“Give me your passport,” demanded the leader of the rabble. I glanced warily at the group of Bolivian Campesinos holding cheap rifles, blocking our path.
Then I looked at my recent Bolivian acquaintance, who nodded imperceptibly.
Roadblocks had emerged around Bolivia to protest America’s foreign policy in the country.
I wouldn’t normally have dared travel, but was desperate to reach an old school friend’s impending wedding in Brazil.
I felt intimidated and not a little stressed, especially as two American travelling companions stood next to me (more on whether we made it later).
The anxiety trap
Stress is all consuming, trapping us under a heavy weight.
It can either arise in response to big events and perceived danger, as in the example above, or present as a chronic, ever-present affliction.
Whatever the trigger, the symptoms are often identical.
As if creating a constant background mind static isn’t enough, the feeling easily gathers strength and becomes a potent emotion, transmuting into physical symptoms.
Muscular tension, shortness of breath and even chest pain can result in severe cases.
And it’s a widespread issue, with a UK poll in 2018 poll indicating that 74% of people had felt so stressed in the previous years that they had been overwhelmed or unable to cope.
So how can we manage such a prevalent and debilitating phenomenon?
I’ve found meditation to be among the best solutions, although as there are countless contemplative schools and approaches, perhaps that doesn’t narrow it down much.
So while your mileage may vary, I’ll venture to suggest the best meditation for stress, in my humble opinion.
What is the best meditation for stress?
There are two parts.
The first is walking meditation.
Personally, I’ve discovered that when I feel stressed, it’s a devouring beast which hijacks both my cognitive and physical function.
It’s impossible to think or feel clearly under these conditions, making it necessary to change the paradigm.
Trying to manage our sympathetic flight or fight response while remaining physically inert is ineffective at best and at worst, can perpetuate the symptoms.
Therefore, for me, movement is key.
The mind-body connection (via our breath) is strong, a symbiotic relationship, where our psychological function can alter physical chemistry and vice versa.
If we want to change our brain and emotional response, therefore, we must first change our physical posture. Walking is a wonderful way to do it.
When we feel stressed, walking meditation allows us to get out of our heads and into our body, bypassing the pressure cooker of feeling to find a release valve.
Indeed, initial research into nature walks provides promising results, with a suggestion that it can help reduce cortisol levels (interestingly, sitting in nature provided similar benefits).
When I walk, I simply use my normal mindfulness meditation routine.
Firstly, I bring attention to my breath, observing inhalation and exhalation at my nostrils and/or stomach.
Next, I transition my awareness into my body, feeling how it moves through space.
When you truly pay attention, it’s incredible to experience the interplay of all of your muscles and joints propelling you forwards, a feat of human nature we generally take for granted.
Often I’ll focus in on the soles of my feet, enjoying the sensation of connecting with the ground in a fluid heel-toe gate.
And finally, there’s the scenery.
Open eye meditation is something I’m increasingly utilising, appreciating that what I see in my vision is really just an elaborate reconstruction in the space of consciousness.
My walks usually last at least 30 minutes and I love getting into nature, doing my daily excursion by a nearby river and canal.
Often you find that these types of mindful walks blow stress away like leaves in the wind, and although the benefits of meditation might not be immediately obvious, with continued practice, you’ll slowly feel refreshed and rejuvenated, clear of mind.
In these moments, I often like to follow up with some Stoic meditation and reflection.
Much of the stress we feel is due to perceived threats and external stimuli, factors which are often illusory and outside our control.
In these post-walk moments of clarity, I remind myself that nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
In other words, it’s not the situation we face that is stressful, but rather our reaction to that situation.
And like all mental responses, it is malleable.
I’m completely in control of how I respond to any event, an empowering and ultimately liberating realisation.
The magic of mindfulness
We can manage stress in two ways.
Firstly, rather than judging it as a negative symptom, we can perceive it to be a healthy, character-sculpting emotion, one that provides the opportunity to employ a growth mindset.
Secondly, we can use it as a cue for meditation, thereby incorporating more mindfulness into our lives.
The choice is yours.
P.S. Story resolution – After two-three days of solid walking and hitchhiking in the back of pickups out of the Amazon jungle, I made it to the wedding just in time!
Fortunately, at the roadblock in question, the leader of the group only checked my passport and, seeing that I was from the UK, assumed my American travelling companions were also British. A lucky escape!