My goal is to swim at my local YMCA 3-4 times a week and so, on a regular basis I overhear locker room talk. This past week, I heard two young men talking about their college debt. One was confessing to the other that he had about $100,000 in student loans. “But I try not to think about that,” he told his friend as he laughed lightheartedly. Yet I sensed a twinge of panic in his laugh, for to be so deeply in debt is no laughing matter.
Financial stress may come in all shapes and sizes. It may be caused by the constant weight of college loans, the unpredictable nature of the stock market, fear of not having enough to retire, or the financial burden of caring for parents who are aging.
The way people deal with stress can be as varied as its causes: drinking, smoking, exercising, sleeping, or eating excessively. The college graduate in the locker room found it best to cope with his financial stress by pushing it aside and avoiding it–a typical technique for escaping the stress or pain we feel.
My wife and I learned meditation in college, for a way to help us manage the stress of college. We loved it so much we never stopped. Twice a day for about 20 minutes for each mediation, we close our eyes, and introduce a meaningless sound called a mantra, and away we go. We experience a deep level of silence which can only be described as wonderful. That’s why it’s no surprise that we have been regularly meditating ever since. In fact we can count on one hand the days we did not meditate over decades. Why are we able to keep up this practice for so long? The answer is very simple. We love the quietness it creates. We love the mindful state it puts us in after mediation. After a while, it’s like brushing your teeth. If you forget to brush you miss it. If we forget or are too busy for daily meditattion, we miss it, and will make the time to get it in at some point during the day.
For us meditation is key to reducing every day stress and cultivating a healthy life, both emotionally and mentally. Meditation and mindfulness can go hand in hand and are powerful tools for dealing with all brands of stress including financial stress without resorting to detrimental coping mechanisms.
Meditation Helps You Live in the Now
Often we think that by continuously thinking through all of our future to-do’s will give us security and stability. But instead, an excessive focus on the future often leads to stress and anxiety. Feelings of stress and anxiety leave us powerless, for even the best worriers are unable to change the future.
Dr. Ben Michaelis, in his book Your Next Big Thing, says that by “Inhabiting a mind-set that is anchored to negative experiences of the past, anxious about the future, or in the elsewhere cheats you out of your own life” (Chapter 10). Imagine someone driving a car, but instead of focusing on the road directly in front, they are looking forward through binoculars or looking back through the rear view mirror–both perspectives are dangerous.
Dr. Michaelis suggests that living an emotionally healthy life means “living in the now”–a state in which our emotions and mind are aligned with our physical body. But instead of living in the now, many people are absent. Their body is in one place, but their mind is somewhere else. Meditation and the practice of mindfulness is a means of aligning our emotions and intellect with our physical body. With a daily practice of meditation and mindfulness, the three begin to converge in the Now. A much more enjoyable state than replaying past stories or making up future stories which may not even happen.
A Simple Way to Start Meditating
Dr. Ben Michaelis suggests that a simple way to start meditating on the present is by engaging your five senses. One at a time, focus your mental energy on first the smells in your environment, then the sounds that you hear, followed by the tastes in your mouth. Then, pay attention to the the physical sensations your body is experiencing. And finally, as you open your eyes, focus on what you see around you (Chapter 10). The exercise is simple, yet effective in grounding your body, emotions, and mind to the Now.
We cannot escape all the stress of life, nor would we want to. But we can take time to slow our mind and mindfully practice being fully present in the moment. Pema Chödrön, a notable figure in Tibetan Buddhism, assures that “If we can train ourselves through meditation to be more open and more accepting to the wild arc of our experience, if we can lean into the difficulties of life and the ride of our minds, we can become more settled and relaxed amid whatever life brings us.”1 By fully engaging with the present, experiencing it with all our senses, emotions and thoughts, we are best able to withstand the stress of life.
While it may not be possible shut off monkey chatter entirely, being mindful can bring us back to the present, where the joy of life dances with our soul.
1 “Meditation: How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind” by Pema Chödrön