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The Dalai Lama’s Guide to Finding a Calm Mind – How Meditation Balances My Emotions

After decades of filling prescriptions of antidepressant, mood stabilizing, and antipsychotic drugs, I finally rejected conventional psychiatric wisdom. Using ancient methods, I went against doctors’ orders to heal. Through these methods, I treated the root cause, not merely the symptoms. I charted my journey in a series of essays. 

I write bi-monthly articles, publishpodcasts, and host workshops on healing, recovery, and the root causes of pain. Sign up for two stories per month, that’s it. I charted my journey and this first article is Complex PTSD: When Your Therapist Thinks You May Be F*cked. My second article is How Breathwork Helps Process Stress, Pain, and Trauma: Why I Practice.

How group meditation balances my emotions

I am twelve minutes late to a five-hour Cultivating Emotional Balance (CEB) workshop. I am anything but balanced. Walking briskly down the sidewalk, I burst open the doors of the Insight LA meditation studio. I remove my shoes and ask the receptionist if I’m too late to join the class. In a whisper, she advises me that I can still register. Using my credit card, I watch her process the transaction, which feels like it is taking forever. I skim over the literature about the event. Today’s workshop is inspired by a 2000 meeting in India, between The Dalai Lama, leading Western behavioral scientists, and Buddhist monks to create a “new map of our emotions for a calm mind.” I grab the card, sign-in, and thank the woman behind the counter. I walk into a large meditation room that sits around fifty people. 

Eve Eckman is my teacher today. She introduces herself to the group as an emotion researcher and trainer. I am determined to find a calm mind with Eve and The Dalai Lama’s wisdom. Wall to wall, people sit quietly in chairs. I’m nervous about being late. Luckily none of the other students in the room seem to notice. Sliding around in my socks on the wooden floor, I grab a yoga blanket from a stack against the wall. I find an open seat in between two empty chairs. Everyone looks like a stranger. There is something calming and reassuring about not knowing anyone in this room. I do not envision ever seeing this group of people again, which makes me feel like I can be honest and raw in a more authentic way today.

Sitting down, I let out a quiet sigh of relief. I’m finally here. Eve explains that her goal today is to teach the Dalai Lama’s secular (non-religious) approach to bring awareness to our emotional behaviors, experiences, and triggers. As I get comfortable in my chair, I try to relax. Head to toe, I am tense. Earlier in the year, a social worker diagnosed me with a form of childhood trauma, Complex PTSD. After years of running the gauntlet of antidepressant, mood-stabilizing, and anti-anxiety drugs, I discovered the root cause of decades of pain: childhood trauma. I recently stopped taking a mood stabilizing drug, Lamictal, because I have decided to go against traditional health advice to heal my trauma through ancient methods. I am in this workshop to integrate the wisdom of modern psychology, mindful meditation, and emotional research. 

Finding a calm mind with meditation

Eve leads us in a meditation. She asks us to find calmness in our breath. I am stressed and I avoid making any sounds. I have never meditated with such a large group of strangers. Not wanting to annoy anyone, I silently sit, trying to keep my legs still. My main goal is not to disturb the people next to me. The room is dead quiet. I’m worried about bothering the practice of my seat neighbors. I am calm, yet I am anxious. I’m not able to relax until the very end of the meditation.

Towards the conclusion of the forty-minute practice, an image of Muhammad Ali appears in my mind. Ali’s face shows up in my brain as if clouds in the sky are opening up. His vision in my head surprises me. I have had previous mystical experiences on psychedelic drugs, and this moment feels like one of them. I am in another world. No longer in my own body, I am connected with this image of Muhammad Ali. I am in a state of consciousness where mentally, I am no longer in the room. Sitting with the image for the final few minutes, I am lost in deep meditation. I am no longer stressed about showing up late. I temporarily forget where I am sitting. For these moments, I am no longer recovering from trauma. I am alive.

