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Lately it’s kinda become hard to avoid people touting the health benefits of meditation.
But is it all “find your inner peace” hippy nonsense or is there really something to this meditation stuff?
Who can you trust to give good info on the benefits of meditation?
Frankly, I wouldn’t expect a discerning reader to trust an “alternative health practitioner”. But would you trust a medical doctor?
How about a medical doctor from Harvard?
Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School was probably the first medical practitioner to seriously study the health benefits of meditation – way back in the 1970’s.
What did Dr. Benson find when studying practitioners of Transcendental Meditation (T.M.)?
Fundamental physiological changes that relaxed the body.
Once the data was compiled, we found that the facts were incontrovertible. With meditation alone, the T.M. practitioners brought about striking physiologic changes—a drop in heart rate, metabolic rate, and breathing rate—that I would subsequently label “the Relaxation Response.”
Okay. So there are physiological changes to the body from mediation. But what are the benefits, you ask?
Well, there’s lower blood pressure.
the T.M. practitioners… as a group, they tended to have unusually low blood pressures …Later, we established that such low levels of blood pressure were a health benefit brought about by the regular elicitation of the Relaxation Response.
And then there’s the whole stress, anxiety, depression reduction bit.
As my colleagues and I studied the Relaxation Response, we learned that stress—and the secretions of adrenaline and noradrenaline stress produced—contributed to or caused many more medical problems than Western medicine appreciated. The Relaxation Response proved effective in treating not just hypertension but also headaches, cardiac rhythm irregularities, premenstrual syndrome, anxiety, and mild and moderate depression.
De-stressing and chilling out sounds good, especially in today’s hectic workplaces and homes. Are there any more benefits?
Yep. Remember that inner peace stuff?
Studies of the brain have found an increase in brain activity associated with feelings of well-being.
Explorations using the electroencephalogram have further confirmed that Yogic and meditational practices produce changes in the electrical activity of the brain. Drs. A. Kasamatsu and T. Hirai of the University of Tokyo discovered that Zen monks who meditated with their eyes half open developed a predominance of alpha waves, brain waves usually associated with feelings of well-being.
Hmmm. Okay, so maybe the hippies were onto something.
But you’re probably asking what’s the science behind saying “om” and sitting crossed legged?
Do I have to do the weird meditation stuff to get the benefits?
The good news is no.
Science says there is no requirement to do anything religious or mystic to get the benefits of meditation.
we believe it is not necessary to use the specific method and specific secret, personal sound taught by Transcendental Meditation. Tests at the Thorndike Memorial Laboratory of Harvard have shown that a similar technique used with any sound or phrase or prayer or mantra brings forth the same physiologic changes noted during Transcendental Meditation.
Okay, so we’ve seen some of the science-backed benefits of meditation. But how do you do this meditation stuff?
Here’s what science says you need to do to get the benefits of meditation without the religious stuff.
1) Choose A Quiet Spot
Like any attempt to relax, the right environment is going to make things easier for you.
In this case, a quiet place with few distractions is the way to go.
Ideally, you should choose a quiet, calm environment with as few distractions as possible. A quiet room is suitable, as is a place of worship. The quiet environment contributes to the effectiveness of the repeated word or phrase by making it easier to eliminate distracting thoughts.
That was easy enough. What’s next?
2) Find A Comfortable Position
Worried about having to strike some awkward meditation pose? Don’t bother.
Just find a posture that’s comfortable for you.
A comfortable posture is important so that there is no undue muscular tension. Some methods call for a sitting position. A few practitioners use the crosslegged “lotus” position of the Yogi. If you are lying down, there is a tendency to fall asleep…the various postures of kneeling, swaying, or sitting in a cross-legged position are believed to have evolved to prevent falling asleep. You should be comfortable and relaxed.
Sitting pretty now? What’s next?
3) Use A Mental Device
If you’ve ever spent any time alone with your mind you’ll notice that the human mind loves to wander.
How do you stop this happening during meditation?
Find a word or phrase, any word or phrase, and repeat it.
Since one of the major difficulties in the elicitation of the Relaxation Response is “mind wandering,” the repetition of the word or phrase is a way to help break the train of distracting thoughts.
Stuck for a word? An easy and simple word to use is “one”.
Hopefully you’re already familiar and experienced with this step and I don’t need to explain it.
It’s called “breathing”.
Attention to the normal rhythm of breathing is also useful and enhances the repetition of the sound or the word.
Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word, “ONE,” silently to yourself. For example, breathe IN…OUT, “ONE” IN…OUT, “ONE” etc. Breathe easily and naturally.
Alright. So now you’re in a quiet spot, sitting comfortably, repeating a word or phrase over while you pay attention to your breath. What’s next?
5) Maintain A Passive Attitude
Even when using the mental device to concentrate, distractions will happen. So how do you deal with distractions?
Accept the distractions with a passive attitude and return to repeating the mental device.
The passive attitude is perhaps the most important element in eliciting the Relaxation Response. Distracting thoughts will occur. Do not worry about them. When these thoughts do present themselves and you become aware of them, simply return to the repetition of the mental device. These other thoughts do not mean you are performing the technique incorrectly. They are to be expected.
So you’ve got all that down pat. Now you might be wondering how long do I meditate for?
6) No More Than 20 Minutes
It’s recommended that you stick to no more than 20 minutes.
Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm. When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and later with your eyes opened.
Why no more than 20 minutes?
A basic teaching of many meditational organizations is that if a little meditation is good, a lot would be even better. This argument encourages followers to meditate for prolonged periods of time. From our personal observations, many people who meditate for several hours every day for weeks at a time tend to hallucinate. It is difficult, however, to draw a direct association between the Relaxation Response and this undesirable side effect because we do not know whether the people experiencing these side effects were predisposed to such problems to start with.
So that’s the basics of the scientific, non-religious approach to meditation – or the relaxation response as Dr Benson called it.
Here’s a couple of other tips for trying.
Does it matter if your eyes are open or shut?
Your eyes are usually closed if you are using a repeated sound or word; of course, your eyes are open if you are gazing.
If this meditation stuff is a bit weird and new to you, relax. Totally understandable.
What should you expect to feel afterwards?
The subjective feelings that accompany the elicitation of the Relaxation Response vary among individuals. The majority of people feel a sense of calm and feel very relaxed. A small percentage of people immediately experience ecstatic feelings. Other descriptions that have been related to us involve feelings of pleasure, refreshment, and well-being. Still others have noted relatively little change on a subjective level.
Actually, if you’ve got to reading this far, would you like to know a secret?
Science suggests that meditation only really requires 2 things to be effective. Which 2???
A mental device and a passive attitude.
Later we discovered that only the middle two components—the mental device and the passive attitude—were required. A person could be jogging on a noisy street and still elicit the Relaxation Response. The jogger needed only to maintain a mental focus and be able to return to her focus when distracting thoughts interfered.
So that’s that! Meditation ain’t difficult to learn. Science shows meditation benefits the mind and body. So give it a try
(Want to establish a meditation habit? Here’s some tips)
Let’s summarise this so you can get back to your hippy ways.
1) Choose a quiet spot
A quiet place with few distractions is the way to go.
2) Find a comfortable position
Any posture that’s comfortable for you is fine.
3) Use a mental device
Find a word or phrase that works for you and repeat it.
Breathe through your nose, pay attention to your normal breathing rhythm.
5) Maintain a passive attitude
Accept distractions as normal, just return to the mental device.
6) No more than 20 minutes
Don’t overdo it. 2o mins is enough.
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