Spirituality


Philosophy on Attending to the Self

All of us have an innate need to be connected our Inner Self. This is the Self that is the “real” us, the Self that lies deep in our bellies and guides our thoughts and actions. It’s the Self we show to our true friends and close family. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, this is from where our Qi (pronounced “Chee”), our vital life energy, flows. Your Self is nourished by people and activities that bring you joy and taxed by irritating people or situations.

You can think about your Self like a bank. Deposits are made with meditation, gentle exercise, nutritious food, restorative sleep, our deepest passions, and time in community with those whom we cherish. Withdrawals are made by everything else – laundry, mundane tasks at work, arguing with our partner, disciplining our kids –the list goes on and on. Attending to your spiritual Self is finding more deposits than withdrawals.

One of the best ways to attend to the Self is with mind-body medicine. Mind-body medicine includes everything from movement-based meditations like yoga and Tai Chi to religious meditations like prayer or Bible study to mindfulness meditation. It does not matter how you connect to that deeper part of yourself. It only matters that you do.

 
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From a science perspective, we have research to show that mind-body medicine affects our background nervous system, called the autonomic nervous system. This is the part of our nervous systems always in motion, like our heart beating and our digestive function. In medicine, we break this into two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

Our sympathetic nervous system is our “fight or flight” response. You know this as the sweaty palms, heart racing, stomach churning feeling you get right before a big presentation or the quick-as-a-dime reflex you have to jump out of the way of an approaching car.

Our parasympathetic nervous system is our “rest and digest” response. This is the part of the nervous system that allows us to relax, to sleep, to digest our food, and to have sex.

A problem exists for most of us because we don’t have balance between our fight or flight response and our rest and digest response. Many of us spend much of our time like we are running from saber-tooth tigers, in what is called sympathetic overdrive. Our bodies interpret this signaling to produce stress hormones like cortisol, and chronic cortisol elevation can lead to worsening insomnia, weight gain, and other downstream hormonal disturbances.

One way to increase our parasympathetic response is by evoking the relaxation response in mind-body modalities. We have more and more science every day that spending time doing activities like yoga and meditation have incredible positive effects on the body.

I imagine mind-body modalities along a spectrum. At one end is one of the more pure forms of meditation like mindfulness where one is focused on the breath and allows thought to come and go without attachment or judgment. Some prefer guided meditations that gently relax the body or use imagery to help us find our happy place. Another broad type of mind-body is movement-based meditations like Tai Chi, Qi Gong or yoga. Or maybe you prefer a religious type of meditation like praying or attending a service. I don’t mind at all what type of meditation my patients choose to do—I just want them to do it. Make some space in your life for amazing things to happen.

 
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Meditation and Prayer

Sometimes it’s hard to get started with a meditation practice because it feels overwhelming, so I teach my patients simple breathing exercises along with what I call “Meditation for the Busy Person.” My advice is to start with a guided muscle relaxation that takes about five to ten minutes each day. Many free meditations exist, so I encourage you to try a few different kinds so see what kind appeals to you.

I advise all patients to give meditation “the good college try,” meaning that you need to do it almost every day for three weeks before making up your mind about its effect on your life. Any activity that we wish to make a habit needs to be done for about three weeks.

I personally started meditating when my children were about five months old and we were sleep training. Since I was no longer utterly exhausted, if my boys woke me up I found I was having trouble re-initiating sleep. I began with the 4-7-8 breath and some gentle muscle relaxation (see below for free breathing and meditation recordings). Over the course of several months, I trained my monkey mind to calm itself so that I could fall back asleep. Although it’s effective, it doesn’t work every time, but it’s certainly better than the alternative of lying awake worrying about being tired tomorrow.

I’ve also had some times in my life when a religious meditation felt more appropriate. When pregnant with my boys, I felt a deep need to thank God and wanted to honor that gratitude with attendance at church. If prayer or religious services speak to you, then attend to your Self with those modalities.

These days, I find myself doing more yoga. I try to go to a class at least once every week. During yoga, I can connect to my inner Self, and it feels nourishing. I find I have my most positive body image while doing yoga. But maybe yoga is not for you. Then try something else! The great thing about mind-body modalities is there are so many different ones to try.

 
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