Somewhere among all the picture books and storybooks that my girls had when they were younger is one called "Five Minutes' Peace." It's about an elephant mother (Mrs. Large) who brews herself a cup of tea and heads off to luxuriate in a warm bath. But no matter how desperately she tries, she can't escape the demands of her little Larges, each of whom is more cunning than the next in disturbing what she needs most in the world--five minutes' peace.
And so it goes with each of us as well. At home, on the road and at work, our senses are constantly being assaulted. If it's not the demands of a spouse, a friend, a child, a co-worker or drivers on the road, then it's the discordant clang of talk radio, television, billboards, traffic or construction. Someone or something is always there to intrude.
So ubiquitous are these intrusions that most of us aren't even fully aware of them anymore. Our bodies and minds have accommodated the onslaught through a process that psychologists call sensory adaptation. In essence, we become kind of numb to the pain. But conscious of it or not, we're still in pain, and the pain still takes its toll.
At least half a dozen times in the last year I've heard friends comment, "I'm so burned out. I just feel like I can't give to anybody anymore."
Words of desperation. They indicate that these men and women, like millions of others, have been defeated by the assault. By not giving themselves frequent vacations from the blare, they left themselves vulnerable to its cumulative effects. And like it or not, they're now forced by burnout to do what they didn't do all along: recharge their batteries.
A better approach is to not wait until the problem becomes acute. But how?
In a perfect world, everyone would be able to get away to a spiritual center for a periodic silent retreat (though in a perfect world we wouldn't have to). In fact, not until you actually go to a place where voices and media are forbidden do you realize how loud the usual cacophony in our lives is. The times I've spent days in absolute silence, communing with my thoughts and the sounds of nature, have been utterly rejuvenating.
Able to move at a slower, more natural rhythm without having to worry about verbal communication, I found myself experiencing the simple joys of living. Even eating, in a dining hall with others who are similarly practicing silence, I seemed to chew my food with additional care, and was more attentive to its tastes and textures. Every activity--reading, walking, bathing--was performed with greater mindfulness. By that I mean the awareness of this specific moment, the here and now, as the place deserving of my complete presence. What bliss.
Alas, five days of silence every month or two isn't very realistic for most of us. But neither is a daily solitary walk on the beach or in the woods.
A more pragmatic antidote to the pace and noise of daily living is to create your own peace through meditation.
Dozens of studies conducted by renowned universities have concluded, time and again, that meditation is an effective method of reducing or even eliminating the physical consequences of stress. Practiced regularly, meditation lowers heart and respiratory rates, and strengthens the immune system. It can improve diabetes and arthritis, anxiety and depression, migraines and obsessive-compulsiveness, as well as many other disorders.
For many, the word meditation conjures up images of Buddhist monks sitting with their legs crossed in a painful yoga position, motionless for days at a time. But meditation doesn't have to be exotic to be effective. Personally, I derive immense benefits from 15 or 20 minutes a day of simply trying to focus my attention. Sometimes I sit cross-legged, sometimes on my knees, often in a chair--but always in a place that's as quiet as I can make it.
I begin by closing my eyes and taking a few deep breaths, slowly in and out through the nose, to initiate the relaxation process. Then I actually focus my attention on my breathing--on the air going in and out, on the places in my body that the air touches. Every few seconds my attention will wander, led astray by a thought. As soon as I become aware of that, I gently try to refocus on the breathing. Even after as few as 15 minutes, when I open my eyes I'm noticeably calmer, more ready to face the day's challenges.
There are, of course, numerous other methods of meditation. Some people focus their attention on, say, the point of contact between their hands; others stare at fixed objects or on geometrically symbolic designs called mandalas; still others repeat specific sounds called mantras. What all these methods have in common is the goal of mindfulness. After you've achieved mindfulness, even for just a few moments, you'll understand why it's so important. Living in the here and now, as opposed to the there and then, which is where we spend most of our time, feels pretty wonderful.
Better still, mindfulness is a movable feast. It can go where you go. So even as the hubbub and discord continue on all sides, you can remain an island of sanity by creating your own five minutes of peace.
Copyright 1998 by Kathy Smith
* Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.