Going from On to Off: On emotional recovery and meditation

So, there’s this Buddhist monk named Matthieu Ricard. Ricard is a Frenchman, he’s acted as the Dalai Lama’s French interpreter, and he’s been called “The Happiest Man Alive” (a moniker he actually hates for, as he’s repeated, he knows “many happier people”). He’s a fascinating figure but, for the purposes of this humble post, what makes Ricard especially interesting is his background in science.

See, before becoming a monk, Ricard earned a PhD in molecular genetics. He’s literally a scientist and a monk.

Now, though he lives primarily in the Tibetan Himalayas, with occasional residencies in Bhutan and India and frequent participation in conferences throughout the world, Ricard’s interest in science has not waned—in fact, he has helped lead numerous scientific studies into the neurological effects of meditation.

In one such study, Ricard brought together several Tibetan monks, men who had spent years in deep contemplation—and I mean that literally: some of the participants were coaxed out of actual caves following seven years of continuous meditation—and “normal” people with little to no experience with meditation at all. These two groups were then subjected to various tests to measure their responses.

For example, participants were given headphones and told that, at some moment, they would hear a loud noise, such as an explosion. This was all the warning they received. When subjected to this loud noise both the monks and the non-meditators reacted with surprise. However, the surprise the monks experienced was lesser—let’s say a 6 out of 10, while the non-meditators reacted with an 8—but, more importantly, the monks recovered more rapidly.

See, that surprise, of course, caused a physiological response—a rise in heartrate, for example—and while the non-mediators remained in a heightened state for a few minutes, the monks recovered, returning to their base heart-rate, in a matter of seconds.

Okay, so what’s the point? Well, to put it simply, the monks were able to go from ‘on’ to ‘off’ more rapidly and efficiently. The sound of an explosion flipped their on switch, but they were able to quickly acknowledge the stimuli, understand that it meant no threat (they were warned that they would hear the sound, after all), and simply let it go, flipping the switch back to off.

This is, obviously, a transferable skill. Our switch gets flipped to on, causing a stress response, for many reasons, from anger and anxiety to fear and surprise. Just as they could identify the loud noise for what it was, acknowledge it and their body’s response to it, and let it go, the monks can and will do so with a feeling of anger or annoyance or fright, as well.

Y’know how anger can linger, sometimes for hours or even days? Well, these monks will acknowledge the anger, accept its effect, and let it go, flipping the switch back from on to off in moments.

Obviously, this comes with practice, and few of us can devote seven years in a cave to develop such a skill. Thankfully, there’re ways to fit such practice into a more typical schedule.

My first thought was to simply be more conscious, more aware of my emotions and the way they make me feel, to take a moment and breathe through anger or anxiety. Thing is, emotions of this sort can crop up all the time and with little warning, and those moments aren’t for practice. There has to be time set aside to develop this skill without actually experiencing the event itself.

It’s kinda like sports: you go to the gym and train with your coach in between matches, you don’t learn and perfect on game day. That burst of anger you feel at your partner is game day, so you need the gym time, when consequences are nullified.

Interestingly, I’ve found that, for me, working out was the answer. See, a good workout—a type of stress—produces many of the same physiological responses associated with emotional stress: a rise in heart-rate, heavy breathing, tensed muscles, a spike in adrenaline. In other words, a workout is a conscious flipping of the switch to on, so I reasoned that the more rapidly I could flip the switch back to off after a workout, the better I could do it following an emotional response.

So, after a workout, while still flushed with the effects of exercise, I immediately sit, shut my eyes, and meditate, focusing intently on my breathing, heart rate, and so on. I don’t try to consciously slow my breathing, but I try to be as aware as possible of the effects—not the cause, the workout itself is no longer of any consequence—so as to allow those effects to fade.

Going from on to off.

In theory, this should serve as practice for any situation in which my switch gets flipped.

Obviously, this does not replace more “regular” meditation sessions, which I still do first thing in the morning, but doing this could help develop the specific ability to go from a heightened response back to baseline. In can go the other way, of course, and athletes may want to meditate before a workout session as well, practicing going from off to on as quickly as possible.

Now, what do you do if you don’t work out? Hm. Well, I’ll be blunt: start working out. Seriously. Otherwise, try to fit in some meditation following any activity or event that gets a rise out of you, from watching an especially effective horror movie to—I dunno—sex?

Actually . . . that’s an interesting thought . . .

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