Most of us feel the stresses of everyday life, and find various ways to deal with them. (It is a myth that as you get older, you know how to handle stress. Some of life’s most stressful events do not happen until you have gray hair and a weakened immune system!) Physical activity at any age reduces stress for most people, but the practice of meditation has a long and successful history of helping people to cope with life’s challenges. Anyone can practice meditation: you don’t have to go to India and hire a guru; you don’t have to visit a monastery and join the monks at prayer. Meditation can be a religious exercise, or it can simply be a calming experience, a way of stepping back and emptying the mind of all that is extraneous and trivial. “To people who say they are too busy to meditate, I tell them, set aside ten minutes every morning for meditation, and you will find that your schedule is not nearly as oppressive as before you started the practice of meditation.”
If you are new to meditation, or returning after a long absence, begin with five minutes. Find a place where you will not be disturbed, make yourself moderately comfortable, and simply sit and meditate. Close your eyes if that helps, have a clock where you can see it if you look, and begin by counting your breaths for five minutes. By the second day, you will look forward to this time of collecting your self, and you will find something else to hold your attention, whether a word, a thought, a picture, or a blank wall. Meditation comes naturally to those who set aside a time, find a place where they will not be interrupted, and empty their mind of all distractions.
Many medical professionals recommend meditation as a way to good health. Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years, for reasons religious, philosophical, and healthful. It is a calming and quieting experience, a turning off of the noise and distraction of everyday, and attentiveness to what is basic and elementary: breathing, for example. The simplest form of meditation is to find a quiet place, sit comfortably, and spend ten minutes simply paying attention to your breath. Dr. Andrew Weil says there is no medical prescription more important than re-learning how to breathe! (From the Mayo Clinic Health Letter: “Resperate is a portable electronic device that promotes slow, deep breathing. Resperate is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for reducing stress and lowering blood pressure. The goal is slow, deep breathing with particularly long exhalation. Resperate is intended to be used at least 15 minutes a day, three to four days a week. Within a few weeks, the deep breathing exercises can help lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.”) Given our American passion for technology, we have found a way for technology to produce what experienced meditators have been doing for centuries!
As we get busy, we tend to breathe shallowly. We can go days or weeks without paying attention to our own breathing. Simply counting your breath can help focus your attention. Controlling your breath is the next step: breathe in for 5-10 seconds, hold your breath, and then breathe out slowly and calmly, and try to focus your entire attention on the act of breathing.
Is meditation really as simple as that? You can dress it up in many ways, but that is the basis. You may make it a religious experience by incorporating the appropriate imagery, you may make an aesthetic experience by meditating on the sunset or on the stars, or some other natural phenomenon, or you may make it a calming and relaxing experience through the recitation of some “mantra” that has particular significance for you.
Dr. Herbert Benson has documented that the regular practice of meditation lowers blood pressure; Dr. Dean Ornish claims that regular meditation reduces the risk of sudden heart attack. Dr. Weil claims that meditation boosts the effectiveness of the immune system. Perhaps it does these because it brings us back to our most basic self, puts us in touch with the roots of our pre-consciousness, and does something to establish a calm and tranquil center at the heart of our activity.
Among philosophers, Socrates had his meditative trances from which he could not be awakened. Plotinus had his transformative experiences of solitude, of being “alone with the Alone.” Thomas Aquinas was so transformed by his meditations that all he had written seemed like so much straw. Asian traditions are parallel: Thich Nhat Hanh, perhaps the greatest living teacher of Buddhism, recommends the simple formula: Breathing in, I calm my body, breathing out, I smile. His books, Peace is Every Step, and Interbeing, can be great helps along the path to successful meditation.
The best cure for an overly-busy schedule is to set aside a few minutes a day of uninterruptible quiet time, quiet your mind and your emotions, put your breathing, and therefore your life, into good and peaceful order…