Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Meditation vs. Relaxation

Way back in 2013 I read The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. As with most such nonfiction books, I remember it being truly fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable at the time, but have since forgotten most of the content. The one thing that has stuck with me from that book was the discussion about meditation. I don't remember any details of the studies or the specific benefits or whatever, other than the general idea that meditation is inexplicably but undeniably beneficial for your brain, your self-control, and all sorts of other things.

I remember vowing that I was going to make meditation a daily part of my life. The idea of meditation really appeals to me, as do all of the purported benefits of regularly practicing meditation.

But, enter motherhood, and a couple debilitating pregnancies, and that whole earning a master's degree thing, and general sleep deprivation, and a busy life... and, well, this is a habit that has yet to become a really ingrained practice in my life.

But the busy life part is just an excuse. My real problem is that I'm just not exactly sure how to meditate. The (very little) reading I've done on it has given some idea that there are many, many different ways to approach meditation, so I kind of assume that I just need to figure out what works best for me and stick with that. But the few times I've taken a stab at developing a meditation habit, I find that whatever I'm trying feels silly, or ineffective, or way too hard to keep my focus, or just makes me fall asleep, and that makes me feel like I'm doing it wrong.

I guess I have this idea that meditation is supposed to be very cerebral, very detached, and very focused. It's where the mind is so focused on one thought or idea that all other distractions, including the distractions of the body and sleep, are washed away in the laser-like intensity of the moment.

Maybe that is meditation for some people?

Over the last few days, I've been pondering about how some of my favorite "meditations" are the ones that involve relaxation exercises. I'm not even sure if this counts as "real" meditation, but I love the kind of relaxation exercises where you breathe deeply and focus on releasing and relaxing various muscle groups until eventually you fall into a state of deep, mesmeric relaxation or even sleep. Sometimes, when I'm struggling to fall asleep at night or just have a moment of quiet solitude to myself (ha, ha), I do this on my own. But I also love listening to guided relaxations (my very favorite is Rainbow Relaxation from the Hypnobirthing course, I love listening to it even when I'm not pregnant).

And then last week, I discovered this whole thing called ASMR, which stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. Basically, this is a super complicated name for that tingly feeling you get when someone plays with your hair, or gently tickles your back, or speaks in a soothing calm whisper. (Please tell me you know what tingly feeling I'm talking about, because apparently some people don't experience this? I feel so bad for those people, because it is the BEST feeling in the world.)

Anyway, the real revelation was not that there is a name for this phenomenon, but that there are entire YouTube channels devoted to evoking ASMR. What I mean by this is that there are literally hundreds (thousands?) of videos on YouTube of people whispering, making gentle sound effects, brushing their hair, and all sorts of stuff into super sensitive microphones, all in an effort to evoke this ASMR feeling in viewers.

You guys, some of this stuff is weird. But it is also completely MESMERIZING, not to mention super relaxing and, dare I say, meditative? So, the first time I saw one of these videos, my thought was, This is so weird. I can't believe people actually do this. But, holy cow, I've totally got the tingles and I just want to sit here and watch this forever! I've had major problems with late night insomnia this pregnancy, so this past week I've started turning these videos on my phone while I lie in bed (unfortunately, it is best if you wear headphones to listen, which I find annoying because I hate falling asleep with headphones), and my body instantly responds with total and deep relaxation and then I generally have no problem drifting off to sleep. It's kind of super magical (links to a few of my favorite channels/videos at the end.).

I have no idea if this counts as "real" meditation. I don't know if "relaxation" brings about all those same mental benefits of self-control and whatever that "real" meditation does. But what I do know is that these relaxation techniques evoke in me a mental state that feels exactly like what I expect to feel from meditation. I feel calm, relaxed, in control, and deeply happy. Sure, half the time I also fall asleep, but can't sleep be part of a meditative practice?

I don't know, maybe I still need to give some other types of meditation a try. But right now I'm totally enjoying the mesmeric experience of being whispered at in a Russian accent (see the first two links below).

Do any of you practice meditation? What does meditation look like to you? Do you find it beneficial? Do you recommend any resources?

"Soft Spoken Relaxing Hair Play" on the Gentle Whispering channel

"Simple Pleasures" on the Gentle Whispering channel

"Comfort Blankets" on the WhispersRed ASMR channel


  1. Yes! I totally experience this. As a kid I used to watch QVC in the evenings because I loved the voices of some of the hosts and the way they handled the items being sold. I've always thought that was so weird, but this totally explains it. I also had a chemistry teacher in high school that would put me to sleep with her soothing voice.

    I actually heard about this on This American Life a few years ago, but the way they described it made it sound sexual (even though they kept insisting it wasn't).

    I don't like the whispering videos, but there's an art history documentary series on YouTube called ArtHistoryLuv, and in addition to being interesting, I absolutely love the voice of one of the art historians. Certain types of British accents are the biggest trigger for me (former archbishop Rowan Williams and Ruth Goodman are favorites). I've gotten into a bad habit of listening to BBC podcasts as I go to bed, and I'm always asleep within a few minutes.

    Watching someone else get their hair brushed (and having my own brushed) is so relaxing.

    1. Oh my gosh, yes! Those BBC people are super hypnotic. I didn't do QVC, but as a kid I loved watching Bob Ross for his ASMR effect (that voice with the soothing sound of the brush strokes, totally relaxing).

      I can see how this sounds like it might be sexual (it has a certain kind of sensuality to it), and I think some videos/channels actually do try to go that direction. But I think for most people it isn't sexual at all, just super relaxing (at least, that's how it is for me).

      I'll have to check out ArtHistoryLuv, sounds interesting. Thanks!