The Benefits of Meditation
Meditation is healthy, safe and affordable. In fact it’s free. The only expense you’ll have is a meditation mat, which isn’t especially necessary-at least from my experience. Meditation has been around for 5,000 years, and was originally a spiritual component of yoga. Through the years non-yogis adopted it, intuitively sensing and connecting the practice with greater peace of mind. Personally, I can’t say enough good things about meditation. Its use has rewarded me with less worry and much more energy. But I’ve never been one for anecdotal evidence. Let’s get to the science…
Recently, there’s an incredible amount of science tied into the benefits of meditation. The studies are endless and cover a variety of meditative practices. On Transcendental Meditation alone (mantra repetition) there are over 500 studies. Some are more noteworthy that others. A study in the Japanese Journal of Public Health found that through Transcendental Meditation, industrial workers sleep improved and their smoking decreased. Another study conducted at MERU Research Institute, in Buckinghamshire, England found that the length of time practicing the Transcendental Meditation and TM-Sidhi program correlated with younger biological age and younger functional age.
Mindfulness meditation, which asks us to focus on our breath to facilitate awareness of the present moment, is another widely studied meditation technique. After studying the effects of 8-weeks of mindfulness meditation on participants, a 2003 report in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine concluded: “A short program in mindfulness meditation produces demonstrable effects on brain and immune function.” Impressive, but fairly vague. To get a more committed response to the benefits of meditation we have to turn to Taiwan. In 2002 their journal Chang Gung Medicine reported that “training in MM may be a medically superior and cost-effective alternative to pain medication for the control of headaches with no underlying organic causes in highly motivated patients.”
Stress Reduction and Meditation
What causes these positive physical changes? To answer this, other research has looked at the specifics of what happens in the body during meditation. . Researchers at the Maharishi School of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, found that meditation has an enormous impact on stress reduction. When they examined a group who had meditated for four months they saw that they produced less of the stress hormone cortisol. They were therefore better able to adapt to stress in their lives, no matter what their circumstances were.
Having balanced cortisol levels is essential to mental and emotional health. Notice I say balanced rather than none. We don’t want to completely eliminate cortisol. If we did we’d be dead. Even low cortisol levels can be dangerous. Not enough cortisol is the identifying trait of Addison’s disease. John F. Kennedy had this condition, which he denied passionately during his presidency. Yet during his term he regulated his levels through hydrocortisone (synthetic cortisol). The reverse of JFK’s condition is called Cushings Syndrome. The five most common and noticeable changes of this condition include; red face and puffy cheeks; excess fat surrounding the collar bones, muscle weakness, and hypertension. But we don’t have to have Cushing’s Syndrome to be damaged by extra cortisol. The changes we experience may be subtle variations of these. Plus, the changes caused by excess cortisol are age dependent. Young people may stop growing and teenagers can develop acne. The mature among us aren’t safe either. Since excess cortisol damages bone-tissue those over age 60 may develop fractures related to osteoporosis. So it’s evident that if we can regulate cortisol, especially through a natural process, we owe it to ourselves to try.
Other Benefits of Meditation
Regina Drueding, MD, is a meditation instructor at Life Circles in Utah, USA. She quotes the benefits of meditation as follows: “more energy, improved quality of sleep, decreased anxiety, lessened chronological aging, improved concentration, improved visual acuity, increased alertness and heightened immunity.” She writes: “Besides the benefits mentioned earlier, meditation results in improvement of hypertension, sleep disorders, headaches, heartrhythm disturbances, chronic pain – pain due to cancer, infertility and irritable bowel syndrome. Following meditation, mental and physical refreshment result – and benefits are cumulative with regular practice.”
How to Meditate
Meditation is both simple and complex. It’s like defining the color orange: When you see it you know it. Similarly, the experience of meditation is best, well…experienced. In an article in New View magazine, Shippensburg University’s Dr. C. George Boeree describes the basics of Buddhist meditation. In summary, the beginner’s technique is as follows:
Sit or kneel comfortably.
The hands are loose and open with the palms up, one atop the other and thumbs lightly touching.
Head is upright. Eyes may be closed or open. If open they should focus on your hands or a spot nearby.
Beginning meditators should count upwards to ten on each exhale. Breathe in a relaxed and natural way. Then begin again at one and repeat. Continue to breathe naturally.
Continue for 15 minutes.
In my personal experience, I don’t find that the specific length of time is as important as repetition and persistence. To paraphrase, 10 minutes daily beats 15 minutes once a week. This brings me to another point: We all have different personalities and as such, different meditation approaches suit some more than others. Thankfully there are many varieties of meditation. Some varieties have sub-varieties.
Mindfulness meditation is one of these versatile practices. Perhaps it’s because its essence-awareness of the present moment-is so versatile. Mindfulness in our daily life can be practiced by slowing down and attending to our surroundings. What are our 5 senses telling us? We can use mindfulness in the middle of a hectic day, such as paying attention to our breathing when stopped at a traffic light. We can also use other everyday events as triggers for mindfulness. Buckling your seatbelt? Make this a reminder to return to the present. Really think about what you’re doing and the details of the experience.
The more traditional may benefit from a more formal mindfulness practice. You may sit in the identical form as in traditional Buddhist meditation- on a chair or kneeling. However, you may also sit with your legs crossed. Your eyes are closed and your posture is both straight and relaxed while your head remains upright. Focus on your breath and allow mental chatter to float by without regard. Thoughts, emotions and sensations will come, but don’t be influenced by them. Keep focused on your breath. If you are getting involved with your thoughts don’t worry-your efforts aren’t destroyed. The key thing is to bring your attention back to breathing and continue. This can go on for 5 minutes to 5 hours. It’s up to you.
Transcendental Meditation is another popular form of meditation. Generally, this type is practiced twice daily for a period of 15-20 minutes. Again, this technique involves sitting comfortably. Yet in contrast to basic Buddhist the eyes stay closed. Each student is given a mantra and is instructed to induce relaxation through use of this mantra. Since many of either can’t or won’t go to a formal TM class, a no-fail mantra I recommend is the classic OM. In The Heart of Yoga, T.K.V Desikachar writes that repetition of “OM” enables us to maintain mental and emotional calmness, overcome obstacles and enable understanding. It is the shortest of the mantras, and is said to be suggestive of God. If you’re uncomfortable with the religious aspects of OM I suggest a word that has positive meaning for you, such as love, calm or peace. Calm is an ideal substitute, since vocally it resembles OM.
You may never, ever choose to meditate. Yet if this is your choice it may be valuable to question why. For a long time I was reluctant because of images of the dropout hippie 60’s. Yet when I tried it the experience overcame my reservations. If you try it the same may happen to you. If it doesn’t you haven’t lost any money, and you’ve gained a new experience.
Getting in the Gap: Making Conscious Contact with God Through Meditation (Hay House Inc., 2003)
The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh (Beacon Press, 1975)