Meditation as a spiritual practice to gain awareness of oneself and one’s connection to the universe has been around for thousands of years. There’s a good chance those ancient practitioners were also accomplishing something beneficial to their health when they sat quietly and concentrated on a word, sound, object, or sensation – or on nothing at all.
Benefits of meditation
Today, the practice of meditation has attracted the attention of medical researchers and other scientists. All kinds of studies are being conducted to determine whether meditation can help with such things as:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s
That’s a promising list of conditions that could be helped with an activity that any healthy person can safely engage in.
Who can meditate – and is it safe?
The research is happening, but not all the votes are in yet. So why even consider meditation before more solid, science-backed results are published? One reason might simply be that part about “thousands of years.” Think of the times your grandmother instinctively knew that something in homemade soup was good for you before it was scientifically determined that common soup ingredients like garlic and onions had healing properties. Then add a whole lot of “greats” in front of that grandma (a whole lot – enough to go back a few millennia, at least).
Another reason is that it’s safe and natural. With some very few exceptions almost everyone can engage in meditation. Most people who do so enjoy an increased sense of well-being, a reduction in their stress levels, and a sense of calm and peace. That’s without treading into more defined medical conditions like hypertension or dementia. So where’s the harm?
How to get started meditating
There are several different types of mediation and ways to explore them. There are apps that offer guided sessions while others simply provide a few minutes of a calming scene or sounds. Fitness gadgets like Fitbit and smartwatches have a Relax feature meant to get you to stop, take a couple of minutes, and focus only on your breathing.
For a less techy experience, check your local paper for a yoga studio, Tai Chi, or spiritual center that offers guided group meditation sessions. An in-person session is a great way to get started. You may find you enjoy participating with a group, or you might prefer to practice on your own once you’ve gotten some pointers. Any way that works for you is the right way.
When we think “meditation” many of us immediately imagine a person sitting in the lotus position, eyes closed, palms up, finger and thumb forming a circle on each hand. That’s one way but you can reach a meditative state in a variety of different ways. You can meditate while doing a physical activity such as yoga, Tai Chi, Qi gong, and even just walking slowly and mindfully, without added stimulation (so no news or music on your headset). If you’re comfortable pretzeling your legs, go for it, but if you’re not, you can also sit in a comfortable chair with your feet up, or even lie down.
The goal of meditation is to obtain a sense of calm and balance, to focus your attention (for example, on your breathing, or your steps, or an object or sound), and let go of the kinds of thoughts and worries that produce anxiety and tension.
When you meditate, you aren’t ignoring what needs your attention; you’re taking away its power to interfere with your sense of peace and well-being. With practice, you’ll learn to let thoughts arrive in your consciousness and then drift off, without judgment or worry. When you are not in a meditative state, you will be better able to manage your tasks and responsibilities because you’ll have given your mind a chance to rest and rejuvenate. Studies conducted at Harvard Medical School and elsewhere have shown that the beneficial effects of meditation continue after your session has ended.
A first easy step to get you started meditating
There isn’t room here for a lesson in all the ways to meditate, but it’s not complicated and, as mentioned, there is plenty of help available on the web or in your local community.
But here’s one very simple way (adopted from Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson, author of The Relaxation Response).
- Sit or lie in a comfortable position, preferably somewhere quiet and without distractions.
- Choose a nice word or phrase to repeat, either out loud or to yourself. It can be as simple as a number or just a sound.
- When thoughts other than that nice word come into your mind (such as, “Did I remember to …?”) let them drift off and return to repeating that word or phrase.
As an experiment and gift to yourself, try making a point of having a mindful moment like this once a day for a full week. If you feel pressed for time, start with just five minutes a day. At the end of the week, if you find (as we expect you will) that you are feeling a bit less stressed and a little happier, those five minutes will feel like nothing and you may want to find a few more minutes in each day to treat yourself to. It will do you good.