I think it is safe to say that a large majority of us gravely underestimate the powers of our minds and overestimate the powers of medicine. Whether your problem is sleeplessness, pain or some other potentially overwhelming challenge, your mind, especially if you train and develop its powers, can work wonders in corralling and controlling your problem.
Fortunately the title of this post implies a false dichotomy. Why not meditate AND medicate? Why not do what you can to control your problem by training your mind and then minimize the use of medical interventions.
Why should you take the trouble to train your mind? Well, the human body is a complex ecosystem. Every attempt to control such a system by tampering with its inner workings triggers an avalanche of unpredictable results. Our body’s complexity makes it subject to what has been called “the butterfly effect”. The butterfly effect refers to the fact that the tiny effect of a butterfly flapping its wings in China may change the weather in, say, Los Angeles. (Click the link above for a more detailed explanation.)
This effect implies that complex systems can be heavily influenced by tiny variations in factors that scientists would usually see as negligible. The butterfly effect clarifies why all medicines have “side effects”, and also why It is wise to minimize the risks of putting alien substances into our bodies.
In light of this, I had a strong reaction to a recent article in the New York Times referring to sleep medications as “mother’s little helper”.
There are useful non-medical ways to deal with sleeplessness and they can powerfully improve the effects of medical treatment while minimizing the risks entailed in taking medication. For example most of the sleepless mothers described in the New York Times article could not sleep because they were obsessively ruminating over tasks that needed to be done.
Meditation can help reduce such rumination. While meditating you deal with mental distractions by gently and compassionately returning your mind to the object on which you are meditating.
Think of it in terms of deeply ingrained stimulus-response bonds; the thought is the stimulus and it demands that you respond. One illustrative example from the Times article is a mother who said “There’s always the worry another e-mail has come in” (stimulus). “It’s hard to resist getting up and checking your emai”l (response).
But when you meditate, you learn over and over not to do things like taking that last peek; instead you train your mind to go back to your chosen object of meditation. This breaks the stimulus-response bond. Think of it, there are probably thousands of thoughts that create in you an urge to take action, but your meditation breaks the bond between thought and action. It reduces the linkage to the point where the response becomes optional instead of compulsive. That will make you calmer.
Earlier we posted a traditional way of doing mindfulness meditation, and also an audio that can have a similar effect. Nether of these aids take up much of your time. You should consider trying one or both of them.
This is only one small way of changing how your mind works. We will be discussing many more in later posts.