Meditation provides a unique form of rest that is even more profound than that achieved during sleep, and this deep rest produces multiple beneficial physiological changes.
Regular experience of this profound rest will eventually eliminate the effects of stress and help to make the meditator stress-proof. The resulting benefits for both mental and physical health appear gradually and are cumulative.
There are now more than 600 scientific studies on transcendental meditation (TM) - the most extensively researched form of meditation - conducted at 240 universities and hospitals in over 24 countries. More than 120, all with extremely positive results, have been published in leading scientific journals.
The research has shown that meditation benefits angina, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, ME/CFS, asthma, chronic bronchitis, skin conditions, ADHD, migraine, tension headaches, phobias, insomnia, nervous tension, anxiety, depression, excessive smoking and excessive drinking.
When the medical insurance claims of a group of 2,000 people who practise TM were analysed for a five-year period and compared with the claims of non-meditators, researchers found that those practising TM had: 44% fewer visits to doctors; 53% fewer admissions to hospital; 70% fewer days in hospital; 30% lower incidence of infectious
diseases; 55% lower incidence of tumours of all kinds; 87% lower incidence of heart disease; and 87% lower incidence of diseases of the nervous system.
There is a bewildering array of forms and methods of meditation on offer today but, at the heart of them all, lies a very simple, natural and effortless mental technique.
It is this core technique, rather than any of the extra features that are often added to it, that is responsible for the many remarkable benefits
reported by meditators and researchers.
The technique achieves its effects by gently centering the focus of the mind on something that has few, if any, associations - a simple object or image, one's own breath, or, as in the method explained below (which is essentially the same as that taught in TM), a sound repeated silently to oneself.
1. Choose a focus sound or combination of sounds that appeal to you but do not have any specific meaning for you.
The sounds in the following list have all been found to be pleasant and soothing to most people. Repeat each one to yourself several times, then choose whichever you like best.
Alternatively, you can create your own special sound - perhaps by combining elements from some of those listed above, or by making one up.
If selecting your own original sound, bear in mind that it is not advisable to choose a person's name, or other word that has a specific meaning or association, or one that is likely to cause thoughts or stir up emotions. It is preferable to choose something which has a sound that appeals to you.
2. Select a quiet environment.
At least in the initial stages of learning to meditate, it is very important to ensure that you will be alone and undisturbed by noise or interruptions. Turn off phones and persuade those you live with to leave you quietly alone for up to 20 minutes.
3. Sit comfortably.
No special postures are required so feel free to stretch, yawn or scratch, if these help.
4. Close your eyes and breathe naturally.
5. Repeat your chosen sound silently to yourself.
Listen to the sound as it drifts into your mind and let it produce a feeling of tranquillity. Experiment with the sound, if you wish. Play with it, enjoy its rhythm and allow it to change in any way that feels natural - perhaps becoming stretched out, speeded up or slowed down.
In time, your chosen sound will come to have special significance for you and be a welcome signal to turn inward towards a more peaceful state.
6. Assume a passive and detached attitude to any thoughts that appear.
It is a natural part of meditation for thoughts to arise spontaneously, but their subject and content are of no significance to the process and they should be passively disregarded.
When a thought pops up, simply acknowledge the fact of its appearance without engaging with it. Then gently return to repeating your chosen sound.
There is a popular misconception that meditation is about making one's mind blank, but this is not so. In fact, it is impossible to make the mind blank. The human brain is a bio-computer of epic capacity and creativity. Thinking is what it does and this happens auto-
Meditation gets around this by introducing a decoy (in this case, the repeated sound) so as to reduce the spontaneous eruption of thoughts to a minimum.
Focusing the attention on this simple repetition reduces mental activity in the same way that a bone will calm the antics of a restless dog. However, just as a dog will eventually tire of its bone, the mind will eventually turn away from the sound it has been given and thoughts will begin to return. When this happens, the meditator simply picks up the sound and gives it back to the mind, and continues to do this, whenever a thought appears, throughout the period of meditation.
7. Do not worry about how well you are doing.
There is no need to be concerned about such things as whether you are sitting correctly or getting the sound right, or about anything else. As long as you continue to repeat the sound and passively disregard all thoughts, the meditation will take care of itself.
8. Continue for 15 or 20 minutes (or longer if you are ill and feel that it helps).
9. Do not stand immediately on completion.
Continue sitting quietly for a minute or so, allowing the normal flow of thoughts to resume. Then open your eyes and sit for another minute before rising.
10. Practise this technique once or, ideally, twice daily.
It is best to avoid times when your stomach is full and when you are under the influence of stimulants. Good times are before breakfast and before an evening meal.
The extent of the benefits that accrue from meditation are directly related to the frequency of practice. They are cumulative and they increase exponentially. Meditating twice each day will deliver more than twice the benefits of meditating once.
This commitment is not as onerous as it might at first appear, because most meditators find that the time spent meditating is amply repaid in the form of increased efficiency and enhanced enjoyment of life during the rest of the day, as well as in more refreshing sleep at night.
11. Trust the process.
If you follow the instructions set out here, your meditation will gradually begin to produce beneficial effects.
For much of the time, and especially in the beginning, it may appear that nothing much is happening, as with a tree in winter, but be assured that the meditative process continues to have an effect even when there is no tangible evidence for this. If you surrender your doubts, keep practising and trust the process, your patience will eventually be rewarded: 'spring' will arrive and your meditation will bear fruit.
If you do not eventually notice any benefits, this may be because they have crept up on you gradually. In this case, continue to practise the technique for a month or two and then stop suddenly for a few days, and you will be reminded how you felt before you started meditating!
12. Re-read the instructions above - particularly sections 6, 7 and 11- several times during the first few weeks of practising the technique, and periodically thereafter.
Whilst the technique outlined above is all that is needed in order to practise and experience the benefits of meditation, there may be those who would prefer a more detailed course of formal instruction. In this case, I recommend the Learn to Meditate Kit by clinical psychologist Dr Patricia Carrington, which comprises four audio tapes and a comprehensive instruction manual.
Anyone wishing to delve still deeper into the theory of meditation will find an often confusing mass of information available. The internet is awash with material on this subject, and new books and articles continue to appear to add to the hundreds already in circulation. However, much of this material is coloured by the ideological and cultural backgrounds of its authors, who frequently add unnecessary features and layers of meaning.
For an objective and scientific, yet eminently readable
examination of meditation, I recommend Dr Carrington's The Book of Meditation (Element 1998).
Both the above titles can be obtained from Amazon but, if purchasing the kit secondhand, make sure that you get all four tapes and the manual.
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