Monday, August 25, 2008
Wanted to share with you this Guideposts article by Jessica C. Kraft. I meditate twice a day and meet with a meditation group once a month at St. Bart’s. It really does change your life.
The Kinko's in San Francisco's financial district feels like an emergency room. Every day, 800 customers hurry into the store, in a panic to get their copies made and reports finished. Even staff members can succumb to the stress. But not branch manager Jesper Jorgensen. He keeps his cool, no matter what difficulties arise. Decades of daily meditation practice have taught him how to stay centered and focused in the copy-shop hothouse. "The controlled environment of formal meditation builds clarity and stability, and I'm able to just let the stress bounce off of me," he says. "I choose to stay calm and peaceful."
Practitioners of different meditation traditions experience these same effects: mental clarity, improved concentration, an ability to withstand and repel the stresses of everyday life. And scientists have recently uncovered the physical benefits of regular meditation.
Rajendra Sharma, M.D., medical director of The Diagnostic Clinic in London, has studied the physiological effects of meditation. "People who meditate automatically counteract stress chemicals, and so reduce stress-related illnesses such as ulcers and recurrent flu and colds," he says. "Meditators feel better, heal quicker and have less illness."
In a recent study, Massachusetts General Hospital researchers scanned the brains of 20 people who regularly meditated and compared them to people who never had. The frontal cortex, which processes higher functions like memory and decision-making, was thicker (indicating more capacity) and had aged much less in the meditators.
Researchers at Harvard found that people in deep meditative states exhale more nitric oxide, a process that relaxes arteries and helps blood flow, thereby lowering blood pressure.
Meditating for 40 minutes does more to refresh you than taking caffeine or spending the same amount of time napping or exercising. Studies at the University of Kentucky showed that the meditating helped people perform best on tests of alertness and reaction time.
The benefits are clear. Meditating can bring inner calm and radiant health. But how exactly is it done?
It's not about closing your eyes and napping while sitting up. Nor is it blanking out in a trance. Lama Ole Nydahl, who teaches Tibetan meditation, says it is "not about getting to emptiness, but rather, meditation is the space where everything happens and you are fully aware and happy."
If you've ever worked intently on a cross-stitch piece, swum a half-mile without stopping or prayed with unswerving attention, you have some idea what meditation is like. It's a feeling of complete absorption in what you're doing. As Lesley Garner writes in Everything I've Ever Done That Worked, meditation "is an intense mental discipline." It's a deep state of concentration and focus that is aligned with your breathing.
Breathing is fundamental to meditation. Why? Aryeh Kaplan, author of Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide, explains that because breathing occurs unconsciously, when we focus on it, we make a connection with our unconscious mind. "By learning how to concentrate on and control your breath you can go on to learn how to control the unconscious mind," Kaplan says.
Most religions include ritual meditation. While the most popular meditation methods are derived from Buddhist and Hindu traditions, there are also Christian, Jewish and Muslim varieties. And some types of meditative practice are not religious at all—they are focused on deep breathing and relaxation.
The Reverend Lesley Adams, a college chaplain in Geneva, New York, uses guided meditation to build bridges between students of different faiths. She has her students gather and sit comfortably with eyes closed while she talks them through the process of quieting the mind. "We begin with attention to breathing and relaxation of the body. This can work for simply learning to calm and center oneself," she says. Chaplain Adams has also used the ancient meditative practice of labyrinth-walking to re-engage students with Christian worship.
Walking meditation is a good choice for those who find sitting meditation too relaxing. Meditators do focused perambulation around a large room or out in the open. Mitchell Ratner, Ph.D., the senior teacher at Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center in Takoma Park, Maryland, says meditation is not necessarily about ceasing activity. "When you are walking, you can breathe in with one step, and out with the next. You should be aware of where you are going, but always be coming back to your breath and your feet." Even on the elliptical machine at the gym, you can be more aware of what is going on around you, and focus on the moment.
Remember Transcendental Meditation, popularized by the Beatles in the 1960s? The TM technique involves a twice-daily 20-minute sitting meditation practice during which a single individualized phrase, or mantra, is repeated over and over. The chanting and concentration on breathing creates a deepened state of awareness with many benefits. According to a 2006 analysis in the American Journal of Cardiology, TM improves blood pressure and sleep patterns and increases life span. Researchers documented a 23 percent decrease in death rates among practitioners compared to nonpractitioners of the same age.
Meditation is also an integral part of yoga practice, which is where a lot of people first learn about it. Emily Gallagher of Delmar, New York, started doing Hatha yoga 13 years ago, and particularly liked the final pose, sivasana, in which you lie on the floor for a few minutes of meditation. That led her into meditating for longer periods. Now she meditates every day to energize her spirit. "Some people have a cup of coffee. I do yoga and meditate," she says.
Some practitioners like to gather in a meditation group (called a sangha in the Buddhist tradition), for support and inspiration. Andrew Twaddle joined a sangha in his hometown of Columbia, Missouri, after a trip to Thailand led him to learn more about Buddhist meditation. He believes group meditation helps his spiritual growth. "The association with others in the practice leads to increased generosity and loving-kindness."
Mindfulness meditation is growing in popularity. The practice is about building upon what Ratner calls the "wordless awareness" developed in meditation, and applying it to everyday situations. Most of us live as if we have a stereo system in our heads that's constantly playing back our plans, concerns and worries. Mindfulness helps us experience the world without that soundtrack of anxiety. As Thich Nhat Hahn writes in The Miracle of Mindfulness, even the act of washing dishes can prompt a greater appreciation of life: "I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands."
Those who practice any kind of meditation know the benefits of clarity, concentration and relaxation improve the more regularly you meditate. Making it a daily habit is key. Experts recommend 20 to 30 minutes daily, but just five minutes does good for you. Even if you're in a rush to get to work, try to sit down for a few minutes to focus on your breathing—it might just make the difference between feeling stressed out and feeling stress-free.