Meditation is a way to still racing thoughts to hear the voice of the inner self, the spirit or the soul – what may be described as a person’s essence. In this manner, it can be considered a spiritual practice that serves to integrate body, mind and spirit, but this doesn’t mean it’s a religion.
To be your best self, you need a healthy body and a healthy mind. Practicing meditation trains your brain and helps you to reduce stress, improve your powers of concentration and optimize your health. A growing body of scientific research confirms what many who have long supported meditation believe – cultivating a daily practice can powerfully affect your well-being. More than 10 million Americans currently do some form of meditation. Yet, confusion exists regarding what meditation is, whether or not it’s a religious or spiritual activity, what benefits it provides and how to incorporate it into a healthy lifestyle.
Short-Term Benefits of Relaxation
• Lower blood pressure
• Improved blood circulation
• Lower heart rate
• Less perspiration
• Slower respiratory rate
• Less anxiety
• Lower blood cortisol levels
• Feelings of well-being
• Less stress
• Better, deeper relaxation
Historical Roots of Meditation
To best understand meditation, it’s good to look at its origins. Meditation has ancient roots in both Eastern and Western cultures. East Asian philosophers studied the workings of the mind, consciousness and emotions for thousands of years, and developed a body of knowledge that can be considered a science of mind. Hindu texts, dating back more than 4,000 years, describe meditation exercises. Buddhist monks formalized ritual meditation practices about 2,500 years ago. And by 200 A.D., Christian monks meditated and prayed to draw closer to God.
In Buddhist practice, people meditate to free the mind from attachment to things it can’t control – such as external circumstances – or to strong inner emotions. Most of us replay past events in our heads and react to situations based on assumptions and biases from past experiences. Meditation trains the mind to overcome this tendency and to instead remain grounded in the present. A “liberated” person no longer impulsively reacts to situations, follows desires blindly or clings to past expectations. Instead, the enlightened individual possesses a clear mind and maintains a sense of calm and balance to approach each day’s experiences as a fresh occurrence. This state of mind is difficult to achieve, and requires mental discipline and training. Meditation masters seek this level of mental clarity to achieve oneness and harmony with the world around them.
Is Meditation a Religion?
While meditation can be part of either Eastern or Western religions, it’s not necessary to adopt any particular faith to meditate regularly and to enjoy its benefits. Frequent practice of meditation helps a practitioner attain peace of mind, see the world from a more balanced point of view and maintain an even temper, regardless of surrounding stresses. Meditation is a way to still racing thoughts to hear the voice of the inner self, the spirit or the soul – what may be described as a person’s essence. In this manner, it can be considered a spiritual practice that serves to integrate body, mind and spirit, but this doesn’t mean it’s a religion.
Similar to the fact that meditation isn’t a religion, it’s also not therapy, although it can have a healing impact. Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, are leading researchers on the physiological effects of meditation – in particular, mindfulness meditation. They note that a mindfulness practice, “is not aimed at achieving a state of clinical relaxation, but more at the cultivation of insight and understanding … via the cultivation of a moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental, but highly discerning, awareness.” They point out that relaxation may be a by-product, but it’s not the goal. Meditation is “rather for greater awareness, self-knowledge, equanimity and self-compassion. It is hardly a trip to a luxury spa.”
Types of Meditation
A misconception about meditation is that it’s one type of activity. In fact, many styles exist – some require stillness, others involve moving; some entail concentrating on one aspect; others call for observation of multiple items. All manners of meditation share the same objective of quieting the mind and cultivating attention. The most common variations in America include concentration and mindfulness.
A concentrative practice requires focusing on a single point. This could mean watching your breath, repeating a single word or mantra, staring at a candle flame, listening to a “singing” bowl or counting beads on a rosary. Since focusing the mind is challenging, a beginner may start meditating for only a few minutes and then work up to longer durations. With concentration meditation, each time the practitioner notices that her mind is wandering, she simply refocuses her attention on the particular object of absorption. When random thoughts arise, the practitioner lets them go, like clouds floating by in the sky. Through this process, her ability to concentrate improves.
In contrast, mindfulness meditation – also referred to as insight meditation – encourages the practitioner to observe wandering thoughts as they drift through the mind. The intention isn’t to get engaged with any thoughts or to judge them, but simply to be aware of each mental activity as it arises. Through this process, the practitioner sees how her thoughts and feelings tend to move in particular patterns. Over time, she becomes more familiar with the impermanence of emotional states, and with the human tendency to quickly judge experience as “good” or “bad.”
Health Benefits of Meditation
Meditation provides both short- and long-term benefits, according to a growing body of research. The most immediate benefits of practicing meditation include relaxation, stress reduction and feelings of positive well-being. Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard University coined the term the “relaxation response” during the 1970s, after conducting studies on practitioners of Transcendental Meditation, a style that involves repeating a mantra, to describe the immediate positive effects on the mind and body. More recently, investigators have been looking at the benefits of long-term meditation practice, with promising findings of improvements in the thickness of brain tissue.
