“Meditation: Breathing Yourself a Better Brain”

Michael Sweeney
St. Christopher’s Upper School Chapel
October 18, 2017

“Meditation: Breathing Yourself a Better Brain”

When I was a junior in high school, I came across this verse from Matthew’s Gospel: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:34)

I loved this verse because, like you maybe, I was pretty busy in high school. I went to one of those boarding schools up north where you take a bunch of classes and do a sport and write for the school paper and, of course, wear a coat and tie every day because it was all very serious.

I remember the night I stumbled across that verse. I was lying in bed, bleary-eyed, finishing my homework, and I opened the Bible because I guess I was just feeling that desperate.

And there it was: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

It was as if Jesus himself was telling me, “Michael, you should go to bed now. You can get up early to study for the physics test. You can look at your notecards during lunch. Worry about tomorrow tomorrow.”

Is that really what Jesus was saying? Maybe not. But we usually hear what we want to hear, and that’s definitely what I wanted to hear.

I’m not sure I slept so great that night. Did I really stop worrying? See when I told myself, “I’m not going to worry about this tonight,” what I really meant was, “I’m not going to do anything about this tonight.”

I don’t know how it works for you, but when I put off doing something that I’m worried about, I usually end up worrying about it more, not less.

This cannot be what Jesus means when he says, “Do not worry about tomorrow.”

But how can I not worry about tomorrow when I’ve got more things to do than I can possibly finish today? It’s not like I was saving my physics studying for the morning because I was lazy. I was saving it for the morning because it was midnight and I was exhausted from my cross country meet and could barely see straight after the pre-cal problem set I’d just finished. And on top of that it was super hard to focus while also worrying about how awkward it was that Amy Quinlan still hadn’t replied to my invitation to the dance. Why did I leave a voicemail? Had she even listened to it? Would she sit next to me in English like normal tomorrow? Should I say anything about it?

But yeah, okay, don’t worry. Sounds like a plan.

Here’s the truth I’m still learning about what Jesus says. Tomorrow will indeed bring its own worries, so I can’t wait until some other day to feel a sense of peace. Like, when the physics test is over I’ll be able to take a deep breath. When things stop being weird with Amy, I’ll be able to relax. If I can just make it to Thanksgiving break, I’ll be okay. The bad news is that’s a lie. There’s always some other reason for worry on the way.

The good news is that it’s always possible to find peace right now, even in the middle of my worries. That’s what Jesus is saying—not that there won’t be reasons for worry, but that we can find peace right now. Not tomorrow or the day after, but here. Now.

What I’m going to share with you now is one practice for finding that peace. It’s a basic breathing meditation. Meditation is universal. All faith traditions have practiced some form of it for thousands of years. And many people of no faith tradition have recognized its benefits, too. As a Christian, I practice breathing meditation as part of my prayer life. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, breathing is more than a biological function. Think about how God created Adam. “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” So for me, this is more than a method for training the mind, it’s a way of experiencing the presence of God, the breath of his life in me.

In a minute, I’m going to ask you to pay attention to your breath, as it comes in and out. And what you’ll probably notice—unless you’re still half-asleep—is that you’re able to pay attention for a breath or two and then you get distracted by something: a thought, a noise, an itch. That’s totally normal. This practice is simple, but not easy.

Meditation, especially at first, is a little bit like being in a restaurant and you’re sitting across from someone, and you’re trying to listen to this person, but right behind their head is the TV. You’ve been in this situation, right? I’m really listening, but there’s all this exciting movement going on right there, and my eyes just have a mind of their own. And then I catch myself and I start listening again. And then there’s this flash of blue and orange uniforms and I realize that they’re showing highlights of the Virginia basketball game. And I can’t help myself—I’m looking at the TV again.

That’s what happens in meditation. The breath is like that person sitting right in front of you. The TV is your mind: a steady stream of thoughts, daydreams, worries, memories. In breath awareness meditation, your job is to return your attention again and again to your breathing.

You may feel a sense of peace today. You may not. Don’t worry about that. What this practice does over time is to change your brain, physically. It’s like going to the weight room for your mind. You may not always love working out while you’re doing it, but you can see what the benefits are.

Same with meditation. And for those of you who like scientific proof, there’s more of it arriving every day for the benefits of meditation. A recent study conducted by Harvard Medical School and Mass General Hospital found that 8-weeks of regular, daily meditation changes the brain.

It changes the brain in a way that makes it less reactive to stress, anxiety, anger, and fear. Think of the Incredible Hulk, and then think of the exact opposite of that. Regular meditation turns you into a super hero whose super power is to remain calm.

The Harvard study lists many more benefits, including improved focus, memory, and cognition, which I suppose means that if I’d started meditating when I was sixteen, I would not only have been less stressed about that physics test, I might have actually done better on it.

All the wonderful benefits aside, though, the true purpose of meditation is not to do anything at all, but to set down your goals and agendas and simply be.

So to prepare for that, I’m going to ask you now to set down anything that you might be holding. If your phone is in a place where it might distract you, move it or put it in airplane mode.

Sit up straight and tall. Go ahead and close your eyes. This will help you to focus your attention.

And now breathing normally and naturally, simply bring your attention to your breath. It may help to choose one location where you’re especially aware of the breath: your nose, your chest, your abdomen.

Breathing in—aware of the breath coming in. Breathing out—aware of the breath going out. No effort. Only attention.

Like a wave, the breath flows in. Like a wave, the breath flows out. No place to go, nothing to do. Simply here, now, noticing the breath.

[1-2 minutes of silence.]

From time to time, the mind will wander away from the breath. Just notice this. No judgment. And bring your attention gently back. Breathing in. Breathing out.

[1-2 minutes of silence.]

I hope that you experienced a sense of peace, even just one moment where you were so focused on your breathing that your thoughts were simply passing by like faraway clouds.

If you mostly felt annoyed or anxious or bored—or maybe you just took a little nap—don’t consider this a failure. It doesn’t mean that you can’t meditate. It takes practice.

I’m leading a monthly St. Christopher’s community meditation session, and you’re all welcome. The next one is Thursday, November 9 at 4:00. Stay tuned for reminders about that.

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