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Applied Meditation: How to Stay in Tune through Stress

I’ll never forget when I practiced applied meditation rowing around Alcatraz on a wild, windy afternoon.

The San Francisco Bay is infamous for its unpredictable currents. And that day Mother Nature wasn’t holding back any punches. It marked my first time at the helm of a rowboat under such dangerous conditions. The waves and winds were coming at us every which way. I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of safely navigating the rowboat without endangering my two rowing buddies’ lives.

I grew up on Long Island where I learned to fight my way through challenging situations, but that day I didn’t dare to compete with Mother Nature by fighting my way through these wicked waves. I realized that I couldn’t think or feel my way through these mischievous waters. Just as I was beginning to panic, I exhaled very slowly over and over again. I embraced all my racing thoughts and gut-wrenching fears as I had done countless times on my meditation cushion. Breathing about it allowed me to raise my consciousness. I intuited I needed to be at peace with Mother Nature’s agenda for that afternoon. Join her rather than fight her. Appreciate her display of power. Navigating became fun as I tuned into the cohesive flow beneath the surface of these rough waters.

I navigated our rowboat for 20 minutes, was somewhat reluctant to give up the helm when it was my turn to start rowing again. I closed my eyes when I began rowing to experience that flow on an even deeper level. And was supremely grateful everyone in that rowboat reaped the benefits of applied meditation that day.

Applied meditation is staying in tune with our breath even when we feel horribly out of tune with our circumstances, others, or ourselves. It’s what I consider unconditional intentional breathing: minding our breath anywhere, anytime. You graduate from being a smart person who knows about the benefits of meditation to a wise person who reaps its benefits under any kind of circumstances. 

We first train ourselves to meditate by consciously breathing into the dark recesses of our psyches on our meditation cushions and into our tight, neglected muscles on our yoga mats. We often practice in supportive groups and in relaxing, comfortable settings. As we develop more intimacy with our respiration, we evolve and start practicing intentional breathing under many more circumstances:

  • Daily meditation all alone in the comfort of our homes
  • Rigorous exercise with an athletic community that makes us exert ourselves more than usual so we breathe much harder
  • Receiving massages punctuated with encouragement to release our tension through our breathing
  • Singing in a choir or at a karaoke bar
  • Talking out our feelings with loved ones

Overtime we begin rescuing ourselves more and more with our breath. When we feel punched in the gut by someone’s hurtful remarks, we no longer hold our breath, but rather slowly exhale to embrace our painful emotions instead of running away from them. We find ourselves taking several deep breaths in and out before making an important speech or embarking on an adventure. We ground ourselves with elongated exhales when we’re stressed out. And thus, we graduate from being smart to wise, and reap the benefits of meditation all day long.