Traditionally meditation was used exclusively for spiritual growth. More recently, it has become a valuable tool for relaxation, stress relief, and as an adjunct to medical healing. Those who meditate on a regular basis report a sense of healing, deeper concentration and insight, a heightened sense of intuition, feeling more peaceful, positive, loving, and centered. Medical studies indicate that meditation confers not only strong psychological benefits, but also important physiological benefits. Long-term meditators experience significantly less heart disease and cancer than nonmeditators. Meditation has a profoundly positive effect on blood pressure, chronic pain, and insomnia. Meditators secrete more DHEA than nonmeditators which helps to decrease stress, heighten memory, preserve sexual function, and control weight.
Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years in the Eastern cultures, but is relatively new to the West. Although spiritual more than religious, meditation is practiced in many religions, and also by those who claim no religious affiliation. There are many types of meditation. They include prayer, visualization, Sufi meditation, guided imagery, mindfulness meditation, the relaxation response, biofeedback, transcendental meditation, Zen Buddhist meditation, Native American meditation, movement meditation such as Yoga, T’ai Chi, qigong, and medical meditation. One can meditate alone, with a master/teacher, or in a group of any size. Whatever the form and regardless of the level of practice, all mediations yield similar results. The three most common “methods” of meditation are the relaxation response, mindfulness meditation, and transcendental meditation.
THE RELAXATION RESPONSE
This method begins with the belief that the “normal” state of mind is not a rested one, that the mind bounces from one thought to another followed by emotional and physical reactions, invoking the flight-or-fight response. This response activates the involuntary nervous system which instantly raises blood pressure and heart rate; stimulates the adrenal glands to release adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol; and decreases or increases the production of important hormones. Prolonged periods of time in this mode can cause chronic high blood pressure, heart disease, stomach ulcers, autoimmune diseases, cancer, anxiety, insomnia, and depression. The opposite of the flight-or-fight response is the relaxation response. This response occurs during meditation and produces opposite physiological effects. To reach this response, the meditator sits quietly, clears her mind, and focuses on a calming phrase, image, or thought. Research has documented many health benefits from this type of meditation including decreased PMS symptoms, decreased migraine headaches, reduced anxiety and depression, fewer missed days of work due to illness, significant improvements in insomnia, reduction of chronic pain, and improved high blood pressure.
This type of meditation begins with the concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness has been described as “learning how to stop all your doing and shift over to a ‘being’ mode.” To be mindful is to live in the present moment, to give up the habit of worry, to let all stress drain from mind and body, to let go of ego and the need to control. In this type of meditation, the meditator focuses on the breath and allows the mind to wander striving for a heightened awareness of each passing thought and image. Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation decreases panic attacks and general anxiety, reduces chronic pain and the incidences of headaches, improves recovery to drug and alcohol addiction, and reduces obesity.
This is the most popular and most studied form of meditation in the Western culture. It begins with the concept of restful alertness. As the body becomes deeply relaxed, the mind settles down to a state of inner calm and wakefulness. This form of meditation has been described as easy to learn, effortless to practice, involving neither concentration nor contemplation. It is recommended that one learn this technique from a transcendental meditation teacher. In addition to the results reported with relaxation response and mindfulness meditation, transcendental meditation has been shown to slow the aging process, and significantly lower rates of hospitalization indicating higher levels of health than nonmeditators. Meditation does not require one to believe in a certain way or adopt a particular lifestyle. It will not conflict with one’s religion. Whatever meditation technique is practiced, there are many common principles. These include not to worry about doing it exactly right and not to expect an earth-shattering experience. Most meditative results are quite subtle. Accept whatever occurs. Find a quiet comfortable place in which to meditate where disturbances are minimal. Sit in a comfortable chair, on a bed, or on the floor keeping the spine reasonably straight. If physical reasons dictate, lying on the back works fine. Eliminate as many potential distractions as possible, but do not worry about those things that cannot be controlled. No particular time of day is better than another; however, having a specific time in which to meditate will be helpful in making it a regular practice. Call on a spiritual source for assistance while meditating, if that comports with one’s individual beliefs. When beginning a meditation practice, start with just 10-15 minutes once a day, increasing the time gradually, but keeping in mind that more is not always better. Meditation taps into very powerful inner energies which are very healing and uplifting, but it does take time to acclimate and is best done gradually.
SEE ALSO: Complementary and alternative health practices, Headache, Hypertension, Massage, Migraine, Pain, Yoga
- Chopra, D., & Simon, D. (2001). Grow younger, live longer. New York: Harmony Books.
- Khalsa, D. S., & Stauth, C. (2001). Meditation as medicine. New York: Fireside.