August 21, 2000
Meditation: Once Over Lightly
Donna Michel, RN, BSN
The ancient practice of meditation has gained widespread acceptance in recent years. So much so that a recent nursing article claims "meditation has gone mainstream." According to this same article, hospital meditation centers are appearing across the country from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York to the Veteran's Administration Medical Center in San Francisco. The question inevitably arises how can a practice, which an Episcopal minister recently labeled "woo-woo Christianity," find its way into mainstream healthcare?
In his book, Meditation, Eknath Easwaren relates the story of a friend who was quietly meditating in his car a number of years ago. Suddenly there was a polite but persistent tapping on his window. Looking up he saw a policeman who wanted to know if he was okay. The friend explained that he was meditating and that he was fine. The perplexed policeman persisted, "But do you need any help?" This attitude was not at all uncommon in the early sixties.
During the turbulence of this period many thousands of individuals began to search for a new worldview. Thousands marched in Washington D.C., while other thousands demonstrated on campuses across the country in protest to the Viet Nam war. Many sought this change of perception from drugs while others sought it from gurus in Indian ashrams. Famous sixties icon Harvard professor, Richard Alpert, is well remembered for his personal LSD research, and is even better remembered as Ram Dass. Stephen Levine, author of Who Dies, began meditating while in a New York City jail charged with marijuana possession. Ram Dass and Stephen Levine are two examples of the legions who turned to a spiritual search, and meditation was one of the key elements of the search.When Be Here Now, written by Ram Dass, became one of the rallying cries of this period, thousands answered.
It was not until the next decade that the practice of meditation received the medical stamp of approval, when Harvard cardiologist, Dr. Herbert Benson, published his research on the benefits of transcendental meditation in a national bestseller, The Relaxation Response. Dr. Benson's impeccable credentials and well documented research provided the final stimulus that propelled meditation once and for all time out of the "woo woo Christianity" category. Other well-known advocates of meditation from the medical community include doctors Dean Ornish, Larry Dossey, Depak Chopra, Andrew Weil, and Jerry Jampolsky. Psychologists John Kabat-Zinn, Lawrence LeShan, and Joan Borysenko have likewise written at length about meditation and are widely read.
Benefits of Meditation
In response to a perceived threat the nervous system initiates the fight or flight response. In a complex series of events, adrenalin is released into the circulating blood causing respirations, heart rate, and blood pressure to rise as the individual prepares to meet the threat. This mechanism is the responsibility of the sympathetic nervous system. Stanford psychologist and researcher Dr. Frederic Luskin explains that when you are worried about a test result, angry, fearful, or stressed you are in the sympathetic nervous system. Luskin continues that you recognize this state by the way your stomach churns, the palms sweat, and the generalized feeling of tension. By contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system operates through a different pathway to calm you. When you are on the beach in Hawaii or getting a massage you are in the parasympathetic nervous system.
The value of the fight or flight response in times of danger is well documented. Someone wrote that when suddenly face-to-face with a Bengal tiger the fight or flight response is a very good thing. But, cautions Dr. Benson, to live this way continuously may lead to health problems. Research is currently investigating this assumption.
The documented benefits of meditation are impressive. It lowers the respiratory rate, oxygen consumption, and many, but not all, blood pressures. It has been found to reduce anxiety with individuals reporting strong feelings of well-being. Psychologist Lawrence LeShan writes in How to Meditate that the practice produces a deep relaxation with a wakeful, highly alert mental state that is the opposite of stress. Bay area cardiologist Dean Ornish writes that by using stress management tools such as yoga, prayer, or meditation it is possible to rediscover inner sources of peace, joy, and well being.
Anyone who is considering beginning a meditation practice will benefit from some personal research and preparation. Dr. Benson maintains that its benefits can be achieved through a variety of approaches. The crucial point is to find the approach that best fits you. Spend some quiet time browsing in the meditation section of your favorite bookstore until something grabs you, and you know that this is the approach for you.
There are many excellent books and meditation approaches to choose from. Benson's The Relaxation Response and Kabat-Zinn's Full Catastrophe Living are about mindfulness or being fully present in the NOW moment. Lawrence LeShan's How to Meditate is an excellent book for beginners and discusses a variety of techniques. Eknath Easwaren's Meditation is more of a spiritual approach but not overwhelmingly so. Jerry Jampolsky's Love is Letting Go of Fear might be helpful in quieting the mind by using it as a contemplative meditation. Joel Goldsmith's The Art of Meditation represents the mystical approach to the subject. Inevitably you will find that your approach will change because what appeals to you today will probably be far different five years from now.
