Meditation calms the mind and body

BY SHEILA STORY, Lincoln Journal Star, Jan 25, 2006

Lincoln, nebraska (USA) -- That contemporary living exhausts our energy is a fact few will dispute. Meeting the demands of family, work and even fun can leave us feeling depleted to the point where we barely have the strength to pick up the remote control at the end of the day. If the origin of stress is in the mind, it only makes sense that relief from stress must come through the mind as well. One way to accomplish this is through meditation.

Celebrities were the first to catch on to the meditation trend. It entered the West's mainstream in the mid ’60s, when the Beatles returned from a trip to India where they transcended it all with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Peace, love, flower power and the Summer of Love soon followed.

The fads have faded, but millions of people, some famous, some not, have found relief for mind and body through the practice of meditation.

What is meditation?

All meditation practices have one thing in common — they all focus on quieting the busy mind. The intention is not to remove stimulation, but rather to direct your concentration to one healing element — one sound, one word, one image or one's breath. When the mind is “filled” with the feeling of calm and peace, it cannot take off on its own and worry, stress out or get depressed.

According to Joan Borysenko, a pioneer in the field of mind/body medicine, meditation can be broadly defined as any activity that keeps the attention pleasantly anchored in the present moment. When the mind is calm and focused in the present, it is neither reacting to memories from the past nor being preoccupied with plans for the future, two major sources of chronic stress known to impact health.

Types of meditation

All meditation techniques can be grouped into two basic approaches: concentrative meditation and mindfulness.

Concentrative meditation focuses the attention on the breath, an image or a sound (mantra), in order to still the mind and allow a greater awareness and clarity to emerge. This is like a zoom lens in a camera; we narrow our focus to a selected field.

The simplest form of concentrative meditation is to sit quietly and focus the attention on the breath. Yoga and meditation practitioners believe that there is a direct correlation between one's breath and one's state of the mind.

When a person is anxious, frightened, agitated or distracted, the breath will tend to be shallow, rapid and uneven. On the other hand, when the mind is calm, focused and composed, the breath will tend to be slow, deep and regular.

Focusing the mind on the continuous rhythm of inhalation and exhalation provides a natural object of meditation. As you focus your awareness on the breath, your mind becomes absorbed in the rhythm of inhalation and exhalation. Your breathing will become slower and deeper, and your mind becomes more tranquil and aware.

Mindfulness meditation involves opening the attention to become aware of the continuously passing parade of sensations and feelings, images, thoughts, sounds, smells and so forth without becoming involved in thinking about them. To do this, sit quietly and simply witnesses whatever goes through your mind, not reacting or becoming involved with thoughts, memories, worries or images.

This helps to gain a more calm, clear and non-reactive state of mind. Mindfulness meditation can be likened to a wide-angle lens. Instead of narrowing your sight to a selected field as in concentrative meditation, you will be aware of the entire field.

What you need

A quiet place — Find a quiet place with minimum distractions.

A comfortable or poised posture — In traditional meditation postures, the back is normally kept erect, though not rigidly upright. This is called poised posture. The right attitude for meditation may itself be described as poised: alert yet also relaxed. Poised posture promotes the right state of attention-awareness for successful meditation.

An object to dwell upon —  In Hindu Yoga the object the attention dwells on is often a mantra, usually a Sanskrit word or syllable. In Buddhism the focus is often the meditator's own breathing; let your attention dwell on the gentle rise of your abdomen in diaphragmatic-abdominal breathing. Your breathing becomes very quiet, promoting relaxation.

A passive attitude or poised awareness — This last element is said to be the most essential. It is sometimes called poised awareness or attention-awareness because relaxation and alertness are in perfect balance. Distractions from environmental sounds, skin tingles, etc., and the inevitable intrusion of thoughts and images are viewed casually and detachedly. Let them come and go, of no more consequence than small clouds passing across an expanse of sky.

With practice, moments of great calm and deep restfulness during meditation will become more frequent.