Meditation is a practice which reduces stress by quieting the mind, body, and emotions. The primary focus is on the breath
and posture. Posture can vary depending on the type of meditation. The focus of attention and breath exercise also differs according to type.
Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years and is well-proven in effectiveness. All that is required for you to begin a meditation practice is intention and willingness. You can join a class or group or you can begin on your own.
Meditation offers many benefits, and principal among them are stress reduction
and healing for diseases. Meditation slows your heart rate, slows your breathing, normalizes blood pressure, improves the immune system, and heals your body
The two primary types of meditation are mindfulness meditation and concentrative meditation.
- In mindfulness meditation, your focus is on awareness of this present moment. You practice mindfulness. Sitting comfortably in posture, in silence, aware of the breath, aware of the senses. Awake, aware, alert. Not fighting what comes upin the mind or the emotions. Merely observing and watching thoughts and emotions come and go like clouds moving across the sky. Not judging. The thoughts, feelings, and sensual awareness (sounds, smells) are neither bad nor good--they simply are. Being present with the experience.
- In concentrative meditation, you hold your attention on an object and ignore distractions. For example, you maintain visual attention towards a candle or picture. When the mind strays from the focal point, you bring it back.
The basics of meditation include:
- A quiet mind - Your thoughts become quieter. As you sit in meditation, you do not pay attention to your thoughts. When a thought intrudes, you notice it, and let it pass. You do not attach to it and go where it wants you to. You come back to your awareness of this present moment. You let the voices in your mind get quiet. This is a practice that takes time. No one becomes proficient in a week, month, year, or decade. It is important that you not judge yourself. When your mind wanders, just bring it back. Minds wander - that is what they do.
- Being in the present - During meditation you are focused on this present moment. The awareness of the here and now. You are aware of your senses, although not attaching to them. When you discover you have been playing a movie in your mind of a past experience or conversation, you simply come back to the present. When you find out that you are performing in a play about the future, having imaginary conversations about and during some future event, you simply return to your body. This is what people do all the time. What meditation does is allow you to see what your mind does and how little of your present life you are aware of. Meditation takes you out of your mind and into your body.
- Altered state of consciousness - When the mind is quiet during meditation, you are not asleep, but you are not awake either - not in the usual sense of the word. Brain activity changes. During meditation the part of the brain most active is that which is associated with happiness and positive emotions.
Practices of meditation include:
- Sitting meditation - During sitting meditation, you sit either on a chair with feet flat on the floor, or on a chair or on the floor with legs crossed Indian style or in lotus or half-lotus position. Your back is straight so that your breath flows smoothly. Your eyes are closed or focused straight ahead. You are relaxed with hands either cupped or up or down on the legs. You may check your relaxation initially by doing a brief body scan to make sure that your muscles are relaxed. You may focus on your breath initially. You maintain awareness on your breath, on an object, or on your sensory experience of the present moment. You let go of thoughts and emotions as they come and go.
- Walking meditation - With walking meditation, you stand with erect posture and make sure you are relaxed. Your toes are pointed straight ahead. You take small steps, aware of the sensation of movement with each step. You walk slowly, one foot in front of the other. You maintain awareness of your foot's contact with the ground, the experience of your body as it moves, your breath moving in and out, your sensory awareness of this moment.
- Standing meditation - You stand in a relaxed manner eith feet parallel, shoulder-width apart. Toes are pointed directly ahead. You relax your knees, tuck your pelvis, relax your shoulders, allow your arms to hang freely, tuck your chin, and gently smile. Breathe through the nose slowly. Either close your eyes or leave them open focused on one spot ahead. Focus on your breath as it abdomen rises and falls. Follow your breath. Sometimes people feel unsteady during standing meditation. Imagine yourself an oak tree. You will not fall over.
- Yoga - Yoga involves stretching the body and practicing different poses. Certain forms of yoga include lifestyle disciplines, breath control, meditation, and physical postures. The term yoga implies that the practice brings together mind, body, and spirit. During yoga, the focus is on the breath. The body is relaxed; however, you may also be invigorated by some of the poses. Some poses are very difficult and require much practice. Many types and levels of yoga exist. Each pose has specific physical and mental benefits related to it. Some poses are related to healing certain physical dysfunctions or diseases. Advantages of yoga include: stress reduction, improved sleep, reduced stress hormones, lowered blood pressure and heart rate, symptom relief for certain illnesses, reduced anxiety, and increased strength.
- Other types of slow, relaxed movements can also be considered meditative. Examples are: gardening, snorkeling, and creating artwork.
Some of the benefits of meditation:
- Eases chronic pain, including headaches
- Increases oxygen consumption
- Decreases respiratory rate
- Increases blood flow and slows heart rate
- Leads to state of deep relaxation
- Improves sleep
- Reduces anxiety
- Decreases muscle tension
- Helps in chronic diseases such as allergies, arthritis
- Reduces PMS symptoms
- Helps in post-operative healing
- Enhances immune system
- Reduces activity of viruses
- Reduces emotional distress
Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote Full Catastrophe Living (1990) and outlined the program offered at the Stress Reduction Program of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Research consistently showed significant improvements in patients who are offered mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Patients participate in the program for diverse reasons: workstress, family stress, financial stress; chronic pain, chronic illness, psychological disorders, sleep problems, heart disease, high blood pressure, and other diseases. They practice meditation, yoga, and body scans on a daily basis.
Cardiologist Herbert Benson founded the Mind-Body Medical Institute at Harvard. He originally published The Relaxation Response in 1976 and it was revised in 2000. Benson refers to changes that occur during meditation as a relaxation response. The body responds with a variety of biochemical and physical changes, including changes in metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and brain chemistry.
Other sites you may find useful:
Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital
Stress Reduction Program of the University of Massachusetts Medical School