What is Meditation?
Meditation has been around for thousands of years. It is a way to realign the mind with the physical body to create harmony within an individual (remember the dualistic way of looking at the mind and body that was discussed in the March article on You are Your Beliefs). Most meditative practices have come to the West from Eastern spiritual
or religious traditions. Today, many people use meditation to decrease stress on the mind and body, and for general health and well-being.
Forms of Meditation
Basically, there are 2 categories of meditation. One category is classified as concentrative and the other is non-concentrative. Concentrative forms have the meditator focus attention on a single stimulus (for example, a sound, their breath, thought, or word) for a specific time. Non-concentrative forms have the meditator paying attention
(or observing), in a nonjudgmental way to his/her thoughts (for example, observing a fear that comes up and not reacting to it, instead, just watching it). Keep in mind that all forms of meditation have the common objective of calming the activity of the mind (monkey mind) so that your focus can be turned inward. This will then bring stillness, and you will
experience peace and contentment that lies within you. See the table below for examples of these two forms of meditation.
Concentrative Forms: Transcendental Meditation (TM), Breath Watching, Walking Meditation.
Non-concentrative Forms: Mindfulness Meditation.
Transcendental Meditation (TM) was brought to the United States from India in the mid-1960s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It is relatively simple and involves the continuous chanting of a mantra (a word or sound) while sitting in a comfortable position. You can either repeat it aloud or in your head. The purpose of repeating the mantra is to
prevent your mind from wandering. If other thoughts do enter your mind, be passive, and don’t fight them. Let them come in and out of your mind and return to your mantra.
Breathing Meditation is about watching and being aware of your breath during meditating. Start by staying in a comfortable position and close your eyes and pay attention to your breathing. Take long, slow breaths through your nose to work your diaphragm and allow oxygen to the bottom of your lungs. Pause for a few seconds and then exhale
slower than your inhale. As your mind wanders, re-focus on the air going in and out of your nose and throughout your body.
Walking Meditation involves meditating while walking or even during a run. As your mind starts to wander, concentrate on the movement of body parts and your breathing. Pay attention to the feeling of your feet as it touches the ground.
Mindfulness Meditation originates from the Buddhist tradition. It is about focusing on what is happening around you and being aware of your thoughts and feelings during the process of meditating. There should be no judging of your thoughts. Rather, your thoughts should be observed intentionally and nonjudgmentally, moment by moment. You can
start by watching your breath, then move your attention to the thoughts in your mind and even the sounds and sights surrounding you.
How does Meditation Work?
Practicing meditation has been shown to make changes in the body. Some types of meditation might work by affecting the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system (ANS). The ANS regulates many organs and muscles, controlling functions such as heartbeat, sweating, breathing, and digestion. It has two major parts: the sympathetic nervous system
helps mobilize the body for action. When a person is under stress, it produces the "fight-or-flight response": the heart rate and breathing rate go up and blood vessels narrow (restricting the flow of blood). While the parasympathetic nervous system causes the heart rate and breathing rate to slow down.
It is thought that some types of meditation might work by reducing activity in the sympathetic nervous system and increasing activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (nccam.nih.gov/health/meditation).
In one area of research, scientists are using sophisticated tools to determine whether meditation is associated with significant changes in brain function. A number of researchers believe that these changes account for many of meditation's effects (for example, Hölzel BK, et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray
matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. 2011;191(1):36–43.).
It is also possible that practicing meditation may work by improving the mind's ability to pay attention. Since attention is involved in performing everyday tasks and regulating mood, meditation might lead to other benefits (for example, Lutz A, Slagter HA, Dunne J, et al. Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in
Cognitive Sciences. 2008:12(4);163–169.).
Chronic diseases – such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis – are among the most common, costly, and preventable of all health problems in the U.S. They are prolonged and are rarely cured completely. In 2005 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that 133 million Americans – almost 1 out of
every 2 adults – had at least one chronic illness. About one-fourth of people with chronic conditions have one or more daily activity limitations. Seven out of ten deaths among Americans each year are from chronic diseases. Heart disease, cancer and stroke account for more than 50% of all deaths each year. Four modifiable health risk behaviors—lack of physical
activity, poor nutrition, tobacco use, and excessive alcohol consumption—are responsible for much of the illness, suffering, and early death related to chronic diseases (www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease).
Research on Meditation and Well-being
Evidence has been increasing that people with chronic diseases can gain benefit from using meditation. Currently, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is investigating the effects of meditation on post-traumatic stress disorder, on pain regulation, high blood
pressure, stress reduction for urban youth, and depression (clinicaltrials.gov).
The 2007 National Health Interview Survey revealed that some 20 million U.S. adults use meditation for health purposes (nccam.nih.gov). Overall, meditation has been reported to reduce health care costs, strengthen the immune system, lower blood pressure (in people with high blood pressure), reverse cardiovascular disease, and reduce the
affect of stress on the mind and body (anxiety, depression, and improve coping skills for cancer, HIV/Aids, and chronic pain).
So when will you try meditation? Start right now. Put down the paper for a few minutes and just focus on your breath. What have you got to lose? Oh, yeah, that’s right – just your well-being!
Renee Lehman is a licensed acupuncturist, physical therapist, and Reiki Master with over 20 years of health care experience. Her office is located at 249B York Street in Gettysburg, PA. She can be reached at 717-752-5728.