Are you a lark or an owl? Some of us are “larks” and have more energy in the morning, while “owls” have more energy later in the day. Along with many other creatures, including mammals, birds, and insects, we’re subject to circadian rhythms, which govern our alertness and sleep cycles during the day.
If you’ve ever suffered from jet lag, you’ll have experienced just how powerful this regular cycle is, as your body remains tuned to the previous time zone, until it adjusts to the new location. Although there are individual differences, the average person is most energized in the hours before midday; then energy dips around mid-afternoon and peaks again around 6 pm.
As well as the ebb and flow of our sleep-wake cycle, we can also experience different intensities of activity, agitation, and tension going on in our minds, emotions, and body that interfere with our performance and wellbeing during the day. For instance, if you had a misunderstanding with your spouse or partner before leaving the house in the morning, the feelings can “niggle away” in the background during a meeting at work.
We also take on stress and anxiety from the burden of activities, emails, and other demands that accumulate at work. Although some level of positive stress can be motivating, like working towards a deadline, negative stress from being overburdened adds to our level of agitation. This can diminish our ability to perform at our best and can also lead to serious health issues in the long term.
So, during a typical workday, there are many challenges to our energy as well as our levels of agitation and stress. When we practise being mindful, the optimum state is to be both calm and alert. Although this may sound unrealistic, like being asleep and hyperactive at the same time, it’s an achievable state that anyone can experience.
With consistent practice, we are able to settle mental agitation and restlessness, so that the mind becomes clear and open, like a wide, open sky, with hardly a cloud passing through. We can also calm our feelings and emotions, like the calm, reflective surface of a lake, by acknowledging emotions and allowing them to release in their own time.
Noticing tightness, tension, and stress in the body, we are able to intentionally let go of, relax, and release physical tension that would otherwise remain unnoticed in the background. Although there can be purely physical causes, a significant amount of tension in the body holds unacknowledged and unresolved feelings that we have yet to process. The most effective way of processing these feelings is not by thinking about them, but by working bottom-up with your body using an approach like Focusing, which was covered in a previous session.
Being alert means being awake and responsive to whatever arises in our experience. When we are calm and alert, it makes sense that we can respond faster and more skilfully, than when we are full of agitation and noise.
We can practise being calm and alert every time we meditate. During meditation, we often use the breath to settle any mental and emotional agitation or restlessness. We can also use the breath to increase alertness. When meditating, we can sometimes drift off and feel a bit sleepy and disengaged. If you notice this happening, the best thing to do is take a few slower and deeper breaths to raise your energy and alertness, as you re-engage with the intention of the mediation.
There are many challenges in our lives, but by bringing ourselves into a state where we’re calm and alert, we can take on the various tasks of the day with greater focus, flexibility, and ease. This means that our body is stable, relaxed, and balanced, our emotions are fluid and acknowledged, and our mind is clear and open. There’s a poetic saying by Dogen, the 13th Century Zen philosopher, who wrote, “Body like the mountain, heart like the ocean, mind like the sky”.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified, and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second audio to explore using the wisdom of your body to acknowledge and release held emotions.
Suggested weekly practice
- Get into the habit of checking how calm and alert you are during the day.
- If you find that you not calm, improve your calmness by closing your eyes and taking a deep in-breath and slowly breathing out with the word “calm” resonating through your body all the way down to the soles of your feet.
- If you feel that your alertness has dropped, especially during meditation, take in a few deeper and energizing breaths and notice your body becoming re-energized.
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