When a box turtle is crossing the road, and it hears a car coming, it reacts by drawing in its head and feet, contracting for protection. Evolution has kept turtles alive for hundreds of millions of years that way. What works as a natural defense isn’t much use, though, when a Yukon or Explorer is barreling towards you.
There are times when contracting inwards is the very worst thing you can do.
That is true now in the recession, that the economists see barreling toward us — the road noise has gotten alarmingly loud already. But as the economy contracts, we must resist our natural reflex to contract with it. Instead, we need to do the opposite. Expansion is the best way to survive any crisis.
The lesson should have sunk in after 9/11, when the whole country learned what it means to contract with fear, anxiety, suspicion and distrust. We felt threatened by a vast, unseen enemy, which was magnified as large as fear itself.
Fear deprives people of choice. Fear shrinks the world into isolated, defensive enclaves. Fear spirals out of control. Fear makes everyday life seem clouded over with danger.
A lot of people are approaching the economy that way, and not enough leaders are warning them that it’s the worst possible reaction.
To be happy in a recession means, first and foremost, resisting all the threats that fear possesses. Don’t obsess anxiously over what you could lose. Don’t reduce your world to a bank account or a 401(k). Isn’t there an upside to losing some “consumer buying power?” To be honest, we went too far with consumerist mania. By any measure this is an inordinately rich country, and instead of mourning sagging profit margins, can’t we use the current slowdown to ask what makes for true personal happiness?
Relationship. Gratitude. Appreciation. Compassion. Mutual regard. Strong social connections. Love you can trust.
I don’t know why it takes a crisis to bring out these fundamental human qualities. But it often does. We all realize that the next video game, the next new car, the next flatscreen TV means nothing compared to the rewards of relating to other people. Yet we live as if the opposite is true. The pursuit of happiness is blocked just as much by indulgent over-consumption as by an economic downturn. More, in fact. An impoverished country like Nigeria recently scored ‘number one’ in a survey of the happiest countries on Earth, while the U.S. has never broken the top ten in any such survey.
Some may protest that expanding and becoming more human is all well and good if you have a job, but totally unrealistic if your livelihood is threatened. I don’t think so. Whatever happens, the worst-off will be the ones who need more compassion, kindness and relating to. They will need real coping skills, not a show of group pity.
There is a lot more to say about how to be happy in a recession, but the main thing is, to remind yourself, that it is possible. Refuse to contract just because the economy does. You have the tools to be happy in the worst of times. The most important of these are the inner tools of the mind and body, including meditation, yoga and mindful awareness.
The Healing Benefits of Meditation
What most of us are really seeking is an inner state of awareness that helps us feel peaceful and centered – no matter what is unfolding in the exterior world. As the ancient sages of India discovered thousands of years ago, meditation is the most direct way to experience the stillness and calm within. Meditation is a powerful tool that allows us to access a state of deep restful awareness. In this state, the bodily reactions are exactly the opposite of those created by stress: our breathing slows down, blood pressure decreases and stress hormone levels fall. Even as the body is resting deeply in meditation, the mind is awake, though quiet. The term restful awareness captures the unique combination of physical relaxation and an alert yet quiet mind.
When you meditate, you go beyond the mind’s noisy chatter into an entirely different place: the silence of a mind that is not imprisoned by the past or the future. Why is this important? Because silence is the birthplace of happiness. Silence is where we get our bursts of inspiration, our tender feelings of compassion and empathy, our sense of love. These are all delicate emotions, and the chaotic roar of the internal dialogue easily drowns them out. But when you discover the silence in your mind, you no longer have to pay attention to all those random images that trigger worry, anger and pain.
As numerous scientific studies have shown, a regular meditation practice produces tangible benefits for mental and physical health, including:
Lowered blood pressure and hypertension
Slower heart rate
Decreased cholesterol levels
Reduced production of “stress hormones,” including cortisol and adrenaline
More efficient oxygen use by the body
Increased production of the anti-aging hormone DHEA
Improved immune function
Beyond these significant physical benefits, the greatest gift of meditation is how it affects your daily life. When you emerge from your meditation session, you retain some of the stillness and peace with you throughout your day. All of your thoughts, actions and reactions are infused with a little more love and mindful attention. Ultimately, no matter what kind of chaos is swirling around you, you will be able to remain in a space of calm, centered awareness.