The next order of business is to make a definite time commitment. For instance in Jon Kabat-Zinn's program everyone is required to commit to forty-five minutes a day, six days a week for eight weeks. If this seems unreasonable then consider fifteen minutes a day, seven days a week for thirty days. If even this amount of time seems unreasonable then meditation may not be for you at this time, and you might consider something like yoga for stress management.
Not only is where you meditate important, but give some thought to making this place special. Try experimenting with different places within your home until you find the place for you, maybe by a window looking into the garden and your favorite tree, which you watch through its seasons. If possible set this place aside for only meditation purposes, and think of placing a single, stunning flower next to where you will sit.
When you meditate is likewise important. Early in the day is best for at least two reasons. To begin with it sets the tone for the day. As you persist in your meditation practice you will find that the quality of your day will improve. Secondly, especially in the beginning, you will find that your mind is very clever in its attempts to subvert your best intentions.
Be hyper vigilant when your mind sweetly suggests that you have such a busy day ahead of you that perhaps it's better to get an early start and wait to meditate later in the day, or even just before you go to bed. Sabotage! Once your practice is firmly established, and you have experienced some of its benefits you won't be easily fooled by such treachery.
There is nothing magic about posture. It is true that photographs of meditators always show them looking blissful in the lotus position, and if you want to try a meditation pillow on the floor and it is comfortable for you then by all means meditate in the lotus position. Many Westerners prefer a chair that supports the back in a comfortably erect position and allows the feet to touch the floor. You want the body comfortable so it won't be screaming at you. Clothing likewise, should be loosely comfortable and not so tight as to cut off circulation. If you need a bite to eat first-fine. A stomach thats growling hungrily will be just as distracting as one that is overly full following a huge meal.
Eliminate as many potential interruptions as possible. Turn off the cell phone, and be prepared to let your telephone recorder take any messages. The rationale is that this is your special time, and no matter what the nature of the call, it can wait a few minutes.
Your greatest challenge will be from your mind's seemingly endless, disruptive thoughts. Be prepared for the mind to rebel. Eknath Easwaren cautions that the mind is an accomplished trickster. Theresa of Avila wrote that the mind of man is an "unbroken horse that would go anywhere except where you wanted it to." Plato compared the mind of man to a ship on which the sailors had mutinied and locked the captain and the navigator below. First one sailor steers and then another and another and the ship travels in an erratic manner because the sailors cannot agree on a goal and no one is in charge.
As you sit down to meditate remind yourself that you control your mind. If this seems a strange notion, consider that you have the power to decide what you feed your mind just as you decide what books to read, or which movies to see, or how much television you will watch. The fact of a rebellious mind simply means that most of us haven't assumed dominion over our minds, and so the mind has become the tail that wags the dog.
Thoughts will come and go endlessly. Ignore them. Go about your business of concentrating on your breathing or your contemplative meditation. Every time you find that your mind has run off again gently bring your attention back to the breathing or the phrase you are contemplating. As one meditator so aptly put it, you'll be contemplating love and the kinds of love such as mother love or brotherly love, and all at once your mind announces that it would love some chocolate, and wouldn't you just love to run down to the corner store and get some chocolate. After you have been meditating for a while, and your practice is well established your response will be one of bemused tolerance as you watch the wayward thought scurry across the screen of your mind and disappear. After you have finished your meditation you might opt for the chocolate, or as the captain, you can even say no to that idea and go for a long walk instead.
The physical and mental benefits of meditation are achieved first. Yet there is much more to the practice, and the ineffable significance lies in the much more which has been characterized in many ways. In essence, it is a journey of self-discovery with many different trails leading to inner sources of peace, joy and well being.
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- Easwaran, E., (1978). Meditation. Tomales: Nilgiri Press.
Fowler, G., (1996). Learning to Dance Inside: Getting to the Heart of Meditation. Orlando: Harcourt Brace and Co.
Goldsmith, J., (1956). The Art of Meditation. New York: Harper Collins.
Kabat-Zinn, J., (1990). Full Catastrophe Living. New York: Delta.
Le Shan, L., (1974). How to Meditate. New York: Bantam Books.
Weil, A., (1995). Spontaneous Healing. New York: Faucett Columbine.
- Additional Possibilities
- Wayne Dwyer, MD, Real Magic.
Depak Chopra, MD, Quantam Healing.
Jerry Jampolsky, MD, Love is Letting Go of Fear.