While meditation is an important spiritual element of major religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, it is used every day by millions of people who meditate purely for the health benefits.
Western medicine recognizes meditation positive, calming effects, with doctors advising patients who suffer from stress, high blood pressure and chromic pain to take a few relaxing minutes each day to meditate.
It is like a trip to the gym for your brain, by focusing the mind on a single thought or image, even for only 10 or 20 minutes each day, your body relaxes, the mind becomes clear, and stressful problems become easier to manage.
1) Why meditation has a measurable effect on mind and body
To understand how meditation works, it helps to understand how the brain functions. The largest part of the brain is the cortex, divided into left and right hemispheres.
The left side of the brain is usually dominant, controlling speech, logic, calculation and writing. The right hemisphere controls creativity, imagination and emotions. Researchers believe that when we meditate we create a connection between the two hemispheres.
When subjects hooked up to ECG machines meditate, researchers can measure the intensity of alpha waves and the brain waves when we are in calm, relaxed state which is produced while meditating. During meditation, alpha waves are far stronger and more consistent between both hemispheres than during other forms of relaxation, even sleep.
When the brain is in an alpha state, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over the part of the nervous system that conserves and restores energy, slows blood pressure and heart rate, and controls the digestion and absorption of nutrients by the body.
When the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, the high-stress fight-or-flight response which is accompanied by secretion of stress hormones like adrenaline, plus tension in the head, neck and lower back is overruled, and the body releases other, more positive hormones that promote relaxation and healing.
2) Proof that meditation works
Medical researchers have done a great deal of study into the benefits of meditation. Studies show it encourages better brain function, improved circulation in the extremities, increased cerebral blood flow and lower levels of stress hormones.
A 1987 found that people who practiced Transcendental Meditation made less than half the number of visits to doctors and spent 50 percent less time in hospitals than people who did not meditate.
There are countless ways to meditate, and you can teach yourself how to do it from, books, tapes, or via the Internet in a very short time. There are often classes available at local community centers, holistic health centers and even community colleges, as well. Among the most popular methods of meditation are:
a) Mantra meditation: A word or phrase which is repeated over and over, either out loud or in your head. You can choose a phrase that relates to your personal beliefs, one that is a positive statement, or a one-syllable word-sound like Om or Hum.
b) Breath awareness: You concentrate on rhythmic breathing, possibly counting each breath in and out, often breathing in through the nose and out the mouth.
c) Object meditation: You focus on a specific object, noting each detail of its shape, presence and color.
d) Active meditations: Using rhythmic movements, like walking, swimming, t'ai chi or yoga to focus the mind.
3) A simple, 7-step meditation anyone can do
a. Set aside 10 to 20 minutes, once or twice a day.
b. Find a place which is quiet where you are unlikely to be disturbed, and sit down. You do not need to sit cross-legged, or in any special posture. A comfortable chair is fine. Wear comfortable clothes, and arrange your arms and legs in a relaxed posture.
c. Set an alarm so you don't have to worry about keeping track of time. If you are concerned that it may startle you, place it in another room or under a cushion, so the sound will be muffled but audible.
d. Breathe slowly and rhythmically, consciously relaxing your feet, legs, torso, on up your body until all your muscles are loose.
e. Choose a word to repeat to yourself. The classic mantra is Om, the Sanskrit word for perfection. Or you could choose a simple word that reflects what you hope to achieve in your life, like peace or happiness. You could also, instead, count your breaths from one to 10, then over again and again. If thoughts drift into your mind, allow them to float gently out again as you re-focus on your word or breathing.
f. When your alarm sounds and you have finished, don't jump right up but allow yourself to slowly open your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and rejoin the world in a relaxed manner.
7. Stretch your arms and legs, and stand up slowly.
Most people who start meditation find they have trouble motivating themselves to meditate, and letting go of the Western tendency to constantly think, think, think about every little thing.
This is one reason why you might consider taking a class or using tapes. It can be valuable to have a guide to take you through meditation your first few times. Once you get the hang of it, you will find meditation is simple and effective. You can even move on to more advanced techniques as you find yourself progressing.