THE BLOG
02/13/2009 12:58 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Meditating On The Recession

On the 26th of January 2009, billions of Chinese and other Asians, throughout the world, will welcome the first day of its Ox Year, with much trepidation, fear of loss of jobs and changes in their life-style and wealth. Whilst their expectations are real, there is a noble way out! --Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Bhikkhu Buddha Dhatu

I hate meditating, but I do it every day.

It's boring and sometimes painful. It won't fix your problems, and it sure won't help you get a job, pay your mortgage or revive your 401K. Where it can work wonders is in mitigating the stress of any tough situation, including the economic crisis, which, let's face it, isn't going away any time soon.

Mindfulness meditation -- where all you have to do is sit still, watch your mind, and, when it wanders, go back and watch it some more -- is ideal for these frugal times. It's free, requires no travel or gear and can be practiced at any time and for any duration. There's no need to become a Buddhist, pay for a mantra or go guru-hunting.

As the financial meltdown deepens, most people and businesses are cutting spending to the bone just to stay solvent, while those lucky enough to have discretionary income scrutinize their budgets line by line to trim expenses.

Some belt-tightening is long overdue. Everyone needs to learn to pay as they go; businesses must get leaner, and individuals can get better deals on bank charges, phone and cable rates, and cool it on the heating bills. But cost-cutting can only go so far before becoming counter-productive. (That means you, LA Times.)

Of course, there's a ripple effect, where one man's spending ceiling is another man's unemployed floor: canceling Netflix, getting cheaper haircuts, going to fewer concerts, buying cheaper clothes and eating at home only makes things worse for Netflix employees, hairdressers, musicians, shop owners and waiters.

In the wake of all this, feelings of fear, confusion and anger can take on a life of their own. Where mindfulness meditation comes in is that by sitting quietly and noticing the
parade of your tiny, individual thoughts and feelings, you have a front row seat to observe your mind at a granular level. Do this for a while and you'll begin to see how the mind expands moment-to-moment thoughts and impressions into complex, often tortured narratives.

Say you're meditating and a thought arises -- unbidden -- that you might lose your job. It's just a mental sensation with no solidity, but before you know it your head has you filing for bankruptcy or on the street begging for change. By bringing your mind back to its "watching" state, the nightmarish story you've spun is revealed to be as evanescent as a dream, and, perceived in that light, loses its power.

While meditating this morning, I felt a stab of pain in my right shoulder, where a bone spur has been wreaking havoc for months. The physical sensation subsided in seconds, but by then my mind had me on an operating table at Cedar's counting backwards from 10 before going under the knife. This was also pure fantasy ; no one's suggested I need surgery. But by observing this process -- gaining insight into how my mind works -- I grokked the illusory quality of the story, and soon the anxiety passed and the whole thing seemed kind of funny.

Practice a few minutes a day -- if you can work your way up to 20 minutes or more, all the better -- and, a body of scientific research that will convince even skeptics shows, odds are you'll experience subtle changes in alertness, sleep and anxiety levels.

To learn more, find a teacher, attend a class or read up. In the LA area, InsightLA (InsightLA.org), a Santa Monica-based non-profit founded by my principal teacher, Trudy Goodman, offers a world of excellent information, classes, meditation retreats and lectures. UCLA's Mindfulness Awareness Research Center is another good resource. In the Bay area, check out Spirit Rock (spiritrock.org), a spectacular meditation center co-founded by the great mindfulness teacher/author Jack Kornfield.

Similar resources are available in or near most major cities. Or pick up "Wherever You Go There You Are" by Jon Kabat Zinn or "A Path With Heart" by Kornfield, two of the many profound and practical books on the subject.

Meditation can be invaluable in the direst of circumstances, financial and otherwise. A close friend once told me that after she'd heard the most devastating news of her life, her first thought was, "Thank God I meditate."

Bhikku Buddha Dhatu might say she'd found a noble way out.