the breath at the nose (nostrils), the chest, or the belly. Where is it most clear, vivid, obvious to you, right now? (There is no "right" answer or place in the body --just notice what feels right to you at this moment.) Let your attention rest on one of these places for the purposes of this exercise.
- Be aware of breathing in and breathing out. As you breathe in, think to yourself, "breathing in." As you breathe out, think to yourself, "breathing out."
- Don't change anything about the way you breathe; you do not need to breathe deeply. The way you are breathing is fine. Simply be aware of breathing in while you are breathing in, and be aware of breathing out while you are breathing out.
- From time to time, your mind will wander. You'll find yourself thinking, worrying, planning, obsessing, making shopping and to-do lists. That's to be expected. It's just what minds do. Whenever you notice that you've gotten distracted, bring yourself gently back to the breathing, to "breathing in" and "breathing out".
Do this for 6 minutes a day. Every day. See what you notice. . .
Why practice meditation?
Consistent practice of meditation has been shown to reduce blood pressure, slow the aging process, strengthen the immune system, enhance our resilience, reduce anxiety and stress, and increase our focus and creativity. Meditation can be a great energizer, often better than sleep at revitalizing you in the middle of a demanding day. And with regards to education: When kids were taught meditation at inner-city schools in Detroit, the results were better academic performance and improved concentration on the part of the kids, and a marked reduction in incidents of school-wide violence.
So give it a try and see for yourselves.
Wishing you good health, and much peace of mind, body and spirit!
- (Stress) For an excellent book on this subject, read: "The End of Stress as We Know it" by Bruce McEwen and Elizabeth Norton Lasley, (2002: Joseph Henry and Dana Presses.) See this review and interview
- (Meditation) Want to read more?
Some definitions from Yoga Basics, Meditation Basics
Oprah.com features Sharon Salzberg on Getting Started with Meditation
From Stephan Bodian Author of "Meditation For Dummies", Meditation Basics
- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction-U MASS Center for Mindfulness, Stress Reduction Program