Published by kind permission of Adam Khan.
MEDITATION IS A WAY to cultivate certain states of mind. For example, Metta meditation cultivates feelings of friendliness. Mindfulness meditation cultivates a state of freedom from biological drives and conditioned responses. Mantra meditation cultivates a state of relaxed alertness. Mantra is the kind of meditation we will concern ourselves with in this section.
Researchers have amassed quite a bit of data on what mantra meditation does, and when you add it all up it’s pretty impressive. Meditation is so good for you in so many ways, I almost called this article, Why You’re an Idiot if You Don’t Meditate.
During mantra meditation, the amount of adrenaline in being released into your blood goes down. While meditating, your cortisol level drops and stays low for hours afterward. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone although there are several stress hormones, including adrenaline. But cortisol is one of the most important. It is present in your blood in small amounts all the time, but when you experience stress, your body produces quite a bit of it, and in high amounts, it has unhealthy and unpleasant effects. Getting it out of your blood stream, in contrast, has healthy and pleasant effects.
An interesting side note: A high level of cortisol makes your body store extra fat in your abdomen and makes you crave fattening foods with extra intensity. The Journal of the American Dietetic Association reported that stress in general is a “primary predictor of relapse and overeating.” And they concluded that meditation is an effective method for managing the kind of stress that causes weight gain.
Another ingredient of your bloodstream that changes during meditation is lactate. Lactate drops nearly four times as fast while meditating as it does when you just lie down and rest quietly. And the lactate stays lower afterwards. Lactate is a byproduct of burning blood sugar, and when there is a lot of it in the blood stream, it tends to produce feelings of anxiety.
After meditating, your reaction to stressful events changes. Events that would normally make you feel stressed don’t make you feel as stressed, and your feelings of stress don’t last as long. In one study for example, the researchers showed a film to people. This is a gruesome film that normally makes people feel stressed, and measured from the outside, the film increases their heart rate.
The researchers measured meditators and nonmeditators. Here’s what they found: the meditators’ heart rates didn’t climb as high and returned to normal faster than the nonmeditators. Some of the meditators in this study were new to meditation. They also experienced less stress than nonmeditators, showing that mantra meditation doesn’t require a long time before it starts having an effect.
In another experiment, researchers blasted people with loud, annoying sounds. The meditators’ bodies reacted with significantly less stress than the nonmeditators.
Think about this simple effect. If you meditate, your body will react less intensely to stressful events. Think about what would happen as this effect accumulates day after day. It could explain most of the health effects of meditation. Stress hormones can be destructive. In occasional doses, they aren’t very harmful. In fact, in small amounts, they are necessary. But when your body produces a lot of stress hormones often, it is bad for your heart and bad for your immune system. And those are two things you do not want to undermine! The two diseases that kill the most people are heart disease and cancer. Here is a “medicine” for these two deadly diseases, but nobody has a patent on it .
I know we are each motivated by different things. I might be most interested in feeling more calm. You might be most motivated by a fear of dying of heart disease. Another might look at it from a purely financial standpoint: Meditation is a good investment because health problems are expensive.
Meditation not only mellows your body, it mellows your mind. Herbert Benson, one of the most prolific meditation researchers, wrote:
[During meditation], the individual’s mental patterns change so that he breaks free of what I call “worry cycles.” These are unproductive grooves or circuits that cause the mind to “play” over and over again, almost involuntarily, the same anxieties or uncreative, health-impairing thoughts.
It not only mellows your mind, it increases your alertness. During mantra meditation, blood-flow to the brain increases while the body relaxes. Aginine-vasopressin (AVP) increases four hundred percent during meditation. AVP is sometimes given in synthetic form to people to reverse the mental dullness of old age because it increases alertness.
This might be surprising to you. I mean, here is an activity that everyone knows is relaxing. And yet it increases alertness. It increases blood flow to the brain. It is unusual in that way. It is a unique state, unlike other states we are used to. In a sleeping state, you are relaxed but less alert. In a very alert waking state, you are less relaxed. But here is a state that produces alertness and deep relaxation at the same time.
