What is Meditation?
“Meditation is simplicity itself….It’s about stopping and being present, that is all.” This quote by Jon Kabat-Zinn sums the process up nicely. In our culture, many of us are on autopilot where thoughts are focused on memories of the past or desires of the future. We may drive home from work a thousand times and not notice the objects that we pass because our minds are somewhere else. Mediation helps us quiet the mind of these distracting thoughts so that we can live more in the present moment. It is here that we can explore our inner selves and bring peace. For the peace is already there once you stop disturbing it.
Meditation involves focusing the mind and paying attention. This attention may be directed towards a word, sound, picture, prayer or your breath. This focus allows the mind to settle into the present moment, decreasing the many stressful thoughts that bring us into the past or future. An analogy can be made with a radio dial. The static represents numerous thoughts of the day that preoccupy the mind and meditation is a tool that allows fine tuning of the dial so that the music and thoughts of the inner self can be heard more clearly.
There are many methods of meditating and the important thing is that you find the one that best fits you.
What can it do?
It has been well established that long term stress has damaging effects on health and the immune system through creating an imbalance of the chemicals in the brain that control function i. Herbert Benson, MD pioneered this field when he described the “relaxation response” and how meditation could be used to decrease the response of the sympathetic nervous system, or what was termed the fight or flight response ii. Meditation was found to reduce heart rate, oxygen consumption, respiratory rate, plasma cortisol, pulse rate and to increase alpha brain waves that are associated with relaxation iii. Relaxation exercises such as meditation have shown beneficial effects on the severity of tension headaches iv, anxiety v, psoriasis vi, blood pressure in blacks vii, cardiac ischemia and exercise tolerance viii, longevity and cognitive function in the elderly ix, use of medical care x, medical costs in treating chronic pain xi, smoking cessation xii and serum cholesterol xiii.
Meditation does not only result in improvement and prevention of chronic disease but also can lead to deeper spiritual understanding. Harvard’s Herbert Benson found that patients who were taught meditation for stress reduction often reported feeling more spiritual, more connected to all people and things. It is an excellent tool that may open the door to infinite possibilities of exploring the spirit. Whether we know it or not, we are all on a spiritual journey. We are looking for a better, more meaningful way of life. Quieting the mind can be the first step to help us find that inner voice that rings true in this world of cluttered thought and expectations.
Many of the major religions would agree. Years ago, when practitioners of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism developed meditation techniques, their primary goal was not relaxation, but direct insight into the nature of God and the universe. Meditation was a means of letting go of the self or ego and of cultivating an understanding of love and compassion. Christian teachings claim, “The path leading to heaven is that of complete stillness.” The Jewish Torah urges, “Be still and know that I am God.” The Buddha teaches, “May you develop mental concentration…for whosoever is mentally concentrated, sees things according to reality.”
How is it done?
Quieting the mind can be done successfully in many ways. For ease of demonstration we will focus on a mantra meditation which is similar to Transcendental Meditation (TM).
First pick a word or phrase (mantra) that has meaning to you. This can be anything that brings you comfort. A neutral word may be peace, joy, one or love. A religious example might include God, Shalom, or the Lord is my shepherd.
Find a quiet place to sit where there are few distractions
Commit to a set amount of time. Time yourself by periodically glancing at a clock, if needed, but don’t set an alarm.
Sit in a comfortable position that you can maintain with your back straight but not stiff.
Close your eyes and relax
Allow yourself to notice your breath as you inhale and exhale. Breathe slowly and naturally. As you exhale, repeat your word or phrase. If you have a long phrase, feel free to divide half into inhalation and half with exhalation.
When you notice your mind wondering, simply and gently return to your focus word. You will have thoughts of daydreams, tasks, worries, passions, etc. but simply say to yourself, “oh well” or “that’s interesting” and return to the repetition.
Assume a passive attitude and don’t worry if you are doing it right or wrong. Some find it helpful to use the analogy of swimming in the ocean. The idea is to drop 4 or 5 feet below the surface and observe the waves of thoughts as they go buy. As you focus on your word or phrase, the sea will calm.
At the end of your meditation, sit comfortably for a minute or two and stand slowly when ready.
Meditate on an empty stomach. Food has been found to inhibit the beneficial physiologic effects on the body.
If able, meditate with a friend, spouse or relative.
The process of quieting the mind is unique for each individual and having a goal to reach contradicts the mission of the activity. With continued practice though, you may find it helpful to learn of the various experiences and benefits meditation may bring.
The experienced practitioner will find it easier to quiet the mind. Where the beginner may have hundreds of thoughts during meditation, with time these will become less and less.
Some may enter what is called, “the gap” which is void of thought and mantra. A time for simply being present in the moment.
Increased sense of control in the world instead of being a passive “victim.”
Less focus on self or ego which enhances a sense of love and compassion.
A deepening of spiritual life and/or religious experience.
A feeling of being more connected to all people and things.
A simple Russian peasant who lived around the middle of the nineteenth century sums up the journey of a meditative practice nicely.
At first, spiritual practitioners feel that the mind is like a waterfall, bouncing from rock to rock, roaring and turbulent, impossible to tame or control. In midcourse, it is like a great river, calm and gentle, wide and deep. At the end its boundaries expand beyond sight and its depth becomes unfathomable as it dissolves into the ocean, which is both its goal and Source. xiv
Meditation does not create unpleasant feelings. But quieting the mind may make you more aware of ones that are already there. This can be a very important step in healing but often requires the help of a professional counselor to make sure that these thoughts and feelings are dealt with in a constructive and educational way. If you experience any strong or disturbing emotions, please discuss them with your medical care provider.
Note: Quieting the mind can make one aware of preexisting stressors or memories that may require the aid of a counselor to deal with these emotions in a constructive way.
15-20 minutes one to two times a day. Meditating for shorter periods of time each day is better than one hour once a week.