One of the most commonly misunderstood techniques for reducing stress and gaining inner peace is meditation. For many, the word meditation evokes an image of a long-bearded guru or a flower-child of the 60's, suggesting that normal people don't do these things. If normal means being overloaded with stress and not being aware of all the things that really matter to us, then the term normal may describe people who have not experienced meditation.

Most people go through a large part of their day without being fully aware of what they are involved in. We may eat while watching TV or while reading, absently shoveling food into our mouths without being aware of the texture, taste and fragrance of what we're eating. We might answer another person's question while reading or watching TV, but if we were asked to repeat the question later, we'd have a hard time recalling it. We are seldom fully aware of what is going on around us, and we may be even less aware of our own being.

Our brain is constantly engaged in complex mental activity, but we are seldom aware of it. Meditation allows us to focus on our personal universe, to be conscious of the moment. By concentrating on something, perhaps a flower, a candle, a sound or word, or our breath, the number of randomly occurring thoughts decreases. Distractions and our preoccupation with them progressively become less frequent. Eventually, random thoughts just fall through, no longer interfering. The meditator may get caught up in a persistent thought pattern, but once aware of this, attention is gently brought back to the object of concentration. In time, meditation can also be objectless.

A deep meditation will permit the mind to become clear, uncluttered, focused and fresh. Not all meditations may be very deep, but with regular practice the effects of meditation accumulate and become easier and deeper. The calm of meditation, along with stability and a clarity of focus, begins to carry over more and more into other daily activities.

For some people, meditation may be a spiritual practice, but it is not a religion. Meditation can be part of the of practice of religion, as in Hinduism and Buddhism. There are many biblical references to meditation. Churches usually have a meditative atmosphere. Meditation lets us connect with something within us that is peaceful, calm and refreshing, and that has some special meaning. Anyone can benefit from it, no matter what their personal or religious beliefs.

Meditation is not the same as relaxation. Meditation is relaxing and much more. Relaxing can assume many forms, such as taking a hot bath or reclining in a soft chair and watching TV. The active process of meditation allows the body to relax and can offset the effects of mental and physical stress far more than passive relaxation. Thinking consumes energy. Constant thought activity, particularly random thinking, can result in headaches or feeling tired. The singular focus of meditation has the opposite effect.

In a small way, meditation is like self-hypnosis. The difference is that in hypnosis there is no attempt to maintain an awareness of the here-and-now, or to stay conscious of the process.

The first step is usually focusing on something to take our attention away from the random thought activity, usually going on in our heads. This can involve concentrating on one's breath, a solid object, a candle flame, a flower, a mantra (a phrase or word continuouslty repeated), or guided visualization. Some people use pictures, such as a mandala, a highly colored symmetric painting. Others repeat mantras, with sounds which have a flowing, meditative quality and may be spoken out loud or repeated inwardly. Additionally, guided visualization is a1so considered by some to be a form of meditation. A guided visualization, where another person directs your focus, can help to bring you into a meditative state. Visualization may also be used once a meditative state has been reached to achieve specific objectives. Audio tapes of guided visualizations are listed in the reference section.

Some meditation techniques may work better for you than others. There is no right technique for everybody. The important thing is to find the way that works best for you.

Almost everyone has meditated at one time or another, even though they may not have been aware of it. If you have relaxed your thoughts while looking at a beautiful sunset, allowing your thoughts to quiet down, you have been close to meditation. After reading for a while, when you put the book down to take a break, sitting quietly and peacefully for a few minutes without thinking about anything, you are approaching a form of meditation.

Experienced meditators agree that early morning is one of the best times to meditate. In the early morning, worries, obligations and distractions usually haven't started to accumulate, so it is easier to establish a meditative atmosphere. Having an early morning meditation allows you to carry some of the energy and peace of the meditation into the rest of the day's activities.

Many people meditate either before dinner or later in the evening, too. Others also meditate at noon. A short meditation at these times provides a chance to get rid of some of the accumulated stress of the work-day and become refreshed. Whenever your schedule will allow you to meditate is a good time, but having a special time of the day set aside for meditation can be especially helpful.

When first learning meditation, it is usually not possible to meditate for more than 10 minutes or so. After regular practice, it becomes easier to meditate for longer periods of time. Some people meditate twice-daily for 20-30 minutes each time, but the right duration and frequency is for each individual to decide. More time is not necessarily better, most people consider a single daily 15 minute meditation sufficient.

To get the most from meditation it should be done:
Every day, preferably at the same time;
Not after eating a large meal;
In a quiet place used for nothing else but meditation;
With the spine straight and vertical (against a wall or in a chair for support).

Some people may find meditation relatively easy but find it harder to actually make themselves sit down and start their meditation. Soft, meditative music can help in establishing a conducive atmosphere.

The most common physiological effects of meditation are reduced blood pressure, lower pulse rate, decreased metabolic rate (physical and chemical changes in the body). Some blood chemistry levels have shown improvement with regular meditation.

Although it is possible to learn how to meditate from a book, most people who practice meditation agree that a teacher can be an important part of learning a meditation technique and making sure it is practiced correctly. The beginner will usually have several questions that only a teacher will be able to answer. Also, learning with other people in a meditation class gives the experience of group meditation, resulting in exceptional meditations for some people.

There are many individuals and groups teaching meditation. Different techniques are available, some more spiritual in nature and others mainly concerned with stress-reduction and gaining peace of mind. To find the best one for you, sample a variety of approaches and teachers until you find one that works and is comfortable. Many instructors allow prospective students to visit a class without charge or for a small fee.

Audio and video tapes are available that teach and perfect all levels of meditation. A list of some recommended tapes is in the reference section. Two books which have proved helpful to persons wanting to use meditation to lower heart disease risk are Jon Kabat-Zinn's Full Catastrophe Living and Dean Ornish's Program for Reducing Heart Disease. Each devote over 100 pages to meditation skills that can be learned and practiced at home.

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©1994, 1996, 2002
Dr. Neal Pinckney
Healing Heart Foundation