One of the requests was how to use meditation to find peace in chaotic times, which these certainly would qualify for.
Chaos is unpredictable. We desire what is known or predictable and what can be controlled. When we desire something that we don’t have that causes unease. When unease increases then sympathetic activation increases and parasympathetic activation decreases. Parasympathetic activation is what helps us rest and recharge our reserves. When parasympathetic is chronically suppressed by unremitting unease, our reserves become depleted and we become fatigued and even depressed. The chronic, unremitting unease of the pandemic and its consequences is wearing people out and that is the reason for the skyrocketing increase in depressive symptoms.
We may not be able to change the situation, but we can alter our internal response to it. We do this by shifting our attention away from what is causing unease and suppresses our parasympathetic activation. Instead we shift our attention toward something that is at least neutral so that parasympathetic activation can increase, and we can recharge our reserves.
Shifting our attention in this way may not make the situation better, but it does not make it worse. So, we can call this meditation “the ancient art of not making things worse.”
We explored how to use centering meditation to experience a state of calm that will recharge our reserves if we practice. Centering is a particular type of meditation. To center we place our attention on something, our center, and gently rest our attention there. If our attention drifts we note that it drifted and simply return our attention to our center.
We can center on any phenomenon that we can be aware of, sensations, thoughts, imagined experiences, ideas, emotions, etc. We practiced by centering briefly on the following:
- The sensations of breathing
- An imagined visual experience
- An imagined sound
- An imagined body movement
- A simple thought
People noticed that all these tended to be calming, but each person tended to prefer one or two over the others. One person shared how she liked visualizing color and another person shared how that helped her enjoy visualizing a nature scene because she was able to enjoy the imagined color and not stress about the other details.
For some, the thought or image they centered on had spiritual significance for them. That can help but it is not necessary to experience feeling calm.
We discussed how to explore or play with various centering techniques by changing the center of our attention and noticing what happened.
We also compared and contrasted empathy, sympathy and compassion. Some of the ideas that we tossed around were:
- Empathy is an internal experience and compassion is actions that are done to help people
- Empathy can motivate us to act compassionately.
- Empathy can also give us insight into how to act compassionately.
- Empathy is different from sympathy because empathy has a broader context. Sympathy is solely feeling the other’s feelings. Empathy is feeling the other’s feelings in the context of what I and others are feeling and what is likely to be helpful.
- Sympathy can cause us to think we are acting compassionately when we are really just trying to reduce the pain we are feeling from the other person. Empathy, with its broader context, makes that less likely. For example, sympathy may lead me to do a task for someone because I don’t like watching them struggle. Empathy would inform me if their struggle was going to benefit them by teaching them to overcomes a challenge, and therefore I would continue to observe and not do the task.