February 05, 2005

Meditation Primer

"Meditation techniques have been practiced for thousands of years. Originally the goal was to help individuals deepen their understanding of the sacred and mystical forces of life. And for many, meditation continues to be a spiritual and religious practice. Variations of meditative practice are found in all of the world's religions.

But for a growing number of people, meditation is about clearing your mind and focusing on the moment. So how do you meditate and where do you find the inspiration to quiet your mind? Follow these steps to explore different types of meditation.

What is meditation?

Meditation is a complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practice that falls under the category of mind-body techniques. These types of therapies strengthen communication between your body and your mind. Other types of mind-body techniques include support groups, hypnosis, biofeedback, and creative outlets such as art, music or dance therapy.

While there are different paths to meditation, in general, when you're meditating, you're concentrating. The focus of your concentration can be anything — an object, a sound or even your own breathing. The goal of meditation is to focus o­n the moment, clearing away your worries.

How does meditation help?

Meditation isn't typically used in place of traditional therapies, such as medications your doctor prescribes. Instead, you might use meditation to supplement your other treatments. Meditation can also be used by people who are perfectly healthy as a way to reduce stress.

Medical research into meditation is limited, and the validity of some studies has been questioned. Keeping that in mind, some research shows that meditation may be beneficial for certain conditions when used along with medications or other interventions recommended by your doctor, including:

* Anxiety
* Depression
* Stress
* High blood pressure
* Heart disease

Because meditation can relieve stress, it might also be helpful if you have a condition that's worsened by stress. Meditation may reduce the stress-related effects of allergies, asthma, chronic pain and arthritis, among others.

What are the different types of meditation?

Several different forms of meditation exist. Meditation can involve movement or complete stillness. Here are some different types of meditation.

Concentration meditation: Calming your mind

Concentration meditation involves focusing your attention o­n a single object. Objects of meditation can include your breathing, an image you visualize in your mind or a real image you look at, such as a candle flame or sacred icon. o­ne purpose of concentration meditation is to help you focus your attention and concentrate. If you have a lot o­n your mind and find you're having trouble concentrating in your everyday life, take a break to meditate and return to your project refreshed. Here are some examples.

* Breathe deeply. If you're a beginner, consider starting with this technique. Breathing is a natural function that you won't have to consciously learn. You simply pay attention to your breathing — how it feels when air enters or leaves your nostrils. Don't follow it down to your lungs. When you feel your attention wander, gently return your focus to your breathing.

* Scan your body. When using this technique, you'll focus your attention o­n sensations, such as pain, tension, warmth or relaxation in different parts of your body. Combine body scanning with breathing exercises and imagine breathing heat or relaxation into and out of different parts of your body.

* Repeat a sacred name or phrase. A mantra is the name of a sacred deity or a sacred phrase that you repeat silently or aloud. You can create your own mantra, if you'd like. Mantras are the building blocks of transcendental meditation. Examples of religious mantras include a Jesus prayer in the Christian tradition, the holy name of God in Judaism, or the om mantra of Tibetan Buddhism.

* Exercise your imagination. A related practice is guided imagery, in which someone's voice, whether taped or live, directs you through a visualization exercise. o­nce you reach a state of deep relaxation, most likely through meditation, you create a visual image of whatever the person directing the exercise suggests. Perhaps it's a peaceful place, such as a garden, where you feel calm and safe.

Meditation in motion: A conscious blend of body and mind

Meditation that includes movement can be spontaneous and free-form or involve highly structured, choreographed, repetitive patterns. This type of meditation may be particularly helpful if you find it hard to sit still. The following are examples:

* Yoga. Yoga involves a series of postures, during which you pay special attention to your breathing — exhaling during certain movements and inhaling with others. You can approach yoga as a way to promote physical flexibility, strength and endurance or as a way to enhance your spirituality.

* Tai chi. Tai chi involves gentle, deliberate circular movements combined with deep breathing. As you concentrate o­n the motions of your body, you develop a feeling of peace and tranquility.

* Qi gong. This technique arises from ancient China. Similar to yoga and tai chi, it integrates physical postures, breathing techniques and focused attention.

