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Introduction To Meditation
Why you need it - How it works - How to do it
Meditation works. Study after study has shown that regular meditation practice reduces all kinds of stress. It can relieve everyday stresses like being stalled in traffic, earning a living, and raising children, as well as major ones like the loss of a job, chronic pain, or severe illness.
In addition to helping you cope with stress, meditation can improve your health, unlock your creativity, and even slow down the ageing process. How?
First, it is important to understand the stress response. The stress response is the normal bodily response to threatening situations. Actually, it is a collection of automatic bodily changes that act to supercharge our physical abilities. Its purpose is to enable us to act quickly and survive intense, short-term challenges, especially those requiring lots of physical effort and little thinking or reasoning.
Unfortunately, it doesn't take a truly life-threatening situation for us to feel threatened. A minor traffic jam, or an annoying employer (or employee) can do the trick. And once we perceive a threat, we tend to invoke the stress response. This means that with each of the many petty annoyances or worries of civilized life we are commanding our bodies to prepare for a life-or-death challenge.
Furthermore, as long as we focus on whatever is worrying us, the stress response will continue. Of course, our bodies are not designed to function at such a level for more than a short period of time, so there is a cost, especially if the stress response lasts for more than a few minutes.
For example, during stress there are major changes in the blood supply. The heart beats faster and blood pressure rises. At the same time, the flow of blood is directed away from the internal organs and the skin so that it can flow to the muscles. In the brain, more blood flows to the areas that control muscle coordination. The brain also directs the release of chemicals designed to help the body cope with injury- For example, agents that make the blood clot more easily and agents that block pain and inflamation.
The Trouble With Stress
In a short-term, physical survival situation, these changes can be life-saving. But prolonged high blood pressure combined with easily clotting blood is a deadly combination that can result in a stroke or heart attack. The substances that block pain and inflamation incidentally act to suppress the immune system. Another substance, Corticotrophin Releasing Hormone, appears to cause genetic changes in body cells that make them easy targets for infection. And these are only a few of the many negative side-effects of prolonged stress.
The side effects of stress do not become dangerous if stresses are infrequent and last for only a short time. However, disease and mortality statistics make it clear that long-term, unrelieved stress impairs your body's ability to fight disease. Even in the absence of disease, long-term stress acts to accelerate and intensify the effects of ageing. In fact, many of the symptoms of long-term stress are identical with the typical signs of ageing.
And then there are the short-term effects. For example, the redirection of blood to the muscles means that, for the duration of the stress response, digestion stops, leading to indigestion.
In the brain, the changes in blood flow can literally make you stupid. As blood is shunted to the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls physical coordination, it is directed away from the cortex, or "thinking" part of the brain. This means that we gain in short-term physical performance, but at the expense of the ability to think straight.
Of course, it doesn't help that most of today's threatening situations require little muscle, but lots of calm, clear thinking, often over a relatively long period of time- just the opposite of what our natural stress response is designed to provide!
How Meditation Helps
In fact, what makes life so stressful these days is not its problems, but the mismatch between the problems and the way we respond to them. When you focus on the threatening aspects of a situation, It's impossible not to invoke the stress response. Aside from the negative physical effects, this way of responding literally makes the problem worse- since it interferes with your thinking ability. This is where meditation can help. During meditation you learn to control where you focus your attention. By teaching you to interrupt a negative focus, meditation gives you a break from stress. The resulting "relaxation response" allows your body to repair the damage done by stress. At the same time, the improved blood supply to the "thinking" part of your brain, gives a tremendous boost to your creative problem solving ability- exactly what you need to solve today's complex problems!
So, by interrupting the stress response, meditation allows your body to repair the damage before it gets out of hand, preventing unnecessary disease and premature ageing. It reverses the "stupifying" effect of stress by restoring adaquate blood flow to the creative parts of your brain, making you more able to cope with or even eliminate stress at its source.
How to Meditate
More than anything, meditation is a skill- the skill of conscious, sustained attention. You already have part of this skill- what keeps you stressed is your ability to pay sustained attention to whatever is bothering you.
Of course, we pay attention to problems in order to solve them. The trouble is that we do so in a way that triggers our stress response, which, in turn, makes us less able to solve them.
Meditation will teach you how to attend without triggering the stress response.
You begin by learning to focus on something non-threatening. This, in itself is relaxing, and will reverse the effects of stress. But, in addition, this practice will teach you how to interrupt and correct stress-producing thoughts- even when you are not meditating.
Many people who meditate regularly feel that its benefits go well beyond the relief of stress. They feel that meditation has enabled them to connect with an inner source of wisdom and meaning- a connection that has greatly enriched their lives.
Here's how to begin:
1. Choose a time when you will not be disturbed for at least 15 minutes.
2. Choose a time when your body is not actively digesting food- just before breakfast or dinner is good; so is the period just after exercise. If the exercise is strenuous (jogging, etc.), be sure to cool down first.
3. Find a comfortable position- sit up straight in a chair, or cross-legged on the floor with a pillow under your bottom, etc.. sit any way that will allow you to relax without putting you to sleep. It's fine to fall asleep after meditating, but falling asleep during meditation may cheat you of some of its more potent benefits.
