Monday, December 25, 2006

How Meditation Works & Uses

Meditation Defined
Meditation is an experience of the mind - a state of consciousness. It is a moving of the mind from a state of activity into a state of silence. Once there, it is experiencing that stillness in a relaxed yet alert manner.

Meditation has been a practice of all the major religions for eons. Ancient Hindu texts on meditation from India (the Vedas) are at least 3,000 years old. Buddhism, based on meditation, began about 2,500 years ago. Christianity has a strong tradition of meditation, and its practices are found among Jews and Muslims, as well. And cultures that have shamans often use a form of inner concentration and imagery, which we could call a type of meditation.

While every religious tradition incorporates meditation into their practices, you don't need to be religious to meditate. Meditation is nondenominational. It is simply the act of connecting with something larger than your personal self. It is the sensing of unity, oneness, harmony and peace.

Everyone has had these moments at one time or another. For some, it happens while watching a sunset or the first snowflakes of the season. Others have slipped into that space while gazing in the eyes of a new love or catching the smile of a newborn.

With continued practice, you are able to bring that sense of stillness and harmony into your everyday life. Anxieties and concerns no longer can control you in this state of consciousness, and you will find that you experience your world in a fresh and more relaxed way.

How Meditation Works
Meditation is an effective stress reduction tool with both physiological and psychological benefits. Its practice promotes "the relaxation response." In this state, blood pressure drops, brain activity moves into slower alpha waves, metabolism slows down, and the nervous system is calmed. Our bodies get a kind of brief vacation.

Researchers have shown that meditation also stimulates our immune systems. A recent study found that meditators were significantly healthier in 13 disease categories than their nonmeditating peers. In fact, the meditating group had 50% less cancer and 80% less heart disease.

Meditation changes the activity in the brain. Instead of the beta waves associated with everyday activity, the brain moves into the slower alpha and theta brain waves. Whereas brain waves in various areas of the brain are normally chaotic, with meditation there is a synchronicity among all areas of the brain. Alpha and theta waves have been associated with enhanced creativity. And the increased productivity experienced by meditators may be related to the more efficient functioning of the brain.

Researchers have also found meditators exhibit many signs of psychological health, including calmness, emotional stability and optimism. These characteristics are due to the physiological changes promoted by meditation as well as meditation's ability, over time, to transform negative behavior patterns.

Uses of Meditation
Many people initially are drawn to meditation because they are suffering or in pain and want a way out. Anxiety, frustration, feelings of isolation, anger and unsatisfying relationships or work are some of the common conditions that push people towards meditation.

Although these conditions appear diverse, what they all have in common is a feeling of separation from life. When alcohol, drugs, over-eating and compulsive sex don't relieve the pain or sense of alienation, an opening is created to try a new approach - and many have found meditation a helpful tool.

Dr. Herbert Benson was the first to report on the beneficial effects of meditation on drug abuse. He found that after 3 months of regular meditation, 84% of regular marijuana users had quit using it and another 14% had decreased their intake. Other researchers have reported similar results for a wide range of drugs, including LSD, amphetamines, barbiturates, alcohol and cigarettes

In general, meditation helps to reduce stress, and promotes both physical and psychological health. It has been found to:

  • decrease blood pressure
  • improve immune response
  • relieve pain
  • improve near vision and hearing acuity
  • decrease physician visits and hospitalizations
  • increase longevity-related hormones
  • increase resistance to stress
  • decrease anxiety and anxiety-related disorders
  • increase emotional stability
  • release negative emotional patterns
  • enhance creativity, productivity and performance
  • promote overall well-being

Types of Meditative Practices

A Variety of Options

Today, we have access to many different types of meditative practice, so you can find one that fits your own personality and preferences. Regardless of the particular practice you might select, you will find yourself engaging in a relaxed form of concentration or focus, whether sitting or moving.

* Basic practice
The most basic form of meditation involves simply sitting and focusing on one thing, such as the movement of your breath in and out.

* Are you visual?
You may want to arrange and decorate your meditation area. Your practice could involve concentration on a visual symbol, a sacred image, or a candle flame.

* Do you love music?
You may wish to simply sit and listen to the sounds around you without judgment or attachment, just listening moment to moment, experiencing what you hear as pure sound. Or you may find that you are attracted to the sound of Tibetan bells or to certain forms of chanting or mantra - sacred phrases repeated in rhythm with your breathing.

* Are you a contemplative type?
You may want to read a spiritually inspiring short passage a time or two, and then just close your eyes and be still for a few minutes. Don't try to memorize the words but rather catch the essence of the meaning and focus on that in the stillness.

* Do you have trouble staying in the moment?
The Buddhist practice of mindfulness might suit you. Mindfulness focuses your full attention on one activity bringing you to a penetrating awareness of each moment. The Japanese Zen practices of flower arranging and tea ceremonies are examples of mindfulness meditations. But you can practice mindfulness with anything - from eating to walking to washing dishes.

* Are you full of heart?
Your practice may be more devotional, and could involve prayer or mantra - and a path of service. These types of practices are common in the Hindu and Christian traditions.

