Kinds of meditation

For many people, the word "meditation" brings to mind images of monks sitting pretzel-legged, chanting "om." At the very least, it's typically assumed to be some sort of specialized religious activity. But it's not necessarily so.

Most basically, meditation involves calming and focusing the mind. Many forms also involve some kind of breath control. Most, but not all, involve sitting. And there are several ways to meditate that involve no religious or spiritual purpose or affiliation at all. Techniques that have been studied in clinical trials and are recommended by some doctors for improving mental and physical health include the following:

  • Relaxation response. This involves sitting in a relaxed posture with the eyes closed and focusing on your breath for 10 or 20 minutes. It is recommended to do it twice daily. This is a technique that was developed by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School; he has published books on it, and there is information on it available on the Web.
  • Mindfulness meditation. This involves being aware of your bodily sensations, the things you feel, and the sounds you hear, and paying attention to what you're doing. It may sound simple, but have you ever eaten a meal without thinking about anything but the food and the act of eating? There are several approaches to this technique; the one most tested for its health benefits is often referred to as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, and can be learned over a course of a few weeks through tapes or programs. Its leading proponent is Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which has a Center for Mindfulness. Other advocates of similar kinds of mindfulness meditation include Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist who has published several books and allows a non-religious approach to meditation.
  • Transcendental Meditation®. This is a program offered by an organization founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; it is required that you learn the technique from an instructor. It involves 15 to 20 minutes twice a day, seated, but it also involves mental repetition of a mantra, a "word" such as "ainga" or "shiring" that has been selected for you by your instructor.

There are also meditation techniques that are related to specific religions. Different branches of Buddhism (notably Theravada, Tibetan and Zen) have a variety of well-established techniques, as do sects of Hinduism, but there are also meditative practices used in some groups in western religions such as Islam and Christianity. There is considerable variety in the different approaches.

Why meditate?

One health reason to meditate is to reduce stress. Stress is unpleasant, of course, but it goes further than that: it can have a bad effect on your health. It can increase your risk for strokes, heart disease, and heart attacks, and can worsen existing heart disease. Stress can also affect your immune system, meaning you're more likely, for instance, to catch a cold - and you may feel sicker when you have an infection. Of course, stress can lead to ulcers and other digestive problems, headaches (including migraines), and anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders. Stress can also lead a person to develop bad habits like smoking and alcohol or drug dependencies.

It's not surprising, then, that meditation has been found not only to reduce stress but to help stress-related conditions. For instance, mindfulness meditation has been found to increase healing rates for people being treated for psoriasis and may also improve immune function. A group training program in mindfulness meditation has been found to help people with anxiety disorder or panic disorder. And transcendental meditation has been found to reduce heart disease risk factors, including coronary artery disease (clogged arteries) and high blood pressure, in elderly people of African descent.

But, even leaving all that, a good reason to meditate is simply that it's relaxing, and it's more effective than just sitting with your eyes closed. It gives you a break from the rush-rush-rush of daily life and allows you a chance to focus your mind - and perhaps gain a bit more control over where your thoughts take you. And remember: mental health is health, too.

Meditation by the numbers

You may feel that you want to meditate but just can't get around to it. Perhaps you feel you always have something to do. Perhaps you want to find a quiet room, or get yourself a nice meditation cushion, or maybe you want to have a tea first and then you get distracted. Or perhaps you feel you should read a book on it or take a course.

Or you can just go ahead and do it. Meditation doesn't require special equipment. A quiet room is nice, but not essential. Even sitting down is not essential – there are ways of meditating while walking. And, while courses and books can be helpful, you can get started anywhere, anytime – like now, for instance. The real reason for not meditating is usually that you feel you should always be doing something useful. Well, meditation is something useful – and it's good for you. So get to it! Here is an easy way to get started:

  1. Sit comfortably with your back straight – in a "dignified" posture – in a chair.
  2. Close your eyes and breathe calmly.
  3. Count your breaths: inhale, one, exhale, one; inhale, two, exhale, two; inhale, three, exhale, three; and so on. If your mind wanders, simply return it to your breathing as soon as you notice that it has wandered; don't get frustrated or chastise yourself for being distracted, as that will only distract you further. If you lose count, start again from one. You may wish to count in cycles of 10, restarting at 1 after reaching 10, and do this for 5 or 10 cycles (keeping track on your fingers of how many cycles you've gone through). Or you may wish to count to 100.
  4. Continue this type of breathing for 10 to 20 minutes.
  5. When you are done, continue sitting quietly for a few more minutes with your eyes closed.

A pause to refresh

You will likely want more information on ways of meditating, and a good place to start is with books and tapes by respected meditation experts. There are hundreds of books and tapes to choose from, and you may have access to classes in meditation offered by local organizations as well. You will probably want to try a few approaches to see which is most effective for you.

You may well find, however, that the times you need inner calm most tend to be times when you don't have the option of going off for 10 or 20 minutes to meditate. That doesn't mean you don't have access to calmness and clarity of mind. Meditation will help you to have a better handle on your mind and emotions at all times during the day, but there's also something else you can do: at any point during the day, you can take a brief pause to calm your mind and refocus your awareness.

If, for instance, there's a noise that you hear every so often – perhaps a co-worker's phone – pause for 5 seconds when you hear it. Stop, smile slightly, breathe calmly and evenly and be aware of your breath. If you start to think about something, just set it aside and think, "Thinking... thinking... thinking." Try choosing a noise that irritates you, so that instead of simply fuming, you make the noise your signal for a pause to refresh your outlook. You can even stop and think, "Irritation... irritation... irritation..." as you watch the irritation appear and fade away.

This also works if you find your mind wandering from your work, or if you get angry or upset. Just pause, inhale, exhale, and think "wandering" or "angry" or "upset." Don't fight the thoughts or feelings; just recognize them, and be aware of yourself having them. And then continue what you were doing.

And any time you think about meditating and find yourself putting it off to do something else first, pause for 5 seconds and think, "procrastinating... procrastinating... procrastinating..."