* Walking meditation. Combining a walk with meditation is an efficient and healthy way to relax. You can use this technique anywhere — in a tranquil forest, o­n a city sidewalk or even inside a building where you work. When you use this method, slow down the pace of walking so that you can focus o­n each movement of your legs or feet. Don't focus o­n a particular destination. Concentrate o­n your legs and feet, repeating action words such as "lifting," "moving" and "placing" as you lift each foot, move your leg forward and place your foot o­n the ground. You can substitute other words if you like. Some people prefer to signal the beginning and end of a walking meditation with a ritual, such as the ringing of a bell, a ceremonial bow, silent prayer or spoken words of thankfulness.

* Sufi walking or dancing. A form of moving meditation that developed in medieval Islam, you'll walk or dance in a rhythmic fashion while chanting. From the Islamic perspective, the intent of the chant is to focus your mind o­n a specific quality of God, or Allah. If you're Muslim and want to focus o­n strength and courage, you could walk or dance with forceful steps, arms swinging, and chant "Allah akbar," meaning "God is great." You can merge this meditation technique with any faith tradition and focus o­n any sacred object or deity. If you don't consider yourself spiritual or religious, you could focus o­n an aspect of a phenomenon, such as birth or nature, and chant words or phrases symbolic of that phenomenon.

Soothing your spirit: Reflection o­n meaning and purpose in your life

Do you find that you feel more hopeful after attending a worship service? Do you enjoy taking time to read a daily meditation? Many people find that taking the time to sing, pray, read and reflect o­n the meaning and purpose of life with like-minded people helps them face life's challenges. Consider these examples:

* Engage in prayer. The best known and most widely practiced example of meditation is prayer. Spoken and written prayers are found in most faith traditions. You can pray using your own words or read prayers written by others. Check the self-help or 12-step-recovery section of your local bookstore for examples. Talk with your rabbi, priest, pastor or other spiritual leader about resources. You may also consider joining a prayer group.

* Read or listen and take time to reflect. Many people report that they benefit from reading poems or sacred texts silently or aloud, and taking a few moments to quietly reflect o­n the meaning that the words bring to mind. You can listen to sacred music, spoken words or any music you find relaxing or inspiring. You may want to write your reflections in a journal or discuss them with a friend or spiritual leader.

* Focus your love and gratitude. In this type of meditation, you focus your attention o­n a sacred object or being, weaving feelings of love and gratitude into your thoughts. You can also close your eyes and use your imagination or gaze at representations of the object. The adoration of the Holy Eucharist is an example found in Roman Catholicism.

Getting started

Meditation can calm your mind, relax your body and soothe your spirit. If you're interested in meditation, consider these suggestions as you get started:

* Select a meditation technique that fits your lifestyle and belief system. Many people build meditation into their daily routine. For example, you can start your day with a prayer or take a 15-minute walking meditation break in the afternoon. At the end of your workday, you may find inner peace by attending a yoga or tai chi class at your community center.

* Set aside some time. Start with 5-minute meditation sessions o­nce or twice a day and work up to 20 minutes each time. Unless you have an excellent innate sense of time, keep a clock nearby and glance at it occasionally, or set an alarm that's not jarring when it goes off.

* Keep trying. Be kind to yourself as you get started. If you're meditating to calm your mind and your attention wanders, slowly return to the object, sensation or movement you're focusing o­n. You can use an image to bring yourself back to your focus if you'd like. Try this: Picture balloons floating away with your thoughts, or imagine your thoughts as pigeons and mentally clap your hands to get them to fly away. Apply this technique to your worries.

* Make meditation part of your life. Many people prefer to start and end their day with a period of meditation. Others prefer to take meditation breaks during the day. Experiment and you'll likely find out what works best for you.

Meditation is simple and inexpensive. It requires o­nly your time and effort, and the risks are minimal. If you're interested in achieving some relaxation, give meditation a try.

By Mayo Clinic staff
April 22, 2005
© 1998-2005 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved. A single copy of these materials may be reprinted for noncommercial personal use o­nly. "Mayo," "Mayo Clinic," "MayoClinic.com," "Mayo Clinic Health Information," "Reliable information for a healthier life" and the triple-shield Mayo logo are trademarks of Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.
This article comes from Integrative Spirituality
The URL for this story is here.

Another article from the Buddhist perspective is available here.

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