New York can be stressful. As much as I love it, moving there two and a half years ago was jarring to my Canadian nervous system. I was accustomed to the quaintness of Queen's University, Toronto Beaches and Algonquin Park -- not the incessant honking and swearing and bumping into strangers I experience on my way to auditions in mid-town Manhattan.
A few people in Washington Square Park, New York
I decided to do something about it. In November of 2011, I met with Emily Fletcher, the founder of Ziva, a company that teaches Vedic meditation. I decided to take her four-day meditation course and have been meditating twice a day since. Vedic meditation is a simple style of meditation created for people with busy minds and lives. You do not have to sit in a cave crossed legged all day, take a vow of silence or chant in languages you don't understand. One of my favourite places to meditate? On the subway. With Vedic meditation, the only 'rule' is to sit with your back supported. Then what? Not much. Sit, with your eyes closed, for 20 minutes, and silently repeat an abstract sound, your mantra, to help your mind relax -- not necessarily stop thinking -- just relax.
Since meditating, my digestion issues have disappeared entirely. I have not taken antibiotics this year for the first time in 10 years, I rarely need naps or caffeine, and I never feel the need to eat or exercise my way out of stress. Anxiety about work or social situations has dissipated immensely. By decreasing stress, no matter who honks or swears, or how many auditions go awry, I can think, "No worries."
I asked a few questions of other Canadians who took the Ziva course. Sarah Baskin (SB) hails from Montreal and is now living amidst the arts as an actress in NYC. Tiffany Willson (TW), born and raised in Toronto, is a New York-based interior designer who recently launched an exceptionally innovative iPhone app called "Room Hints." Liza Fernandez (LF), is a Canadian born-Australian raised actress. And Craig Ramsey (CR), is a celebrity trainer you may know from his show "Thintervention."
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In our frantic, fast-paced lives, it can be difficult to completely switch gears and let go of our competitive natures, even when we're trying to slow down and find balance. Touting itself as an "ideal training method for this generation's short attention span," Buddhist Boot Camp is a new title instructing readers on the basics of Buddhism and meditation using a no-nonsense approach.
If you're looking for a mesmerizing moving meditation, try a practice of walking through a labyrinth. Many churches, gardens and other outdoor spaces feature labyrinths that are available for public use. It's said that the combination of left and right-brain activity required of navigating a labyrinth can help with problem-solving and can even spur unexpected epiphanies.
Journey meditation can transport your mind, using visualization, to a more quiet and serene state. To try this type of meditation, simply imagine yourself in a beautiful place completely separated from your everyday life; somewhere you feel safe. Try starting for five to 10 minutes, visualizing a garden, tropical island or peaceful mountaintop to slow down the mind and remind yourself of the world's beauty.
Laughter, and even the mere anticipation of impending laughter, can reduce damaging stress hormones -- and it can also boost levels of healthy hormones. Laughter meditation, then, can be a particularly effective way to relieve stress. The powerful act of mindful laughter anchors us in the present and brings us to a place of joy. Try starting out with a five to 20 minute laughter meditation by imagining humorous situations and letting yourself laugh fully and deeply, ending with a brief silence.
There are several different ways to benefit from the energy of the fire element in your meditative practice. One common method is to focus on the flame of a candle that you've placed three to six feet in front of you. After you've gazed at the flame for several minutes, close your eyes and imagine it: Send anything that threatens your balance and peace into the flame, and feel yourself becoming more light and pure. You can also try simply visualizing a fire and throwing your worries -- and bits and pieces of emotional baggage, no matter how big or small -- into the fire, asking for forgiveness as you go.
We've all heard the old riddle, "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" But you may not have realized that this and other philosophical questions can form the basis for a meditative practice called Koan Meditation. It's a Buddhist technique in the zen tradition that involves asking a question that cannot be answer through reason alone as a way to see the true nature of the Buddha. Click here for a list of potential questions to explore in your practice.
Crystals can be used as part of a meditative practice to help target specific emotions and reach particular spiritual goals. Calming blue stones, for instance, can help clear the mind and body, while purple or clear stones aid in achieving elevated states of consciousness (calcite, for instance, symbolizes enlightenment). If you have a particular goal for your practice, try getting there by holding or wearing crystals with the healing properties that can guide you.
Here's what they said:
Did your stress levels increase when you moved to the States?
TW: Yes. Even though there is a strong Canadian network in New York, I was living in a heightened state of ambiguity.
LF: Absolutely, especially when I moved to New York City! It is vibrant and fast-paced. I remember feeling high one second and then low the next.
CR: I don't believe my stress levels increased with physically moving to the U.S. I felt the increased strain with growing career pressures and responsibilities, which happened to coincide with moving to New York and then to L.A.
What drove you to learn meditation?
SB: I felt like I was living with a baseline of anxiety from morning 'til night and found myself spending my thoughts, activities and time trying to keep that baseline quiet and under control. It became abundantly clear that this was stress induced and I found that no book, tea, pill, friend or boyfriend could provide me with a solution for my own anxiety.
LF: I was having constant mood swings; I would be up one minute and down the next. I was a new actor in the city and working hard on planting seeds. I had been practicing yoga for eight years, but felt I needed something different.
CR: Emily Fletcher and I were in the Broadway Musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang together. The Emily I remember was always pulled to her limits! So when I saw her in the early months of 2012, I was shocked at her calmness, patience and the beautiful way she put confidence over panic. I was so intrigued by this transformation I made it a priority to find out her secret. I have ADHD and never considered meditation an option for my overactive brain.
What is the biggest benefit or change you have noticed in your life since you started meditating?
SB: I no longer wake up with that unquenchable anxiety. I now wake up well rested and ready to greet the day.
TW: This might be over-sharing...but if it can help someone else, here it goes! I suffer from IBS (Irritable Bowel System) and was constantly seeing a nutritionist trying to understand what stress was triggering my stomach to bloat like a basketball and feel like a herd of elephants was stomping inside me. Meditation has done wonders in regulating my personal stress levels and in return, has helped my stomach anxiety. When I was stressed, I would crave the things that were the worst for my stomach: coffee, alcohol, sugar, cigarettes and white starches. I was poisoning myself. Since meditating, I no longer crave these items. A few of them, such as coffee and alcohol, now have a very strong effect. It's weird. A cup of coffee and I am wired and I'm back to being a super cheap drunk :)
LF: More time in my day! I wake up at 7:30 a.m. (I never used to) and am out and about all day with enough energy to do it all over again the next day. I also feel more at ease with my career.
CR: It feels like I am always in the right place at the right time with the right people -- in a way I never experienced before. Small things can become important happenings if you pay attention and listen.
Ziva graduates meditating together in New York, Summer 2012
Canadians living in the U.S. are enjoying the benefits of mediation, but I don't think you have to cross the border to do so. Until I meet someone who says, "But I love being stressed!" I think all people can gain from meditating.
And if you're curious to know more or feel inspired to take the course, Emily will be giving a free intro talk on June 12 in Toronto followed by the four-day course. Find out more at www.zivameditation.com.
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