I had a friend ask me the other day about meditation. He’s a hard working, luxury loving Taurus sun with over half his planets ensconced within the 2nd house of values and possessions. Not surprisingly, this young man eventually went on to get his MBA at Harvard and has had a very successful career. Now he leaves his place for work at 6 am only to return at midnight to crash and do it all over again. He’s a consultant which means his work often consists of trying to fix other people’s problems all day.

Work is really stressing me out, he confides, but the whole “stop and breathe thing” doesn’t seem to be working. No matter how hard he tells himself to calm down, it doesn’t work. So he asks me about meditating. And I’m no expert, but two things have become very clear to me.

Lesson the first: Don’t waste time trying to dictate to your unconscious what to do.

Even from a strictly neurological viewpoint,* your unconscious is immeasurably more powerful and millions of years “older” than the newer, inhibitory structures of the brain. Trying to get the “newer” frontal lobe to put the brakes on a cascading anxious reaction from the “reptile” brain is an exercise in (further anxiety fueling) futility. A perfect example of how this can fail is when you actively supress a thought or emotion only to have that backfire and amplify your unwanted reaction!

The lower/older structures of the brain have primary pipelines right into your body, giving them the first call in regulating (or disregulating) your emotions, your physiology, and the frameworks by which you perceive the world. They work on the premise of survival. You want to try to rationalize your body out of survival mode? That’s like believing you can control a startled wild horse by using your bare hands to muscle it into your control.

Better to respect and ride the beast, than to be trampled underfoot, no? Meditation will give you the tools to do this.

Lesson the second: Meditation is cumulative!

The older I become, the more I realize that all the seemingly inconsequential habits you adopt will eventually come to play a large part of who you are. They are procedural grooves that you wear and carve into the matrix of your being. The little choices you make, be they conscious or not, in how you regulate your emotions or reactions to daily circumstances make it that much easier or that much harder to be someone strong or someone weak in the face of larger challenges. I take this very seriously because I do not speak merely of emotional and physical strength, but of ethical fortitude.

Meditation is not an emergency response. This is why I suggested for the short term, hard hitting drugs for my consultant friend. He needs the relief now and if there’s anything Western medicine does well, it’s emergencies.

But ideally, you don’t want to find yourself in an internal crisis. You want to find within yourself, a wellspring of inner reserves so that you don’t spiral into anxiety in the first place. And you develop these reserves slowly, cumulatively, over time as an oyster builds its pearl, layer by layer.

Doing meditation regularly means the difference between someone who can recall in a very familiar, coordinated, conscious and procedural** way how to stop and breathe and assess a situation clearly as opposed to someone who simply doesn’t have that experience and cannot tap into it, can only think of it abstractly. As the oyster transforms a grain of sand into a pearl, so through meditation may a human learn to nobly suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…

* Viewpoint simplified for the sake of brevity

** Procedural memory refers to actions we can recall through habit, such as tying your shoelaces or riding a bike.