Reducing Stress and Meditation
Healing the Mind, Body, and Spirit Together

Alzak Amlani, Ph.D. Psychotherapy, Consultation, & Workshops
220 California Ave. Ste. 120, Palo Alto, CA 94306 (650) 325-8393
3821 23rd St. San Francisco, CA (415) 205-4666

dramlani@wholenesstherapy.com
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Understanding and Reducing Stress

What is stress?

Stress is a mental and physical reaction towards experiences that are perceived as unpleasant and painful. The muscles of the body contract, stiffen, and prepare for fight or flight. Breathing decreases and thoughts begin to race, as adrenaline rushes through the blood. We feel pressured, agitated, angry, impatient, and anxious. This could be anything from traffic on the freeway, kids fighting, too much to do and not enough time, drops in the stock market, or the loss of family or friend. Chronic stress is a common problem in our fast-paced, hectic culture. Zebras in the wild experience stress when a cheetah chases them for lunch. When the cheetah has found her prey, or has given up, the zebras are once again relaxed and calm. Their blood pressure and adrenaline level naturally returns to normal. They don't suffer from anxiety attacks, ulcers, and chronic stress. Humans living in industrialized cultures don't naturally return to homeostasis. We need a deliberate intention and practice. This is particularly true in high stress areas such as the Silicon Valley.

Accumulation of negative experiences

The previous U.S. Surgeon General, Sheldon Koop, M.D., stated that 70% of our illnesses are stress related. Indicating they are rooted in mental and emotional imbalances, not only physical, suggesting that the key to better health and well-being has much to do with how we relate to ourselves, others, and the rest of the world. Learning ways of staying calm, relaxed, as well as connected with ourselves and with others, keeps us stress free. As very young children we more naturally returned to being happy and free, trusting all would be all right; as adults most of us have lost that wonderful trust and spontaneity. We've had too many stressful situations without adequate holding and processing of our feelings. Thus, we carry around a lot of baggage from the past. We project our histories onto almost every new situation we encounter, rarely encountering them with curiosity and trust. This is a natural phenomenon after having numerous difficult experiences without the help of healthy and stable relationships.

Clearing the past and living in the present

In therapy you get to experience a consistent, trusting, and conscious relationship where your inner process is valued, understood, and discussed. I would then help you feel, clarify, and heal wounds of the past. As your mental-emotional energy is freed up from previously experienced issues, your stress level decreases. Layers of fear, grief, anger, and shame start to shed. Some of those complexes you've struggled with start to resolve. You come into the present moment more fully and begin to look at experiences and life with a freshness and clarity that you haven't felt in years. You are more powerful and less subject to the stress of outer demands. You have more resources to respond to stressful situations. With further work, challenges turn into opportunities for your personal and professional growth.

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Breathing

The Power of Breath

Breath is the force of life. Not only is it the most essential nutrient we consume, but it also has great power in affecting our state of mind. Animals who breathe deep and slow live longer than those who are restless and shallow breathers. Through breath we can numb our feelings and through breath we can energize our entire body/mind. Breathing is one of the most powerful tools we have to change our mental state. It's used in childbirth, deep relaxation, healing trauma, meditation, and various athletics.

I teach a variety of breathing techniques to calm anxiety, work through traumatic experiences, access altered states, and deepen one's awareness of oneself. Breath work is done as part of the larger context of psychotherapy.

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Mindfulness Meditation

Types of meditation

When most people hear the word meditation, they often think of transcendental meditation or similar practices used to evoke the relaxation response. In these approaches you focus attention on one thing, usually the sensation of breath leaving and entering your body or a mantra (a special sound or phrase you repeat silently to yourself). Anything else that comes into your mind during meditation is seen as a distraction to be disregarded. These practices can give rise to very deep states of calmness and stability of attention. They are known as the concentration, or "one-pointed," type of meditation--what Buddhists call shamatha or samadhi practices.

Insight meditation

Mindfulness is the other major classification of meditation practices, known as vipassana, or insight meditation. In the practice of mindfulness, you begin by utilizing one-pointed attention to cultivate calmness and stability, but then you move beyond that by introducing a wider scope to the observing, as well as an element of inquiry. When thoughts or feelings come up in your mind, you don't ignore them or suppress them, nor do you analyze or judge their content. Rather, you simply note any thoughts as they occur as best you can and observe them intentionally but nonjudgmentally, moment by moment, as the events in the field of your awareness.

Clear seeing

Paradoxically, this inclusive noting of thoughts that come and go in your mind can lead you to feel less caught up in them and give you a deeper perspective on your reaction to everyday stress and pressures. By observing your thoughts and emotions as if you had taken a step back from them, you can see much more clearly what is actually on your mind. You can see your thoughts arise and recede one after another. You can note the content of your thoughts, the feelings associated with them, and your reactions to them. You might become aware of agendas, attachments, likes and dislikes, and inaccuracies in your ideas. You can gain insight into what drives you, how you see the world, who you think you are--insight into your fears and aspirations.

Observing without judgment

The key to mindfulness is not so much what you choose to focus on but the quality of the awareness that you bring to each moment. It is very important that it be nonjudgmental--more of a silent witnessing, a dispassionate observing, than a running commentary on your inner experience. Observing without judging, moment by moment, helps you see what is on your mind without editing or censoring it, without intellectualizing it or getting lost in your own incessant thinking.

