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Because the practice of meditation is part of several Eastern religions, it is often seen in the West as a mystical or spiritual subject, but it can be an eminently practical way of overcoming everyday stress

Practitioners of Buddihism, Hinduism, Taoism and Islamic Sufism, among other religions, all practise meditation as part of their everyday life. The exact aims of meditation vary according to the religion, but can be generally summed up as 'the attainment of enlightenment' or 'mystical consciousness'. Christian and Judaic traditions of silent worship and contemplative prayer are very similar.

In this sense, meditation is not just another word for thinking or day-dreaming. Though it may look to an outside observer very like doing nothing, it is doing nothing in an essentially positive way.

People who practise medication regularly have been found to cope with everyday life in a calm, unhurried manner. There is also some evidence that it can protect people against stress-related medical disorders, and simple and straightforward techniques of meditation, without any deep religious significance, can be learned by anyone.

In hospitals and clinics, meditation has been used with good effect in weaning patients off drugs such as tranquillizers and in treating some cases of alcoholism. People with hypertension (high blood pressure) or coronary heart disease may also be helped by meditation.

One interesting line of research concerns the effect of meditation on cancers. It has been thought for some time that certain cancers tend to appear at times of great stress in people's lives. Stress can impair the functioning of the immune system, the body's first line of defence against cancer cells. Some people claim impressive results for regimens involving routine medical treatment allied to stress-relieving meditation, although the long-term effectiveness of the treatment is open to question.

If you are going to meditate, you need a quiet place where you will not be overly distracted. Sit comfortably in an upright chair, with some support for your back.

While it is possible to meditate lying down, or sitting in a comfy armchair, beginners in particular will tend simply to fall asleep.

Your body should be poised and free from tension, but not rigid. If you are very tense, lightly shake yourself loose before you begin. You will need a subject for meditation. This could be an object, a word or phrase (known as a mantra), or some regular sound, such as the ticking of a clock.

Some methods of meditation rely on breathing itself as the focus, and suggest you concentrate your mind by counting your exhaled breaths from one to ten, and then repeat the process. Even if you are using a focus outside you, your breathing is all-important. It should be slow, deep and rhythmic.

If you haven't tried meditating before, the easiest way to start is simply to concentrate on getting your breathing absolutely regular. You could focus on the sensation of air in your nostrils, or on the rise and fall of the centre of the abdomen, just below the umbilicus (navel). Be sure to use the muscles in your stomach to breathe, rather than trying to lift your chest. You can feel these muscles working if you put a hand on your abdomen, then take a few deep sniffs, as if you were smelling a particularly fragrant flower.

Ideally, you should meditate with your eyes closed. If you are using a visual subject, close your eyes regularly and concentrate on its 'after-image'. Try to focus on your chosen subject all tills. It's inevitable that distracting thoughts will enter your mind; try to ease these gently aside and return to your subject. You should remain as still as possible, and put in 20 minutes' meditation in a session, preferably twice a day.

Although it may be difficult at first, with practice you should soon find it fairly easy to attain the goal of freeing the mind of distractions and to remain in a state of restfulness while fully alert.


A mantra is a word or phrase that you repeat regularly -- either out loud or in your head -- in the course of a meditation. It can be anything you like, though words with religious significance are often chosen. Yogis tend to use the word Om or Aum, while others use the familiar 'Hare Krishna' chant.

A mandala is a visual focus. Strictly speaking, this word should only be applied to complex circular diagrams that are a feature of Buddhism, but loosely speaking, it can be anything -- a candle flame, a flower, a pebble -- you concentrate on to the exclusion of all else. Put it just below your natural line of sight, so your eyes fall easily on it, and about an arm's length away. Focus on its centre. Try half-closing or closing your eyes and visualising it mentally.


The effects of meditation are not just in the mind. Clinical research has noted a number of changes in the body and brain in meditation. EEG readings show brain wave patterns unlike those of sleep or normal wakefulness. They have a slow rhythm, with orderly waves recorded in different parts of the brain. This orderliness persists after meditation if you do it regularly over a period of time.

The basal metabolic rate (energy changes necessary for processes like heartbeat ) falls to levels far below those of deep sleep during meditation, and thee is a reduction in the activity of the nervous system. The number of breaths per minute also falls dramatically, but the amount of oxygen in the blood remains the same, suggesting the body cells are using less of it.



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