* Are you very active physically?
You may find you are most comfortable using a form of moving meditation. Try tai chi, qigong, or yoga. These mind-body activities all involve a meditative mind-set.

Solo versus Group Practice

Many people find it easier to learn a meditative practice with a teacher in a group setting. The support, feedback and peer interaction can assist in making the practice a routine in your life. Others are more comfortable learning on their own.

Benefits of Meditation

Meditating for even just a few minutes is an effective way to manage and reduce stress. But if you spend a little bit more time and make it a part of your life for the long run, the results can be quite profound.

Most of the research on meditation looks at people who meditate regularly for at least 20 minutes a day, twice a day. Its effects are cumulative. People who meditate consistently over a course of years experience greater benefits than do those who have a shorter length of practice.

Inner Peace
When the skill of meditation becomes more fully developed, and the habit well established, a kind of calm enters your life. Everything just flows easier and you gain a sense of your place in the larger scheme of things

Overcoming Psychological Problems
Life is a challenge - no doubt about it. Meditation has been found to improve the kind of issues that people seek help for in psychotherapy. Meditation practices appear to influence the subconscious mind - and therefore the deep-seated beliefs and mind-set we develop as small children. Changing these inner attitudes is one of the ways we can improve our life.

Building or Rebuilding Health
The researchers have documented that meditation builds a stronger immune system. This helps to explain why people who have practiced meditation for many years were found to be healthier in 13 major disease categories. Compared to nonmeditators, the meditators had only half as many physician visits and hospitalizations, 80% less heart disease and 50% less cancer.

Healthy Aging
Recent research, conducted by Dr. Deepak Chopra, Dr. Jay Glaser and associates, have provided evidence that regular meditation can help us stay younger and healthier longer. Seasoned meditators had DHEA (an adrenal hormone) levels equivalent to individuals 5 to 10 years younger. Higher DHEA levels are associated with decreased death from all diseases and with longer survival.

The Role of Meditation in Prevention
Recent research from Harvard University on the use of alternative medicine found that meditation was one of the most frequently used practices for promoting health. Based on the scientific evidence, regular meditation is one of the best preventive actions you can take to maintain your health, prevent disease and even increase your life span.

Maintaining meditation practice long-term can be challenging. Many of us slip in and out of periods of practice. But clearly this is worth doing. For some, being a member of a group that meditates can help reinforce the habit over the long term. Reading the work of enlightened teachers can also strengthen your motivation.

On the other extreme, it is possible to become obsessive about any form of practice, including meditation. The Buddhists describe it as "stinking of Zen." The idea of "the Middle Path," defined by Buddha more than 2,000 years ago, can be a useful reminder. He suggested a path of moderation in all matters.

Sometimes meditation can dislodge painful emotions and memories. Seeking the assistance of a meditation teacher or a psychotherapist aware of the meditative process can be helpful at such times.

Recommended Resources
Most every major religion in the world includes a tradition of meditation. In some religions, meditation is one of the primary activities. Great traditions that include contemplative practice are:

  • Buddhist - meditation was one of the primary teachings of the Buddha and is a central feature of many branches of Buddhism, including Tibetan practices and Zen.
  • Christian - although many Christian churches include meditative practices, they are emphasized in Science of Mind and Unity services and in Quakers (Society of Friends) meetings.
  • Islam - the Sufi tradition involves a form of moving meditation, which often includes chanting as well.
  • Judaism - the philosophy of the Kabbalah focus on meditation and prayer and suggests that these practices can enhance healing and raise consciousness. The Kabbalah Center has 37 locations and a large collection of resources on their Web site:
  • Native American culture - often includes meditative aspects.
  • Shamanism - may include meditation-like activities.
  • Vedanta - this ancient religion from India is also based on meditative practice. The Ayurvedic system of healing associated with Vedanta includes meditation as part of its approach to healing. These teachings are available in centers such as the Self-Realization Center, the Transcendental Meditation Center and Hindu temples.

If any of these traditions speak to you, you may want locate a center, church or temple in your community and visit an open house or a meditation group. Check with friends, alternative health publications, the newspaper, or the yellow pages.

Recommended Reading

  • A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield, Bantam New Age (1993).
  • Ageless Body, Timeless Mind by Deepak Chopra, M.D., Harmony Books (1993).
  • Don't Just Do Something, Sit There by Sylvia Boorstein, Harper SanFrancisco (1996).
  • Listening to the Light: How to Bring Quaker Simplicity and Integrity into Our Lives by Jim Pym, Rider (1999).
  • Meditation from the Heart of Judaism by Avram Davis, Jewish Lights Publishing (1999).
  • The Book of Meditation by Patricia Carrington, Ph.D., Element Books (1998).
  • The Nurse's Meditative Journal by Sherry Kahn, M.P.H, Delmar Publishers (1996).
  • The Three Minute Meditator by David Harp, New Harbinger Publications (1996).
  • Transforming the Mind by H.H. the Dhali Lama, Thorsons-HarperCollins (2000).
  • Wherever you Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Hyperion (1995).

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