In the Mind-Body Connection spirit of this site and blog, invited guest contributor Shielagh Shusta-Hochberg, Ph.D. offers a post on Healing Through Meditation.
Healing Through Meditation
Shielagh Shusta-Hochberg, Ph.D.
Meditation is an ancient practice that has become very mainstream over the past few decades. Celebrities extoll its virtues, doctors recommend it for patients, therapists urge clients to try it, and libraries, community centers and health clubs offer classes in meditation along with yoga, tai chi, and aerobics. Chances are you know someone who practices meditation. Perhaps you yourself already meditate. If so, you already know the benefits. If not, perhaps reading this will inspire you to try meditation or return to it if you left it.
Meditation’s History and Variations
There are many forms of meditation: Loving Kindness (metta), Insight (vipassana,) Calm Abiding (shamatha), Concentration (dhyana), Mindfulness (sati), Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), chanting, Zen parables (koans), Transcendental Meditation (TM), and quite a few others. Meditation comes to us from India where it was practiced in the earliest Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
Yogic meditation was studied about 2,500 years ago by a rich, Indian prince by the name of Gautama Siddhartha who left his life of affluence to seek enlightenment. After wandering through parts of India, China, Nepal and Tibet and studying with teachers he hoped could enlighten him, he followed an ascetic path of self-denial and neglect of the physical self. He came to believe in time that asceticism was a mistaken self-imposed suffering.
Gautama eventually found the state of enlightenment he sought by sitting still and quiet for many months in what we now call a meditative state, seated beneath a tree which became known as the Bodhi tree or tree of awakening. As one who achieved enlightenment, he became known as The Buddha. Having realized the enlightenment he had sought, The Buddha searched out past teachers and fellow ascetics to share what he had learned and urge them to live accordingly if they would. Many joined him and continued to share the message after his death. Many millions have followed his teachings, and millions around the world follow them today.
Any of the various forms of meditation, Hindu, Buddhist and that of other religious disciplines as well as the more secular Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction method, can promote calmness and serenity and assist the body in quietly doing that which each of its parts was intended to perform. When we slow our breathing and take note of it, we let go of much of the turmoil that tends to inhabit our busy minds. The thoughts will continue to drift into our awareness, but when we meditate we learn to notice but not engage them.
Integrating Body, Mind and Spirit
One of the greatest benefits of meditation is the interconnection of body and mind. We breathe slowly and mindfully, we sit upright with good posture (or we walk mindfully), and we attend to our thoughts without letting them gallop away with our awareness of ourselves and where we are. In our technological age, it is easy to forget our physical bodies for extended periods of time, especially when engrossed at the computer. Numbness in our legs or stiffness in our back may remind us of this. At times like these, as well as when we are stressed with anger, anxiety or fear, we may forget to breathe deeply, and our shallow breathing can aggravate any distress we already feel. Meditation can bring us back to ourselves, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Meditation as Physical Self-Care
Many health challenges are either relieved or exacerbated by our lifestyle choices such as level of physical activity, diet, emotional stability, self-esteem and beliefs. A holistic approach considers these while addressing the symptoms of any condition. Prescription medications and other medical interventions can be effective in treating physical illness and are widely accepted as such, but if we persist in lifestyle choices that undermine our health, such as substance abuse, tobacco use, lack of exercise, poor eating habits, inadequate sleep, too much TV and not enough intellectual stimulation, and so forth, the benefits may be limited.
The practice of meditation can promote physical, emotional and mental well-being, a fact supported by research (references follow). Many studies have been conducted in recent decades correlating meditation with health benefits, including reductions in hypertension, chronic pain symptoms, cancer, anxiety disorders, depression and various conditions related to stress, with increases in sense of well-being, relaxation, attentiveness, self-efficacy and self-control.
How We Meditate
When we decide to meditate, we set up a place where we will do it. This can be a cushion, or several, on the floor. It is important that we are properly supported and sitting up as straight as possible and comfortable enough not to be too distracted by discomfort. If sitting on the floor, the full or half lotus positions are considered ideal, but simply sitting cross-legged or seated on a straight-backed chair with feet flat on the floor will do fine. We try to avoid slouching, slumping or curling ourselves up during meditation. If necessary, we can use special cushions, benches or stools to facilitate the upright posture of sitting, kneeling or one of the crosswise positions. Buddhist monks, perhaps the world’s best experts on meditation, stress the importance of posture, sitting up straight, as if the vertebrae of the spine were a stack of coins.
Anyone who has begun to sit still and upright for more than a few minutes in meditation will notice muscles responding to the effort while sitting, and later when arising from the seated position. It is wise to get to one’s feet slowly with attention to pins and needles in the legs or feet and carefully reestablish one’s upright balance, particularly if we are not accustomed to the position, have blood pressure issues or are not very physically fit.
We decide how long we will sit and use a timer of some kind so that we don’t feel the need to keep peeking at the clock. We still may yearn to sneak a peek at the time, and most of us will do so at times, but the timer assures us we won’t miss any important appointments or plans by doing it for too long. As we sit, eyes closed or softly focused on a pleasant sight, we concentrate on our breath, and can think or say a mantra such as In on the inbreath and Out on the outbreath, or So and Hum, as examples.
Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh is an esteemed teacher of meditation whose book, Making Space: Creating a Home Meditation Practice, is an excellent resource to help anyone get started with a meditation practice. He recommends, in addition to sitting meditation, the practice of walking meditation. In this practice we mindfully and carefully walk as we think or say aloud a pair of simple but powerful phrases, called gathas, such as: “I have arrived; I am home,” or “Breathing in I know I am alive; breathing out I am calm.”