When you meditate, you become more effective in the world. This is also news to many people. It makes you more relaxed and less reactive to stressful events, so better at dealing with people, better at handling conflict, and it increases your alertness. It also improves your health, and you know that you are more effective in the world healthy than unhealthy.
The owner of a Detroit manufacturing company started a meditation experiment at his firm, and enrolled fifty-two out of his one hundred employees to meditate twenty minutes before work and twenty minutes at work on company time. The owner, R.W. Montgomery, says, “Over the next three years, absenteeism fell by 85%, productivity rose 120%, quality control rose 240%, injuries dropped 70%, sick days fell by 16%, and profit soared 520%.”
WHAT HAPPENS DURING MEDITATION
In many of the studies on meditation, researchers have one group meditate for twenty minutes while another group simply sits quietly for same amount of time. The physical effects are dramatically different. Sitting quietly hardly changes a thing. Meditating causes all kinds of changes in the body. The question is: Why would that be so?
As you’ll find out in a minute, during meditation you rest your mind on a single thought. Sitting quietly, on the other hand, allows your thoughts to roam. David Barlow, the director of the Center for Stress and Anxiety Disorders at the State University of New York-Albany, says, “If we were somehow able to build a thought recorder, what we would record would be just about every kind of thought imaginable…but for the most part, fleeting.”
What happens, according to the researcher, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is that your thoughts bounce around randomly until something catches your attention, and what often catches your attention is something that bothers you. Your mind stops roaming and sticks on the disturbing thought. That’s one reason why it can be so unrelaxing to just sit quietly.
I could go on about the effects of meditation, and I’ve probably said too much as it is. If you would like to know more, an excellent resource is Michael Murphy and Steven Donovan’s book, The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation.
HOW TO MEDITATE
Probably the easiest way to learn to meditate is listen to an instructional audiotape. Turn on the tape, close your eyes, and follow instructions. Five Classic Meditations by Shinzen Young is a good training tape. Also check out The Art of Meditation by the researcher Daniel Goleman. And Guided Meditation: Basic Techniques by Sri Swami Satchidananda is also very good. This last one is my favorite. It seems fitting to learn meditation from an ancient sage with an Indian accent.
A good book on the subject is the classic: The Relaxation Response by the researcher, Herbert Benson. You not only get meditation instructions, but a lot more information on the benefits of meditation. Another good book is the classic How to Meditate by Lawrence LeShan.
You can start right away if you like by using the following simple instructions. This is really all you need to know to meditate successfully:
1. Sit in a comfortable position, but not one that you can fall asleep in (not reclining in an easy chair, for instance).
2. Close your eyes and relax for a minute or so.
3. Now begin to gently repeat a word or a phrase to yourself, over and over at whatever pace or speed you like. The word or phrase is your “mantra.” Think the mantra. And keep thinking the mantra for twenty minutes.
4. When you notice you have stopped thinking your mantra, gently start up again.
5. When twenty minutes have passed, stop thinking your mantra and sit quietly for a minute or so. Open your eyes and go on about your day.
Go into the meditation slowly; sit for a half a minute or so and just relax; then begin thinking the mantra. When your time is up, sit quietly and relax, not thinking the mantra. Open your eyes. Be there for a minute. Get up slowly. Looking at a clock is better than setting an alarm because that way you won’t be startled out of your calm state.
Keep it limited to fifteen to twenty minutes once or twice a day. Doing it more than that doesn’t appear to increase the benefits.
You don’t have to hold still. If you’ve got an itch, scratch it. If you need to adjust your position, go right ahead.
Meditation is not difficult or frustrating. In fact, that’s a good way to tell if you’re doing it wrong. When you’re doing it right, it is effortless and pleasant. Researchers have found the same thing in biofeedback experiments: The only participants who can’t lower their blood pressure are the ones who try too hard.