It is this investigative, discerning observation of whatever comes up in the present moment that is the hallmark of mindfulness and differentiates it most from other forms of meditation. The goal of mindfulness is for you to be more aware, more in touch with life and with whatever is happening in your own body and mind at the time it is happening--that is, in the present moment. If you are experiencing a distressing thought or feeling or actual physical pain in any moment, you resist the impulse to try to escape the unpleasantness; instead, you attempt to see it clearly as it is and accept it because it is already present in this moment.

Full acceptance

Acceptance, of course, does not mean passivity or resignation. On the contrary, by fully accepting what each moment offers, you open yourself to experiencing life much more completely and make it more likely that you will be able to respond effectively to any situation that presents itself.

Acceptance offers a way to navigate life's ups and downs--what Zorba the Greek called "the full catastrophe"--with grace, a sense of humor, and perhaps some understanding of the big picture, what I like to think of as wisdom.

You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf

One way to envision how mindfulness works is to think of the mind as the surface of a lake or ocean. There are always waves, sometimes big, sometimes small. Many people think the goal of meditation is to stop the waves so that the water will be flat, peaceful, and tranquil--but that is not so. The true spirit of mindfulness practice is illustrated by a poster someone once described to me of a 70-ish yogi, Swami Satchidananda, in full white beard and flowing robes, atop a surfboard and riding the waves off a Hawaiian beach. The caption read: "You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf."

Adapted from the Work of Jon Kabbat-Zin

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Questions & Answers

Calm Those Worries

Q: I have been experiencing quite a bit of stress recently. I feel angry often, especially when things don't go as I planned. I can't seem to get control of my thoughts and find myself worrying a lot. A friend suggested practicing mindfulness meditation. Do you think this could be helpful?

A: In the practice of mindfulness meditation, also known as vipassana, or insight meditation you begin with one-pointed attention usually on the breath to cultivate calmness and stability, but then you widen the practice by observing the mind and body. When thoughts, feelings, or sensation arise in the mind or body, you simply note them as they occur, intentionally and nonjudgmentally, moment by moment. You don't ignore them or suppress them by focusing on a mantra or a visual image, as in other meditation styles. Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India's most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills.

This practice can definitely be helpful with your anger and worrying. First, you will feel calmer when you sit and focus on your breath. This will automatically slow you down and give you pleasurable feelings of relaxation and calmness. Second, you will feel less caught up in your worries and will gain a deeper perspective on your reaction to everyday stress and pressures, what drives you, how you see the world and who you think you are--insight into your fears, attachments, and resistance. This is called, clear seeing. Third, by nonjudgmentally seeing the play of your mind, you learn to accept the wide range of thoughts and feelings within you. This acceptance leads to patience and understanding of yourself and others.

A poster describes the essence of the benefits of mindfulness practice. A yogi with a beard and a robe is atop a surfboard and riding the waves off a Hawaiian beach. The caption reads: "You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf."

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Escape or Enlightenment?

Q: I have been interested in Indian philosophy and meditation for a long time. The last couple of years I've been studying and practicing meditation everyday. Although, I see some of the benefits of calmness and peace of mind, I find I am socially aloof and disinterested in dealing with everyday problems. What should I do?

A: This is not an uncommon dilemma of spiritual practices, especially eastern transcendental meditation. Many of these philosophies teach that rising above daily struggles and realizing that only spirit is real and the world is an illusion. I think this falsely emphasizes the separation of the spiritual and worldly levels, making the human level less important than the divine. Both are part of the whole and serve and need each other.

I have found that people who have difficulty with human relationships use such a philosophy and technique to escape into blissful states. When they return back to the world, they quickly lose their peace and are faced with their unresolved emotional challenges. It's great that you are recognizing where you want to grow. Reflect on why you are staying away from people and avoiding your life? Do you experience fear, anxiety, anger, or any other emotion when you get closer to people? Introspection and self-reflection are good tools for these issues. Additionally, books, counseling, and workshops on relationships and creating a life in the world that is fulfilling and meaningful are other tools that the western culture can offer you right now.

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Chased and Trapped in my Dreams

Q: Recently I have been remembering my dreams when I wake up in the morning. The recurring dreams are about being chased and trapped. In my daily life I am in a work situation where I work in a highly competitive sales environment and can't seem to leave that company. Could my dreams be saying anything about my outer life?

A: It sounds like you've already made a connection between your dreams and your situation at work. There are lots of examples in western and eastern traditions about the role of dreams in understanding oneself and one's life. Dreams emerge out of the unconscious, which is the storehouse of all your experiences, and where your deepest knowledge and truth are. Many people have solved difficult problems and made discoveries by interpreting their dreams in the morning.

Recurring dreams come when we are not paying enough attention to the messages being given. It's time for you to take your feelings of being trapped and chased more seriously. How is the environment at work affecting you? What can you do to make it less threatening and more safe? As you start dealing with work, your dreams will change and offer you other messages. It may suggest your being in a different setting. Although there are universal symbols used in everyone's dreams, your unconscious will use exactly the images that are most familiar and meaningful to you. Take time in the morning to read your own dreams, then use the messages to make your life reflect your inner wisdom.

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Understanding and
Reducing Stress
  What is Stress?
  Living in the Present
Breathing
Mindfulness Meditation
Questions & Answers
  Calm Those Worries
  Escape or Enlightenment?
  Chased and Trapped
in my Dreams