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Meditation: Sarah McLean's Perfect Antidote to Stress

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In today's world of information overload and unrelenting messages about everything from the economy to terrorism, it's pretty difficult to feel calm. Fortunately, Sarah McLean has put together a meditation plan that is extremely accessible to the average person.

I interviewed McLean when she was in New York to introduce her new book, Soul-Centered: Transform Your Life in 8 Weeks with Meditation. She has described her program as "decidedly mainstream." Before meeting, I had read several chapters, visited her website, and listened to the first track on her guided meditations CD, Why Meditate?

In the opening pages, studies were referenced showing the effects of meditation: decreased anxiety and depression, enhanced immunity, normalized blood sugar, reduction of chronic pain, and lowered cholesterol. A January 2011 article published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging related that researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital had found that after two months of meditating for an average of 27 minutes daily, there was a positive physical change in the gray matter of the brain.

During our talk, Mclean recounted the story of her personal evolution over two decades -- with activities ranging from serving as a behavior specialist in the military medical corps to living in a Zen Buddhist monastery in a remote part of southern California. She was the program manager at the Deepak Chopra Center, spent time in Afghan refugee camps, and served as a director at Byron Katie's School for the Work.

McLean's demeanor was open and unaffected as I peppered her with questions about integrating "stillness and mindfulness into daily life." McLean admitted that her biggest challenge coming out of the monastery was "having to keep my center in today's world." Part of that path includes "making choices not to be overstimulated" and "spending time with people you enjoy." While covering the nuts and bolts of her program, our conversation touched on her philosophy, which is woven throughout the text. "Safety is not external. It's a state of mind," McLean explained. "Feeling loved is a perspective." She added, "When you have a lot of stress in your nervous system, nothing feels good."

"Soul-centered" is a term that McLean uses to explain a person's relationship to life that is harmonious, regardless of circumstances. When you are soul-centered you are not dependent on others for your self-worth. Commenting on why it is unwise to look to outside circumstances for validation, McLean noted wryly, "The world's a shaky place." McLean has had her share of obstacles, including a bout with thyroid cancer and a period when she lived out of her car. "In meditation, you learn to be brave," she told me. "You move toward self-compassion, courage, and bearing witness."

Through meditation, one trains to take care of their own personal peace while moving beyond an established belief system -- in order to embrace a wider perspective. "Everybody has different software," McLean said, "but it is essential for each individual to live in their own integrity." McLean defined that phrase as "expressing one's self authentically. It's having what you think, what you say, and what you do be aligned."

Humans have 60,000 to 90,000 thoughts per day. When we meditate, it changes our focus. McLean's approach underscores "ease and effortlessness -- no expectations." She notes reassuringly, "It's natural to experience other stuff. It's about shifting awareness. When you meditate, you go beyond the ego -- which is all about preserving who you are and what you've got."

McLean also covers related topics like self-sufficiency, which enables you to be the navigator of your own path. "Don't compare yourself to others" is also top advice. Attention should be in the present moment. "Life doesn't not take place in the past or in the future; it is happening right now," McClean states.

It's never too late to gain an understanding of how to "share yourself authentically in the world." The scientific findings show that meditation helps the neurons in the brain to develop new connections, regardless of an individual's age, because of neuroplasticity. We can then move forward by responding to a situation "creatively instead of habitually."

Meditation is a preventative tool that allows the body to enter "a restful awareness response" as opposed to the "fight or flight response." It increases levels of endorphins and serotonin, cultivating responsiveness rather than reactivity. McLean advises putting time for meditation into your schedule like an important meeting. Part of her overview is to break behaviors such as mindlessly jumping to answer the phone without acknowledging that you have choices.

My favorite tip was the Peacefinder Exercise, used to counteract a stressful situation through altering body response. By closing your eyes and going inward for 30 seconds, breath can be used as a stabilizing force. McLean recommends repeating an affirmation such as, "All is well. I'm doing the best that I can."

Self-love, self-kindness, accepting your body -- these are all components of McLean's prescription for a compassionate attitude that minimizes senses of insecurity, defensiveness, and feeling threatened. Self-approval is not always easy to achieve. McLean suggests exercises for "transforming negative habits about how you think about yourself and others." The ultimate goal is to be "soul-centered" rather than "ego-centered." Then, your self-worth is not contingent upon others' opinions of you. In essence, you "change the reference point by which you navigate life." McLean believes that in order to find love "you must fall in love with yourself first."

McLean advocates a one-day-a-month retreat. The parameters are unplugging from responsibilities, electronics, schedules, and a preconceived notion of what you should be doing. She views silence as "food for health." McLean further describes how to experience a "noble silence," which means simply "being." Withdraw from actions outside of yourself such as listening to music, writing, reading, and talking. This gives the nervous system deep rest and a chance to rejuvenate.

"We all have access to our own peace, creating our center as a touchstone we can count on," McLean told me. "It's essential -- just like brushing your teeth." She continued, "Walk in nature daily, do one thing at a time, say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no. Let go of the need for approval from others. Practice gratitude."

Contemplating her outreach about meditation's benefits, McLean noted, "I've been trying my whole life to change the world from the outside in." With her desire to share the perceptions she has garnered, she reflected, "I'm now trying to change the world one nervous system at a time."

This article originally appeared on the women's health site EmpowHER.

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