Many people think that meditation is something that a guru does while sitting cross-legged somewhere in the Himalayas.
But meditation is not only for spiritualists - it has many physiological advantages that you can benefit from without joining a strange mystical cult. And the best part of it all is that you can do it in the comfort of your own home.
The aim of meditation is to temporarily clear your mind of energy-sapping, extraneous thoughts by simply focusing on a single thought, word or object or even your own breath.
The health benefits of meditation are becoming more and more evident. Meditation has been shown to decrease stress, enhance creativity, increase vitality, and facilitate self-healing. Recently, an American study that examined the brain scans of Buddhist monks, found that Buddhists really are more happy, calm and serene than people who don't meditate.
The physiological benefits of meditation include: decreased respiratory and heart rates, reductions in the thickening of coronary arteries (thereby lowering your risk of heart attack and stroke), lower oxygen consumption, increased blood circulation, decreased blood pressure, decreased muscle tension and increased levels of serotonin (the “feel-good” hormone).
Meditation has also been shown to help ease chronic diseases such as asthma and arthritis and can reduce PMS.
Beginner meditators often battle to empty their minds, because as soon as they sit quietly, a hundred "to do" lists flood their head. Here is a simple, very basic way to meditate:
- Choose a quiet spot, outside or inside, where your meditation won't be interrupted by the dog or your children. Switch off your cell phone, shut down your computer and put on your answering machine.
- Don't meditate before a meal, or all you will be concentrating on is your growling stomach.
- Dim the lights or draw the curtains.
- Sit upright in a comfortable chair and put your hands on your lap. Lying down will only make you fall asleep. The classic posture is to sit on the floor with your legs crossed and your hands resting in your lap. But the golden rule is that you can sit as you like for as long as you’re comfortable.
- Try and keep your eyes open to ensure that all of your senses are open and receptive. If you close your eyes, you might fall asleep and sleep is not the goal of meditation, a “relaxed alertness” is. Don’t focus on any particular thing, just keep your eyes open and try to look at neutral objects, like, for instance, the blue sky. If you are easily distracted, you might have to close your eyes at first.
- Now imagine each part of your body slowly relaxing. Start at the top of your head and move down the rest of your body. Feel the tension ebb away.
There are four basic ways to meditate: you can follow your breath, focus on an icon or an object, recite a mantra or do a guided meditation.
Following your breath is the most common form of meditation. To do it, you must first breathe out forcefully a few times to get rid of the carbon dioxide at the base of your lungs. Now relax and focus entirely on your breathing.
Get a natural breathing rhythm going and feel the air as it enters your nose and fills your lungs, then slowly exhale. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth, slowly deepening and slowing your in-breath. Use the exhalations to imagine all the stress and tension leaving your body.
Focus on your breathing technique – your belly should be moving more than or the same amount as your chest. Check this by placing one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach whilst breathing. If only your chest moves, you are still stress breathing.
Practice deep breathing from your abdomen and not your chest. You should feel your stomach swell as you breathe in. Count as you breath in and out and try and take as long to inhale as you do to exhale.
Do a guided meditation. This type of meditation focuses the mind and directs the imagination towards a conscious goal. (Think of a ballerina who visualises the perfect pirouette before going on stage.) One can use special CDs that literally guide you through the meditation towards the desired feeling of peace and tranquility.
Focus on an icon or an object. Let your mind rest lightly on an object. If you are a Christian, this might be an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary. If you follow Eastern tradition, you may choose to focus on a Buddah. A flower, a crystal or any other object that has special meaning to you can also be the object of your gaze.
Recite a mantra. The word “mantra” literally means “that which protects the mind”. Choose a mantra (a word or a phrase) that has meaning to you - be it spiritually or emotionally. Recite the mantra over and over, paying deep attention to the words. Let the mantra, your breath and your awareness become one. Catholics may recite the Rosary for example. Mantras don’t necessarily have to be spiritual, as long as they have meaning for you.
Why not try one of the following tried and tested de-stressing mantras:
- I must let go of what I can’t control.
- Don’t dwell on mistakes, learn from them and move on.
- Life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it.
- I must know my limits.
- Learn to say no.
- Accept the things I cannot change.
- My best is good enough.
- Do one thing at a time.
If a niggling thought disrupts your meditation, simply acknowledge it and let it float away like a balloon. When you are finished, open your eyes slowly, stretch and wait a few minutes before getting up.
Start off meditating for five minutes every day at the same time (early in the morning is best or just before you go to bed) and slowly increase this time as you become better at meditating.
Once you're a veteran, you can meditate anywhere, at your desk, on the bus or in a shopping centre. Remember that there is no right or wrong way to meditate. Whatever you feel most comfortable with and whatever relaxes you the most, is best.
(Health24, updated January 2009)