While you’re meditating, it doesn’t matter if you spend a lot of time lost in thought or if you don’t. When you notice you are no longer thinking the mantra, start thinking it again. Use very light intention. No forcing. No great effort. Don’t try to concentrate. Don’t try to control your thoughts. Don’t try to control your feelings. Just notice when you’re not thinking your mantra and then begin gently to think it again. Don’t try to force yourself to think your mantra to the exclusion of all other thoughts. Do not furrow your brow or expend effort. Let the mantra come, as any other thoughts come, and if that isn’t enough, then encourage your mind to think it with a very small, very gentle effort – just enough to think the mantra.
Remember this, please: You’re not trying to concentrate or control your mind.
The individual meditation session may be peaceful or it may be full of obsessive thought. Regardless, daily meditation will have a positive effect on your health and produce a general feeling of calm.
When you first begin, you might be amazed at how often you’re lost in thought. Equally amazing is that you’ve never noticed how lost in thought you are. You’ve been too lost in thought to notice!
WHAT WILL HAPPEN
Here’s what you can expect: You’ll say the mantra to yourself for awhile and then your mind will drift. After a little while, you’ll notice you’re not thinking your mantra. That is what the human mind does. Do not try to get better at this. You’re not trying to increase your concentration. You’re not trying to make it the whole twenty minutes without drifting off. The process that will give you the benefits is to think the mantra until you notice you’re not thinking the mantra, and then start thinking the mantra again. Simple, easy. No strain, no pain. It can get boring, but that’s actually part of the benefit. Boredom is on the opposite end of the spectrum from anxiety or stress. Deep boredom is a deep non-anxiety. The only difference between boredom and inner peace is how much you welcome or appreciate the state.
Sometimes after you meditate, you’ll feel very calm and very good. Sometimes you won’t feel much different. It doesn’t matter either way. Do not seek a certain feeling, either during meditation or afterward. Meditation works in the long haul regardless of the outcome of any particular twenty-minute period. When you don’t feel great afterwards, it doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. Remember that. Return to your day just as you return to your mantra in meditation. Just return to it without anything else added.
In my diary many years ago, I wrote the following: “I’ve been meditating twice a day for two weeks now and today I had a frustrating time meditating and realized I was trying to feel blissful. I gave that up when it occurred to me it doesn’t matter if it feels good or not, that all I need to do is keep bringing my attention back to the mantra. At that point, the meditation became blissful. But I kept meditating anyway.”
It doesn’t matter if it feels good at the moment. Keep doing it, and you will reap the rewards, whether it felt good or not. Meditation works. The key is not trying to do it well.
You aren’t trying to force thoughts out or force yourself to think the mantra. It is very gentle. Every now and then you’ll realize you’re not thinking the mantra and you’ll have a choice: Either go on thinking about whatever you were thinking (which is tempting), or go back to the mantra.
While meditating, when you have a choice, always choose the mantra, no matter how tempting it is to keep thinking about something else. You’ll have ten to fifty of these choice points in a twenty-minute period. Always choose the mantra. The process of gently returning to the mantra calms an agitated mind and trains you in nongrasping nongreediness, which is very good for your life, which I’ll get to in a moment.
The reason you sit up rather than lie down is to keep you from falling asleep. You’ll be so bored sometimes you’ll start to fall asleep, but as your body starts to fall over, it wakes you up. So you ride that edge between being awake and asleep, and somehow resting in that place causes good things to happen in your body.
If you usually have a very hard time staying awake during your meditation, it means you aren’t getting enough sleep. Or you’re trying to meditate during “slump time” – most of us feel sleepy around three in the afternoon.
Keep in mind that not getting enough sleep is itself a source of excess stress hormones. And according to those who study the subject, a large percentage of us are chronically sleep-deprived. If you’re one of them, it may be that all you have to do to feel less stressed in your life is get enough sleep.
To order Self Help Stuff That Works visit www.youmeworks.com/order.html