Eve rings a copper Tibetan bowl to conclude the meditation. I open my eyes with wonder. Looking around the room. I think to myself, “Did anyone else conjure up an image of Muhammad Ali?” Everyone in the room starts to bring movement back into their bodies. I am relaxed. The meditation slowed down the stresses I brought into the room. With my Ali still on my mind, I ponder his life, reflecting on his career as a civil rights champion, professional heavyweight boxer, and Olympic gold medalist.

I think to myself, “Wow, what a heavy experience to have in this group.” I am nervous to tell anyone else about this mystical experience. In my quest to treat my trauma, I would prefer to avoid any negative labels. Having past diagnoses of depression and anxiety, the last thing I need is someone judging me based on this vision. People may call me crazy. 

What the hell is happening?

After we meditate, Eve guides us through an exercise to map the triggers on our body. She hands out worksheets with images of a human body and a face. She asks us to label all the triggers in our bodies. I am tasked to draw out anywhere in my body where I feel stress, unhealthy emotions, and pain. I am ready to get to work. I draw lines and circles on the worksheet, as seen below.

As I write on the worksheet, I am learning that my body is a trigger factory. Analyzing my triggers visually shows me how f*cked up my body feels. I draw small circles and lines on my left temple and cheek, as I feel tension there. I tag my left hip, knee, shin, and ankle as points of stress. I mark my left shoulder, neck, forearm with lines and circles. I label my tailbone with a small circle. Visualizing my pain helps to make me feel less tense. In my decades of talk therapy, I rarely spoke about my physical pain. In this session, I am leaning into the physical. It’s a relief to name the stress, and where it lives in my body. Often, I focus on the emotional side of my feelings, while ignoring the physicality of it all. I note that my left side contains more stress than my right side. As I write these triggers out, it is helping me. Outlining these triggers makes me feel a little bit more seen. After years of therapy sessions, I am sinking my teeth into something more meaningful. I feel heard in a new way from this exercise. 

Why journaling after meditation balances my emotions

After we diagram our triggers, Eve explains that the workshop gives us space for our emotions. She tells the group that today’s session is about confidentiality and trust. Everything we discuss stays in the room. The anonymity of healing in this anonymous group is helpful for me. I am safer sharing personal details about my mental health with non-judgemental strangers, than with people who I know more deeply. I do not plan to see any of these people in the room again. These people are not my family, friends, or co-workers. Due to the anonymous feeling, I do not feel judgement. It is a relief to spend this afternoon checking out from my routine. This workshop is a much needed escape. 

Eve shares that she wants to help recognize destructive emotions that harm the world, and turn them into constructive emotions. That sounds like an impossible task, yet here I am. When I meditate, I go deep into the recesses of my mind. During this workshop, I learn how important journaling is for me, especially after long periods of meditation. In a meditative space, I make time for myself. I detach from the world and find peace. In this state of mind, I conjure up a lot of memories, images, and ideas. Writing out these ideas helps me to communicate my thoughts. It’s different than traditional therapy, where I talk through my problems with someone else. When I journal after meditation, I am forced to focus on myself and how I feel. Today I acknowledge the root causes of my pain. My goal is to end the cycles of trauma in my body. 

After journaling for a few sessions, Eve drops many nuggets of information about emotions. 

  • Emotions are supposed to last a total of ninety seconds. 
  • Any trigger lasting more than ninety seconds is rumination. 
  • Ruminating is when one emotion becomes an entire cycle. 

This blows my mind.

During one writing session, I journal about a traumatic episode from my childhood. I write about a memory that comes up with my Dad yelling at my brother. I associate the diagrammed triggers in my left shoulder with pain from this memory. As a kid, my older brother lost his wallet at the mall, and my Dad yelled at him over it. I recognize that I may have stored the stress from that incident in my left shoulder. 

I write:

“My left shoulder felt anger for my Dad, for how he treated my older brother. Screaming, yelling, and belittling him. I couldn’t hear my Mom’s voice, yet I imagined her blessing this outburst. I cried inside. I witnessed it.