4. Soften the lighting- A candle provides an ideal level of light, and a focus as well (see #5, below).
5. Choose a focus. This is the key to successful meditation, because it is your mind's response to the act of focussing that allows you to interrupt stress. Almost anything will work- a flower, a word, the sounds of nature, or the rhythm of your breath. A candle flame works especially well.
Whichever you choose, the idea is to let your mind rest on that one thing until you notice your attention has strayed (which it will do surprisingly fast). Once you realize your mind has wandered, gently bring it back to the focus once again...and again...and again.
At first, you will be amazed at how little control you have over this mind of yours. But if you persist, it will learn to focus for longer and longer periods, and as it does, you will begin to feel a growing sense of peace.
6. End your meditation gently. If you wish to meditate for only a certain length of time, try to use a visual cue, like a clock or a watch placed in your line of vision. A small chanukka candle makes a useful timer- each one burns for about one hour. Avoid the use of buzzers or other noisy signals.
Once you have decided to stop meditating, "come back" slowly. Just sit for a few moments and look around. Enjoy the time it takes your mind to realize it's free to start its worry-tapes up once again. As you practice, you'll find it takes your mind longer and longer to slip back into "worry-mode".
Now let's put these steps to work and imagine how a typical meditation session might go. Suppose it's late afternoon, no one else is around, or you've arranged to have someone cover any incoming calls or child-care crises for the next 20 minutes. You've found a quiet comfortable place, softened the lighting and are ready to go. Let's say you've decided to use a candle as a focus. You sit facing the lit candle. Now, allow your eyes to rest gently on the flame, watching it the way you would a fire. If your eyes begin to tire, let them close or half close but keep the image of the flame clear in your mind's eye. Then open your eyes as soon as they feel rested.
Let the candle flame become your world. Explore its entire landscape. You'll be amazed at how complex it is. At some point, you may realize your mind has wandered. When that happens, simply notice it and renew your focus on the candle.
It's important that you avoid any self-criticism here; meditation is about regaining your ability to simply be. There is nothing to be achieved except to get out of your own way and let your bodymind find its way from stress to bliss. And it will; all you have to do is provide the time.
Speaking of time, continue this cycle of focus, wander, notice, and refocus until about 15 minutes have passed. You can use a clock, the height of the candle, or any other non-disruptive method of keeping time, including your own internal clock. There's nothing sacred about 15 minutes, either, it's just that most people find they can have a decent meditative experience in that amount of time, and it's not an unreasonably long time to carve out of a busy day. If you find that 5 minutes or 45 minutes, works better for you, then by all means use that length of time. Sometimes I meditate for three minutes, sometimes for an hour.
More important than the time, is the experience of meditating, however long it lasts.
Also important, is how you transition back from meditation. As indicated earlier, a gentle return will prolong the benefits of meditation practice, allowing you to gradually extend a peaceful mindset into more and more of your day.
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What if you prefer to choose a different focus, like a word, or your breath? The scenario would be the same, only the focus would be different. To focus on your breath, keep your eyes open or closed, and simply notice your breath as it goes in and out, perhaps mentally saying' "In" as you inhale, and "Out", as you exhale. Treat your mental wanderings the same way- notice them and then bring your attention back to your breath.
Were you to choose a word, you would say the word mentally on each exhale. For this focus, most people choose a one syllable word that has a positive meaning for them ("Love", "One", "Peace", etc.). Again, you are the expert- if you want to use a three syllable word, and say it out loud, that's fine. The important thing is to focus, and when you notice that your mind has wandered, bring it back gently, in a non-critical way.
One other thing, whatever focus you choose, it's quite possible that the first few times you meditate, you may
feel no effects, beneficial or otherwise. This is perfectly normal. It can take a while for your bodymind to realize that this is a situation in which it can relax.
Like any skill, your ability to focus your attention will improve most quickly with frequent, regular practice.
Two 15-20 minute sessions of meditation practice daily seem to work well for many people, but again, do what works for you.
Just a few of many research papers on the benefit of meditation:
Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness-based stress reduction in relation to quality of life, mood, symptoms of stress, and immune parameters in breast and prostate cancer outpatients
Effect of meditation on respiratory system, cardiovascular system and lipid profile
Does mindfulness meditation contribute to health?
Mind-body medicine: state of the science, implications for practice
A one year follow-up of relaxation response meditation as a treatment for irritable bowel syndrome
Impact of Transcendental Meditation on cardiovascular function at rest and during acute stress in adolescents with high normal blood pressure
Evaluation of a Wellness-Based Mindfulness Stress Reduction intervention: a controlled trial
Stress reactivity to and recovery from a standardised exercise bout: a study of 31 runners practising relaxation techniques
Acute increases in night-time plasma melatonin levels following a period of meditation
Some books you might find interesting:
Full Catastrophy Living, by John Kabat-Zinn. Dell Publishing, New York, N.Y., 1990.
How to Meditate : A Guide to Self-Discovery, by Lawerence LeShan. Bantam New Age Books.
The Relaxation Response, by Herbert Benson. Morrow, New York, N.Y., 1975.
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