Meditation is a word loaded with so many connotations that you almost have to define it every time you discuss it (which I won’t do here to any great extent, that’s what Google is for.) Meditation can be considered contemplation, thought, musing, prayerful consideration and so on, but how does that help you to manage stress?
My first “serious” experience with meditation was at the Zen Center of Los Angeles. There I learned in Maezumi Roshi’s basic courses of how to sit still and be quiet. After about ten years I was exposed to some of the Gelugpa methods of contemplation and placement. Later I trained a bit of Insight Meditation and Dzogchen to round things off. Yet when I began qi gong I found that the idea of “meditation” that I had developed from the Buddhist schools was different still than of that held by my taji teacher. Whether you’re dropping off body and mind, becoming intimate with virtuous objects or trying to dwell in the space between perception and thought, meditation has the reputation for being difficult.
Meditation looks easy on the outside. Rewata Dhamma like to tell the story of a boy who wandered by his Vihara and said, “That meditation stuff is an easy way to live, much, easier than going to work in the fields everyday like I do.” Bhante said, “Do you really think so? I’ll pay you exactly what you usually earn for a day in the fields each day if you come and sit with me and you can see if what you say is really true.” The little boy lasted only a half a day before returning to the fields. People with some experience in Insight Meditation retreat might say, “if he had stayed just a bit longer it would have become easier.” That’s probably true, but the boy never found out because he lacked determination. You’ll need some determination as well if you want to overcome illness and manage stress. But it doesn’t have to be as strick and difficult as 10 days on a Goenka retreat.
With perhaps the exception of some forms of qi gong and MBSR, physical relaxation and the management of stress are, in the religious and philosophical systems of Taoist, Hindu- and Buddhism, generally afterthoughts or fringe benefits. If you’re coming to a meditation practice to manage stress you may get easily side tracked by protocol, ritual and unfortunately politics if you take the traditional route of learning meditation at a zen center as I did (there are of course other benefits). By staying focused on the body however, you might be able to skip the elaborate packaging and wander off with the jewel of freedom and ease. Paying enough attention to the body’s needs is a way to ease this process.
Shiatsu is a kind of assisted meditation. It utilizes the easiest of the four meditation postures (sitting, standing, walking and lying), while a helper (me) assists you in dispersing held energy, trigger points, limited joint range of movement and other body based concerns. You then free your mind to focus on the mental object of your choosing. In the other three common meditation postures you need to spend a great deal of time managing and opening up the body (on your own) so that you can use your mind in comfort. Shiatsu is a good what to assist you in this and many of my clients don’t know that they either already are meditating or could be during their sessions.
Once you have gotten some of these benefits from shiatsu (or yoga asanas, calisthenics or other forms of bodywork) you can use your understanding to separate out the external triggers for your stress from the continuum of your body and mind. You see the value of the awake sympathetic nervous system as well as understand how to turn on the calming parasympathetic. Once you understand the differences in your own body you are well on your way.