Back when the Beatles traveled to Rishikesh, in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, to study Transcendental Meditation (TM) with Maharishi-guru, most Americans thought of meditation as yet another new age, hippie pastime. But over the past few decades, scientific studies have revealed the significant benefits of meditation in terms of physical and psychological health and wellbeing.
Today, the National Institutes for Health (NIH) reports that in clinical trails, meditation has been shown to relieve stress, asthma and symptoms of chronic pain; reduce frequency and intensity of hot flashes among menopausal women and improve attention and focus. It is thought to work by minimizing our body's stress response and increasing activity in the parasympathetic nervous system -- causing heart and breathing rate to slow, blood flow to increase and digestion to improve.
Best of all? Meditation is free, available to everyone regardless of age and health, requires no special equipment, and can be done anywhere, including in the convenience of your own home.
Recently, researchers have been studying the impact of meditation and mindfulness on combat veterans. A study published in the May issue of the journal Depression and Anxiety, for example, showed that mindfulness training was more effective than conventional PTSD treatment in helping vets reduce symptoms.
A new documentary, Free the Mind, follows a group of preschool children and a separate group of combat vets as they go through mindfulness meditation training. Released on May 3, with a West Coast premiere at Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) on May 17 (please RSVP here), this film makes a powerful case for learning to sit still, breathe deeply and develop awareness of your thoughts and feelings.
By the end of the documentary, a hyperactive preschool boy who spent the first two years of his life bouncing around numerous foster homes has learned to calm his anxiety by watching flakes of glitter flutter about in a snow globe (a metaphor for allowing the mad rush of thoughts and feelings he is experiencing in the moment to settle). And the veterans, under the compassionate guidance of psychology professor Richard Davidson and grad student Emma Seppala, have demonstrated marked relief from their horrifying thoughts, anxiety, and stress.
Speaking from personal experience, I have attended three 10-day silent (and free!) Vipassana meditation retreats. (Find out here how you can, too.). I was so nervous on the first day of the first retreat that I nearly threw up on the meditation hall floor. I kid you not.
For the next three 16-hour long days, I stewed, raged, got bored, fidgeted, and generally hated the experience. I felt like I was in prison -- except I could leave anytime I wanted. The only part I looked forward to was the delicious vegetarian lunch and hour-long dharma lecture each evening.
But on day four, I had a breakthrough. The afternoon meditation session slipped by without my becoming anxious or agitated. In fact, I couldn't believe it when the gong sounded, signaling that the evening tea break had begun. My mind had quieted down. I had found peace. I bowed forward, placed my forehead on the floor, and wept with gratitude.
Of course the very next day, I was back to my jumpy self... I found the spaciousness and calm would come and go, ebb and flow. But by the end of the retreat, I knew that I had been forever changed.
Now that I'd had a taste of that peace in my head, and the accompanying feelings of joy and serenity in my body, I felt certain that we are all meant to meditate. There is such power in slowing the endless stream of thoughts that bombard and control us, bullying us into self-criticism, anxiety, depression, and fear. I learned a great deal from being present to what is so in this very moment -- and loving my life, just as it is. I experienced, viscerally, that "this too shall pass" because everything -- every thought, emotion, pain and itch, every joy and every sorrow -- is temporary. The very nature of life is impermanence. How powerful to accept and embrace that reality.
My favorite excuse people give for not meditating is, "I'm no good at it!"
"Really?" I say. "Guess what? None of us are good at the start! You have to work at it, just as you have to work at becoming a tennis player, doctor, or chess champion."
I think it's also important to note that there's no such thing as a good or bad sit. If you're sitting in silence with no distractions, you are by definition meditating. Some days are easier than others. Some moments bring a nearly instant sense of calm and grounding, whereas at other times you'll find your mind wandering and your body struggling.
But isn't that the nature of life?
We feel more balanced and competent when we stand in our deep-rooted sense of who we are and the goodness of life than when we allow ourselves to get swept up with intense emotional responses to every "good" or "bad" event that happens. The key -- to meditation and to wellbeing -- is not to judge or react, but rather to find equanimity, returning to the breath time and again, no matter what whirlwinds surround us, no matter what demons invade us.
If you want to learn more about meditation, I strongly recommend seeing Free the Mind. It's a simple and powerful film. You can also check out the classic books Wherever you Go, There you Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn, MD, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry by Jack Kornfield, and Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chodron. You might also try attending a meditation group at a church, yoga studio, hospital or wellness center, or Buddhist facility near you.
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