In one study, leading scientists from Harvard University, Yale University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Mind/Body Medical Institute and other organizations found the first structural evidence connecting long-term meditation practice to beneficial changes in brain tissue. According to study findings, the regular practice of meditation correlates with increased thickness in brain tissue in a number of brain regions associated with sensory, cognitive and emotional processing. Investigators believe that consistent meditation practice may also slow age-related thinning of the frontal cortex.
Researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to analyze the thickness of the cerebral cortex in 20 experienced practitioners of Buddhist insight meditation and 15 control participants. Study subjects were Western practitioners who integrated their practice into busy lives involving careers, families, friends and outside interests. Two were full-time meditation teachers, three were part-time yoga or meditation teachers, and the others meditated an average of once a day for 40 minutes. All had participated in at least one weeklong meditation retreat. The control group consisted of 15 participants with no meditation or yoga experience. In reaching their conclusion, study authors speculated that “Other forms of yoga and meditation will likely have a similar impact on cortical structure, although each tradition would be expected to have a slightly different pattern of cortical thickening based on specific mental exercises involved.”
This study is significant for collecting the first tangible evidence of actual changes in brain structure associated with meditation. Similar to the way in which we can observe changes in our muscle tone and size as a result of physical exercise, we’re beginning to be able to observe and measure changes in the size of brain tissue as a result of meditation. Since age-related loss of brain tissue is a concern, practicing meditation regularly may be a way to avoid this loss and retain cognitive abilities. While these findings are very promising, more research is needed to study larger numbers of participants and to observe how these changes develop over time.
Other positive benefits from consistent meditation practice include strengthening of the immune system and changing mental processes to promote more positive thinking. A small study of participants in an eight-week mindfulness meditation program showed significant increases in left-frontal brain activation, a pattern associated with a positive mood state, when compared with nonmeditators. Researchers measured brain electrical activity before, and immediately after, and then four months after an eight-week training program in mindfulness meditation. Twenty-five subjects participated in the meditation group; 16 people participated as control subjects. At the end of the first eight weeks, researchers immunized all subjects with influenza vaccine. All meditation subjects showed significant increases in left-frontal brain activation. In addition, all meditation subjects had significant increases in antibody titers to influenza when compared with the control group. Furthermore, the size of the increase in left-sided brain activation predicted the magnitude of the increase in antibodies from the vaccine.
Another study showed that regular practice of Transcendental Meditation can significantly reduce blood pressure and improve heart rate variability and insulin resistance. These findings promise hope of using meditation practice to reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome. “It’s possible to use the mind-body connection to tap into the body’s own inner intelligence to bring about changes in physiology to reverse the risk of diabetes and heart disease,” Dr. Robert Schneider, director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention at the Maharishi University of Management in Maharishi Vedic City, Iowa, told HealthDay News.
Researchers from the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, in collaboration with doctors from the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention, followed 84 participants with stable heart disease in a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial for 16 weeks of either health education or Transcendental Meditation. The meditation intervention consisted of two introductory lectures of 1.5 hours each, a personal interview, personal instruction for approximately one hour, three group meetings of 1.5 hours each, and follow-up and maintenance meetings of 1.5 hours each, twice per week for the first four weeks and weekly thereafter. The health education group spent an equal amount of time in group meetings.
Members of the Transcendental Meditation group experienced beneficial changes in blood pressure, insulin resistance and heart rate variability compared to subjects in the health education group. Researchers concluded that practicing meditation may have reduced the response to stress and accordingly, lowered the risk of heart disease and the Metabolic Syndrome. Schneider noted, “A reduction [in insulin resistance] like this would make a drug company a lot of money. The only other things that could bring about such a reduction are intensive exercise or weight loss.”
How to Meditate
You can start to reap these many benefits of regular meditation practice by simply beginning to do it, in any comfortable location. You can sit on the floor on a cushion, on a small meditation stool or in a chair. You can meditate as you walk or perform repetitive tasks. Ideally, you want to adhere to good posture as you meditate, so that your breath flows evenly and smoothly. Your skill and ability to meditate will improve with practice. One of the best ways to begin is with an exercise to observe your breath:
1. Sit or lie comfortably.
2. Close your eyes.
3. Make no effort to control your breath; simply breathe naturally.
4. Focus your attention on your breath and on how your body moves with each inhalation and exhalation. Notice the movement of your body as you breathe. Observe your chest, shoulders, rib cage and belly. Make no effort to control your breath, simply concentrate your attention. If your mind wanders, simply return awareness back to your breath.
5. Start this practice for two to three minutes each day, and then try it for longer periods.
Meditation can be a powerful and transformative tool in your life. Ultimately, it’s a highly individual practice that can help you to find inner peace and understanding. In today’s chaotic world, cultivating an even temper and a sense of equilibrium can be a powerful grounding force. At the same time, preliminary research suggests that training your mind can also strengthen your mental faculties, reduce your stress, strengthen your immune system and reduce your risk of disease. Make time to invest in your self-care; the rewards of a strong body, clear mind and a free spirit are well worth the effort.
© Copyright 2005 Shirley Archer. All rights reserved worldwide.
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