July 9, 2012

Find the Meditation Technique that Works for You. Here's Mine.

Choosing a technique that works for you is the best way to gain the many personal and medical benefits from meditating, according to a just-published study. Forget what's popular or trendy.

I couldn't agree more. I've tried meditation -- off and on -- for years. Mostly "off," since I usually felt I was failing at the "empty-your-mind" goal. But I've finally found a practice that works for me, and I'm convinced it's one of the best things I'm doing for my mental and physical health.

User Satisfaction with Different Meditation Techniques
A new online study published July 7 in The Journal of Science and Healing highlights the importance of picking a method that feels comfortable, especially for new meditators.

The study was conducted at the Institute for Holistic Studies at San Francisco State University. Andrew Burke, a professor at SF State and director of the Institute, said that few studies have been done to examine individual preferences in head-to-head comparisons of different meditation methods.

In this study, 247 participants were taught four different meditation techniques and asked to practice them all at home. At the end of study, they discussed their preferences.

The four techniques were:
  • Mantra--  Manatras are words or phrases that are chanted out loud or internally to focus the mind.
  • Zen --  In Zen meditation, you just sit. You ignore everything except awareness of sitting. This sounds very simple, but it isn't.
  • Qigong Visualization -- Typically, qigong involves rhythmic breathing coordinated with slow, stylized repetition of fluid movement, a calm mindful state, and visualization of guiding qi (the life force) through the body.
  • Mindfulness -- In this form of meditation, distracting thoughts and feelings are not ignored, but acknowledged and observed non-judgmentally as they come and go, creating a detachment from them and gaining insight and awareness.
Mantra and Mindfulness were the most preferred; each was favored by 31 percent of the participants. Zen was preferred by 22 percent and Qigong by 15 percent. Mindfulness was the technique most preferred by younger participants, while older subjects favored Zen.

Burke hopes to see more comparative meditation studies, especially to determine if particular methods are best for addressing specific health issues, like addiction.

What Works for Me
My first attempts years ago blended Zen and Mantra. I assumed the goal was to achieve a blank nirvana-like mind, and I never came close. I choose giving up to feeling like a failure.

About five years ago -- when I was desperately trying to end a major bout of insomnia -- I found a book that recommended using a "secret handshake" and a mantra-like meditation exercise as an insomnia remedy. It worked! I described this technique in an earlier post.

A year ago I tried this technique again, when I was experimenting with different ways of dealing with Parkinson's and aging. This time, I started using the practice immediately after my middle-of-the-night bathroom visit. It's become a regular, treasured part of my daily routine.

For me, it's a perfect time to meditate. The house is quiet. No distractions. I've come to believe that time spent meditating is at least as good as time spent sleeping. It's fine with me if these sessions last an hour or more. In my past attempts at daytime meditation, I was always thinking about things I thought I should be doing instead of just sitting there. That concern doesn't arise at 4am.

My meditation has changed from the initial mantra-like focus on counting my breaths -- counting one to ten while squeezing my forefinger with each breath, then repeating the count while switching to squeeze the thumb, using that "secret handshake." Now I'm using something more like mindfulness meditation.

Here's my routine::
  • I sit in a straight-backed chair that I keep against the wall between my bed and the bathroom.
  • I put a pillow on my lap and rest my hands on the pillow in the "secret handshake." 
  • I start by focusing on my breathing, keeping my mouth slightly open and noticing my belly rise and fall as I inhale and exhale.
  • When I feel centered and relaxed, I let my mind go. I become aware of sounds, ideas, and sensations... particularly messages from different parts of my ever-aching body. I observe this process without judging, and without fixating on anything in particular.
  • If my mind races or obsesses on something, I focus again on my breathing. 
That's it. Sometimes it doesn't seem all that relaxing. But usually I find I'm so relaxed and comfortable I don't want to stop and return to bed. But when I do, I have no trouble getting right back to sleep.

As a bonus, my wandering mind often solves problems or creates new and useful ideas.

I've been adding some new features to this practice to deal with lower back pain diagnosed as osteoarthritis. I'll talk about that topic later.


Dan W said...

John - Thanks for sharing this. Looking forward to implementing a meditation program that is compatible with my spirit. Wish me luck.  Dan

Enrico Galard said...

Thank you for informative & really needed post about meditation techniques.