There were more Asians at the Tucson Consciousness Conference this year than ever before. The presence of Deepak Chopra, the special section on "Eastern Philosophy and Consciousness," and the increased interest in the West about the practice of Meditation probably all contributed. Dr. Herbert Benson's book thirty years ago, The Relaxation Response, fostered medical interest in the benefits of the practice of meditation. Jon Kabat-Zinn has gone around the country for many years offering stress reduction programs at Hospitals and Universities; he has a new book, Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the present moment and your life. It is an all out, no holds barred exhortation to practice daily meditation. "In many Asian languages, the word for 'mind' and the word for 'heart' is the same word. So when you hear the word 'mindfulness,' you have to hear the word 'heartfulness' simultaneously to understand or feel what mindfulness really is."
There are many thumbnail sketches of how to practice meditation; the following is slightly modified from a recent posting on the RealAge website:
--Find a quiet place to sit, where no one will interrupt you. Sit comfortably. Close your eyes. Breathe.
--Unwind: tense and relax each body part, to bring your whole body to stillness.
--Go blank. When thoughts come to your mind, repeat a mantra like "peace," or "om," or "Cloud Nine."
--Don't move for 5 minutes. Go for 10 or 20 minutes when you can.
--Get up slowly, and keep the sense of peacefulness and calm with you as you go back to your daily tasks.
What do the presenters at the Consciousness Conference have to say about this? There are now (f)MRIs available to monitor what is actually going on in the brains of both novice meditators and long-term practitioners. The bottom line? "Long-term meditators, those who have been practicing for many years, or even decades, do enter states of very deep relaxation. Breathing rates can drop to 3 or 4 breaths a minute, and brain waves slow down from the usual beta (seen in waking activity) or alpha (seen in normal relaxation), to the much slower delta or theta waves." The oddity here is that most of these meditators are not doing it to seek relaxation, but something quite different: they meditate to seek salvation, to help others, to gain insight, or because it is the portal to ASCs, "altered states of consciousness," and they simply have become habituated to this unusual experience. For such experts, the goal is the original meaning of the word "meta-physical," they are doing something beyond the physical.
To the person who sets aside five minutes a day and uses meditation as a mode of relaxation, the experts would probably say, better spend that time going for a walk, or engaging in vigorous exercise. What do I think of all this? I believe that even a few minutes a day dedicated to Meditation can help you cope with the stresses of daily life. I suspect that the experts in Meditation, who practice for an hour or more a day, really do experience something denied to the rest of us, something we might perceive in that occasional "Aha!" experience, something that, however infrequent, cleanses the doors of perception, and enables us to see more deeply into what our life means. Even a little bit of Meditation is better than none; even a few moments of reflecting on the mystery of Consciousness, the mystery of what it means to be a self, is better than going through life only half awake.....