There are a number of medical conditions that require a “rescue inhaler.” Something goes wrong and you whip out your inhaler, take a deep breath and, hopefully, the world gets solid again. We don’t usually think of a rescue inhaler of playing a role in our meditation routine. After all, meditation is usually long and slow, gentle and planned. But anxiety doesn’t always give you time to gently and calmly slip into your quiet place, clear your mind, and so on. So the options available when stress blindsides you and you need a little emergency transcendence, seem to be limited to going a little crazy for a while or, certainly in 21st century America, popping a pill.
I have been playing with an alternative — maybe “a meditation rescue enhancer?” Basically it’s an exercise you can do when you feel the pitter patter of anxiety sneaking up on you, and you really can’t just go home and chill out. Here is how it works.
First, if at all possible, get out of the space that is stressing you. Fake a phone call. Walk outside. Go into another room. If that isn’t possible, close your eyes or just “defocus” your gaze into the middle distance. It will look like you are still “there” but the idea is not to be. Also get your appendages into a relaxed position — one that takes no energy to maintain. If you are seated, get your feet flat on the floor and rest your hands in your lap or on your thighs. If you have to stand up, try to find a wall to lean against. Consciously slow your breathing. Slow, complete exhalations.
Once you have physically and emotionally removed yourself, as much as possible, from the stressful environment, reach inside yourself and pull up your most soothing visual and olfactory stimuli. Obviously it is great if you can actually put yourself in the presence of those stimuli, but that is usually a luxury reserved for “planned meditation.” In rescue mode, we imagine them as intensely as possible. My smells are lilac and pine trees. Sounds — rain and thunder or crickets. The object of these two steps — getting away from the stressing environment and mentally immersing yourself in a couple of primary calming spaces — is to create a space from which tranquility can emerge. Once these steps have allowed your heart rate to come down and your breathing to slow, we move into the visualization stage.
In the visualization stage you literally smooth the canvas of your mind. Envision a smooth white space that completely fills your visual field. You are going to paint on it. Wait, wait. I know. You can’t paint. Well, neither can I — in the “real world." But this is the canvas of your mind. Here you are a genius. Think any scene, any form, and Ta Da! There it is! Just the way you imagined it — here, in your mind. Don’t like it? Smooth the out canvas to pure white again, or just fade out the portion you do not like. It is your space you can make it do whatever you please. Relax a little further and begin again.
So where do you reach for these images? Research tells us that the songs of our youth — those we encountered twixt twelve and twenty — are the ones that remain emotionally powerful for us throughout our lives. I find that, for me, in this visual stage, a step back it time is also beneficial. The objective is comfort, and to get there it is incredibly helpful to put away our adult armor, and draw upon the gentleness of childhood memories.
So as you draw, don’t be shy about playing with those images from long ago or far away. I find it easiest to focus on images from nature. You may have a greater affinity for rooms, buildings, cityscapes, whatever. The idea is to go to the "comfort food" of your childhood images. The earliest images I can recall are the illustration from a series of books by Thornton Burgess collectively called the "Old Mother West Wind Stories featuring Peter Rabbit aka Peter Cottontail, Jimmy Skunk, Sammy Jay, Bobby Raccoon, Little Joe Otter, Grandfather Frog, Billy Mink, Jerry Muskrat, Spotty the Turtle, Old Mother West Wind, and her Merry Little Breezes." Written in the early 19-teens, they were contemporaries of Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 classic Wind in The Willows, with Mr. Toad, Mole, Ratty and Badger. And, of course, A. A. Milne’s timeless stories of Winnie-the-Pooh from the 1920s. There are several version of both Wind in the Willows and Winnie-thePooh. Not surprisingly, I remember the drawings for each work done by the wonderfully insightful illustrator, E.H. Shepard. If you were not introduced to these works in your own childhood, go take a look now – at the original versions with the original illustrations. That exploration alone will lower your blood pressure. [If you have children who have been raised primarily on Pixar and latter-day Disney — do share these ancestral works with them.] And naturally, I was exposed to all the original Disney animated works, Snow White, Dumbo, Bambi, etc., with the incredibly detailed animation of the various creatures of the forest; unmatched in my mind until Avatar. And Avatar’s jungle, while quite beautiful, is not one I would suggest for the kiddies.
OK. So we have this wonderful smooth white expanse rolling out inside our head. Our favorite smells tickle our nostrils, accompanied by our most calming sounds. Do a calm, "breath in, breath out," and reach out in your mind and let the images unfold.
An example. Last week I came out of class completely knackered. I had tried to put too much content into one 75 minute lecture. I have always told my public speaking students that the amount of energy you put into a presentation determines the amount of energy your audience will give back to you. So if your aren't exhausted at the end of a presentation, you aren't doing it right. This must have been a fairly good lecture, because I was completely wiped out. Fortunately, my office has a couch onto which I lowered myself. Big stretch. Still, even after lying there for a few minutes, I still had the shakes. So I called up my lilacs and some rain on the roof. And gradually, after a few more minutes I was able to smooth the canvas in my head and begin to draw.
I’m not sure why — maybe because the AC in my office has been flirting with frigid lately — but I decided to go with a winter scene. So I traded the lilacs for a deep pine scent; the kind you find in a clearing in a cold forest. Maybe not Alaska cold, but certainly Wisconsin cold — the kind of cold that freezes your nose when you breath in. The rain sound faded out as the wind sifted through the pines, rattling the branches with tiny pellets of sleet that shifted to a soft snowfall. One nice thing about painting on the canvas of your mind is that your can do still lifes and video simultaneously.
So now I have a soft snowfall sifting through a frosty winter clearing. I bring a small ridge into the side of the clearing. Long grass, weighted down by the falling snow, droops down across the openings of burrows that now become visible in the bank below the ridge. A pink nose wrinkles in the cold air, and a snowshoe rabbit, hops cautiously out into the moonlit clearing. That is another wonderful thing about painting on the canvas,of your mind – the natural incongruity of having moonlight illuminating a snowfall is no problem at all.
Soon a cluster of kits bounce out from behind their mother, and begin to explore the clearing, eventually tumbling down the side of the bank, more like otters on a river bank, than bunnies in a snow filled hollow. But, it is still the canvas of your mind, where you determine what is normal. I decide to take a final stab at an incongruity of nature by inviting two great snowy owls to the party. They glide in on huge and silent wide white wings, the perfect predators for the Arctic north woods, who settle comfortably and congenially among their preferred prey. The kits frolic about them, stumbling over the carefully sheathed talons, as snow continues to fall heavily from a clear and moonlit sky. The wind still sings softly through the pines. And there it is, a peaceable kingdom made delightfully possible here on the cool smooth canvas of my mind.
I let my eye roam over the clearing where the quiet play of the kits soothes the eye. A kit seeking a nap, snuggles into a hollow provided by furry folds or a feathered niche. The breeze sighs a lullaby as the snow pulls a fluffy blanket over the moonlit scene.
Not surprisingly, I find myself calm and at peace, now able to return to the obligations of what some choose to call "the real world." Or I can continue my explorations here. Smooth the canvas, pick up my mental pen, and see what lies around the bend in the road. The little horse and sleigh stand ready to take me over the bridge that crosses the stream that I have sketched at the bottom of the hill . . . .
PS. No animals or natural environments were harmed or disturbed in the creation of this fantasy.