When most people hear talk of meditation, they envision pot-smoking hippies with long dreadlocks, chanting Buddhists with saffron robes, or soul-searching New Agers with muddle-headed notions about reality.
Anyone who wishes to promote the therapeutic and scientific benefits of regular meditation sessions faces an uphill battle against a pervasive view of meditation that has pretty much been cemented with caricatures involving effeminate men and ditzy women.
In this short article, we will examine what Western medicine has to say about meditation, and we will offer a few simple, practical guidelines on how best to begin the practice of meditation. Do not fear — you will not need to go under the wing of some guru with a funny accent, nor will you need to invest in incense or expensive mats. Meditation is something the modern man or woman can do for personally verifiable benefits, including a significant reduction in the amount of stress experienced in a world that is daily becoming more complex and confusing.
Meditation is no stranger to Western medicine. In any modern hospital, meditative practices are encouraged in patients to reduce the effects of stress, such as a weakened immune system. The medical community has reached almost unanimous agreement on the idea that psychological stress has direct and measurable negative effects on the physical body. It has been observed that meditation may in fact be a natural sedative or anesthetic on par with milder drugs (though it would be most unwise to try to meditate your way through trauma surgery!). Meditation has been shown to have favorable effects on heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, metabolism, brain-wave state, and many other physiological processes.
Medical studies of meditation go back decades. Dr. Herbert Benson, of no less a prestigious medical center than Harvard Medical School, paved the way in the ’70s with his acclaimed book The Relaxation Response, a landmark study on the power of meditation to combat and counteract the effects of stress. Anyone who is skeptical of the physiological benefits of regular meditation would do well to pick up a copy of his book (and even some of his later books) for an eye-opening reading experience.
Also in the ’70s, the Australian psychiatrist Ainslie Meares published an article in the Medical Journal of Australia about the regression of cancer following a program of prolonged meditation. Add his best-selling book Relief Without Drugs to your reading list.
In more recent times, the neurophysiologist Dr. James Austin published his book Zen and the Brain, which illustrated how Zen meditation has observable effects on the circuitry of the brain. Medical imaging technology has confirmed this.
These findings are not the work of pseudo-academics or quacks on the fringe of modern medicine. If you still need convincing, consider the 2006 article from Harvard Medical School, which reported how meditation increases gray matter and slows down the aging of the brain.
So how do you take the first steps on the road to seeing what meditation has to offer? It is important first to disabuse yourself of the many, often contradictory, spiritual and metaphysical notions surrounding the practice of meditation. You do not need to convert to a new religion to enjoy the stress-reducing benefits of regular meditation sessions.
Simply find yourself a quiet place where you can remain undisturbed for thirty or so minutes a day. You may choose either to sit upright in a comfortable chair or to lie down on a cozy couch. Begin by closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths. This will aid in quietening surface mental chatter. Then work from your toes to your scalp, imagining each part of your body releasing its stress and tension. This whole process should take around five minutes. If you feel a numbing or heavy sensation as you drift into a higher state of relaxation, do not worry — this is normal. Next you have to concentrate on one specific thing to the exclusion of all else. Favorite choices include your breathing, your navel, a mental word (known as a mantra), or a visualized object. You may even wish to concentrate on nothing in particular and merely let your mind empty itself of its own accord. The last thing to note is that it is important not to fight intruding thoughts — simply release them calmly. As time goes by, reaching a state of mental tranquility will become easier and easier.
You will be a different person.