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
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.
MEDITATION AND MEDICINE
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
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
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.
MANTRAS AND MANDALAS
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.