The great thing about meditation is -- anyone can do it... anywhere. It doesn't require special equipment, gym membership, or an advanced degree.
A week ago, I reported on an article in the current issue of Neurology Now that reviewed the latest scientific findings on the measurable, beneficial impact meditation can have on our brains (http://bit.ly/PGuvUY.) According to Dr. Alexander Mauskop, director of the New York Headache Center and professor of neurology at the State University of New York: "Meditation is the simplest technique in the world, but that doesn't mean it's easy to do." The key, he says, is to approach it with curiosity and without judgement, accepting what is going on in the moment, including the fact that your mind keeps wandering.
Research hasn't identified any optimal duration for meditating; experts say even five to ten minutes a day can help.
Types of Meditation
There are many different types of meditation. Here are the most common:
- Attention Meditation: Sit on a cushioned chair with your back straight and your hands in your lap. Then concentrate on something, like your breath or a burning candle. If your mind wanders, as it will, gently turn your attention back to your focal point.
- Mindfulness Meditation: In this form of meditation, the aim is to monitor your mind's experiences -- thoughts, feelings, perceptions, sensations -- and simply observe them as they arise and then just let them pass without trying to interact with them or change them. You want to maintain a non-judging, detached awareness... and become more in touch with your body, your life, and your surroundings.
- Passage Meditation: This variety involves reciting a short passage (mantra, prayer, short poem) over and over again. A widely practiced example of this technique is Transcendental Meditation (TM), popularized in the 1960s and 70s. An estimated six million people have received TM training, including the Beatles, Howard Stern, Clint Eastwood and Oprah Winfrey. Passage meditation is easy for beginners since the verbal anchor reduces distracting thoughts. Another version is the "Relaxation Response," which is also the title of a bestselling book by Herbert Benson.
- Vipassana Meditation: Vipassana means "insight." It concerns the ability to see things as they really are, a ability attained through self-observation. It involves identifying your own nature, recognizing bad elements and consciously eliminating them from the system.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation: This meditation form requires contracting and relaxing muscle groups. Most practitioners start at the feet and work their way up to the face. You begin by relaxing for a few moments with deep breathing. Then, for example, you might start with your right foot; focus your attention on how it feels; then squeeze the muscles in the foot as tightly as possible and hold for a count of ten; then relax the foot, focusing on how it feels as the tension fades away. Relax for a few moments of deep breathing. Then move on to the left foot, followed by other muscle groups as you work your way up your body.
I've dabbled in meditation for decades. I'd see an article or book by a meditation guru, and I'd take the plunge. Sooner or later -- usually sooner -- I'd give up, blaming myself for not being able to control my wandering mind.
Then six years ago, I experienced what I dubbed "The Summer from Hell" -- several months of panic attacks, depression and insomnia unlike anything I'd experienced before. I consulted several doctors and sleep specialists, a psychiatrist and even a hypnotist. The experts prescribed a half dozen different medications, and nothing worked. Then I stumbled upon a book, The Insomnia Solution, that recommended some meditation/relaxation exercises. I tried a few of them and -- finally! -- began to experience some relief..
My practice mixes mindfulness meditation and progressive relaxation. I usually toss in a few yoga-like exercises and some exercises recommended by my chiropractor. I detailed some of these techniques in a blog post last month. But my routine keeps changing.
My most troubling physical ailment these days is the lower back pain that started a year ago when I totaled my car and ended up with a fractured vertebra. It healed, but the pain continued and is now attributed to osteoarthritis. I've tried all the standard treaments -- physical therapy, steroid shots, medicated pain patches, acupuncture, even Reike. Nothing worked.
A month ago, I began working with a chiropractor, which seems to be helping. But I sense I'm beginning to get even more benefit from yet another change in my meditation routine. I now pay attention to the back pain and to messages I'm getting from other parts of my body.
For example, when I woke up at 4:30 this morning, the toes in both feet felt cramped. I've had this sensation before. So I spent some time during my meditation alternately clenching my toes for a count of ten in-and-out breaths, relaxing, and then spreading the toes as wide as possible for another count of ten. While doing this, I noticed a simultaneous tingling sensation from the pain center in my lower back.
I experience this same activation of the lower back pain center when I tense and relax the muscles in my right thigh (the pain center is on the left side). It also happens when I shift my neck slightly to the left and tilt my head upward, an exercise recommended by my chiropractor.
Another example of how meditation seems to ease the back pain happened last Saturday. When I woke up for my early morning bathroom visit, I experienced unusually sharp back pains and powerful fatigue. I almost opted for bagging the meditation, popping a pain pill, and returning to bed. But I decided to forge ahead with the meditation. An hour later the pain was gone, and so was the fatigue. Then I went right back to sleep!
The way I have "personalized" my meditation practice seems related to the intriguing emerging field of "personalized medicine," which may transform traditional medical care by basing treatment on our unique clinical, genetic, genomic, and environmental backgrounds. I want to dig deeper; stay tuned.
So I'm NOT urging anyone to adopt my meditation techniques. They're mine. Go develop your own!