Now my elbow is feeling like it is convulsing, perhaps it is healing and taking control. My brother had lost his wallet. I heard this yelling through the bathroom, listening to my father’s anger through the door. My brother had gone to Valley West Mall with his friend Todd. He was probably in 8th grade. I am thinking about it in a whole new way. I’m going to shake hands with this fear, by being compassionate to the two boys who felt that angry episode.” 

Reflecting on the event, I assess my inner child feelings. 

I journal:

“I hide under covers. Wincing. Shoulder pain. Every word. Familiar feeling in defeat and despair. I immediately suppressed these feelings. My family acted acting like it never happened. Witnessing my brother’s pain hurts. I felt shame for not sticking up for him.”

The power of anonymous group healing

Again, I am heard. Eve splits us into dyads, and we work with a partner on the diagramming. Having a complete stranger in this trusting environment gives me relief. I am free to open up, knowing that I will never see this person again. I share personal details about my life without hesitation. There is a safe feeling in my body. He is more of a witness than a friend. I tell this sixty-year-old looking white man about my childhood trauma story, and it feels cathartic. He also tells me about his journal entry, and I listen.

We do a few more writing sessions when I see a friendly face in the crowd. My friend Kat is also in attendance. I am surprised to see her. I debate if I want to say hello or not. Part of me wants to keep the anonymity. I wonder if she does not recognize me. I have grown a thick goatee and mustache since I saw saw her. At the end of the workshop, Eve leads a final discussion. She asks the crowd if we have any questions or comments., Even though I’m nervous, I raise my hand. I share with the group that I conjured up the image of a 1960’s civil rights icon as I meditated. I hide the detail that Muhammad Ali was who came to mind. Not wanting to be judged by this group, I do not share the specific vision about Ali. 

 

Afterward, I approach Kat to say hello. We grab a burrito together at the Mexican restaurant close by the studio. It’s now 6pm and I am in a much different headspace after today. I eat a chip with salsa. I share with Kat the vision of Ali. She is excited for me. She explains that I was channeling and that it is totally normal. I’m not even certain what channeling means, yet it is comforting to hear. She offers to send me a video on channeling later that night. Having not told too many people about my Complex PTSD diagnoses, I open up to Kat about how I feel. She is supportive, which is refreshing. I feel less judged and think that maybe I will be better once my recovery is complete.

During the following weeks, I intentionally thinking about Muhammad Ali while I meditate. I also re-watch the Oscar nominated documentary When We Were Kings. The film chronicles an epic boxing match, The Rumble in the Jungle, between Ali and George Foreman from 1974. Ali is the challenger to the undefeated heavyweight champion Foreman. Ali comes in as a massive underdog. Ali deploys a rope-a-dope technique in which he plays the majority of the fight staying on the ropes. Finally Ali waits for Foreman to fatigue, and came out swinging in a later round, knocking out Foreman. Ali shocked the world by knocking him down.

I have spent much life on the boxing ropes in different traditional Western-based therapies. Like Muhammad Ali, I’ve survived many blows. Yet, I never fully healed. I absorbed a lot of metaphorical blows to the head, chest, and gut in my life. Doctors prescribed me numerous types of antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and even an antipsychotic drug, which made me fall asleep at work. Ancient medicine is my missing link to feeling fully healthy. My goal is to recover by knocking out my opponent with a flurry of punches. I deployed the rope-a-dope in my healing.  Like Ali, I waited until a later round in life to deliver the knockout blow. I am an underdog, and have only myself to prove. 

Links:

Insight LA meditation studio

CEB: Cultivating Emotional Balance

His Holiness the Dalai Lama 

Many thanks to Blake Reichmann, Noah Maier, Sara Campbell, Joel Christiansen, Kyla Scanlon, Asad Badruddin, and Drew Stegmaier in helping with the editing.