There is an axiom you must realize: the state of our mind determines the quality of our life. When our mind is peaceful and happy, the quality of our life is elevated. When our mind is agitated, the quality of our life is poor. This seems obvious.
What normally happens, however, is that when the quality of our life is poor, we don’t look to our own mind as the cause. Instead, we blame the people and situations in our lives, making them responsible for how we feel. When we remain in this victim mindset, we feel helpless and powerless, and this can lead to depression, anxiety, and substance use, among other poor coping mechanisms.
Taking responsibility for our emotions and thoughts means we don’t first look to blame someone or something else for how we feel. Rather, we ask ourselves, despite the circumstances, what can we do to keep our mind clear, calm, and non-reactive, even in the face of adversity, so that we can take intelligent, rational action, and ultimately make the best choices for ourselves. It doesn’t mean that someone didn’t say or do something to hurt us. But since we are the ones with the hurt (the other person doesn’t lose any sleep at night), what can we do to take responsibility for our emotions and behaviors? How do we let go and move on?
While therapy and medication are examples of how one can take responsibility for their mental health, meditation and breathing techniques are underutilized, yet have empowered millions to find a way out of suffering. The research is crystal clear – this stuff works. The big secret though is that the techniques work only if you do them. We are often impatient and want immediate results, or else we deem something not worth our time. Maybe you tried to meditate and you didn’t feel it was helpful. It’s hard to learn from a book or an app or to just expect by doing it on your own with no formal guidance that you’ll magically arrive at a peaceful state of mind.
Despite our best judgement as to whether something is worthwhile, we keep practicing. Such practices yield generous dividends the longer one commits. Incidentally, this is why many people prefer medication over other modalities. As who in their right mind would want to impose even more discipline on themselves? We have to temper this tendency towards instant gratification. It takes time to slow down the mind.
Fortunately, there is a way to slow down the mind and bring it to the present. The breath is always in the present moment. Though, we’re hardly ever aware of it unless we’re out of breath. Though maybe you’re aware of it now since I brought your attention to it.
I teach a well-known breathing-based meditation course called The Happiness Program. This program teaches the Sudarshan Kriya, among many other things, which uses rhythmic breathing patterns to change the state of mind. You see, for every emotion, there is a corresponding rhythm in the breath. When we feel angry, our breath is shallow and quick; when we feel depressed, our exhalation is longer; when we feel happy, our inhalation is longer. Every emotion has a unique respiratory pattern. Our normal negative thought patterns get locked in with rhythms of breath which, in turn, reinforce the original emotion and thought pattern (think panic). The amazing thing, however, is that the ancient yogis discovered that this phenomenon is a two-way street: instead, we can intentionally breathe in precise rhythms to induce a relaxed, peaceful state of mind. Research on this technique shows that the effect may be mediated through stimulation of the vagus nerve – the counterpart to the sympathetic stress response (1). When we have a reliable mechanism to let go and relax, we are happier, less negative and reactive, and more energetic. We also feel good knowing that we are taking responsibility for our own mind – and that suddenly we can influence our environment, rather than the other way around.
We want to be happy, but our mind gets in the way. The mind vacillates between the past and the future constantly. Have you noticed this? This constant vacillation creates stress. The past is often associated with anger or regret. The future is often associated with anxiety. This constant vacillation is tiring. It’s as if we’re at the mercy of our own mind. Though, it seems normal since we’ve never known anything else, and so why would we question it. Yet, wouldn’t we all welcome having an ‘off switch’ – for the constant vacillation of the mind and incessant mental chit-chat – so that instead we could become fully present with the people and situations in our lives who deserve all of us. When we are able to give 100% to the people and situations in our life, we have no regrets and feel good about ourselves.
The irony is that by slowing down and resting deeply in meditation, we come out being able to give our 100% over and over again, with less risk for burnout.
While there are certainly many types of meditation techniques that can help the mind to slow down, I invite you to explore this ancient field, and to find a path which resonates with you. Digging many wells yields little result; stick with one path and go deep. Such age-old secrets seem to have more relevance than ever before, especially during our turbulent and difficult times.
 Brown RP, Gerbarg PL. Sudarshan Kriya yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression: part I-neurophysiologic model. J Altern Complement Med. (2005) Feb;11(1):189-201.
Robert Feeley, MD has been a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry since 2019, and prior to this worked with Calabasas Behavioral Health since 2017. Dr. Feeley is currently the medical director for Engage Therapy treatment center in Westlake Village, CA. He completed his psychiatric residency at Yale. He went on to complete an Addiction Psychiatry fellowship at Yale. Dr. Feeley specializes in addiction, trauma, anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorders. Dr. Feeley has developed a personal interest in integrative psychiatry, incorporating holistic treatments in the treatment of mental health. He is a meditation instructor for the Art of Living Foundation and SKY meditation programs. Dr. Feeley has two offices, in Calabasas and Thousand Oaks.
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