By: Robert Melick
When you think of meditation what is the first thing that comes to mind? Probably some bald headed monk living in a monastery in the middle of nowhere meditating in complete silence. One does not need to be in complete silence to meditate. The point of meditation is to quiet one’s mind. To focus on just one thing. To keep your thoughts from controlling your thinking. It is a chance to unwind, to reduce stress and to live more in the moment, appreciating every minute of every day and not just looking forward to the weekend or getting out of work. That is the essence of meditation.
I have been meditating on/off again for a few years and I have read at least 10 Buddhism books on Zen meditation. I will try my best to share with you what I know. People tend to make meditation a lot more complicated than it is. Where do I have to do it, how do I sit, how do I clear my mind, how long should I do it, etc. Meditation is actually quite simple. In the beginning it would be helpful to find a quiet place. You can sit with your legs folded (the typical “lotust” position requires great flexibility and hurts after some time), or you can find a chair, sit up right, with your back straight. It will feel like your chest is coming out as our spines are curved.
How to Meditate
Breath in through your nose until your stomach is forced out from the inhaled air. Slowly exhale through your nose. It is very important to keep your back straight and to breathe in only through your nose. There are a few different ways to meditate (you can google some more) but when I first started I would count each breath, one through ten, and then back to one. If you lose your count go back to one. Each time you inhale that counts as one breath.
If you find that boring (which it can be) you can find meditation music on youtube or listen to nature sounds. If you do this, just let the sounds take the place of your internal thoughts, focus just on the music. If your mind wanders go back to focusing on the music. In the beginning your thoughts will be hard to control. This is normal. Just sitting down and trying is the important part.
Common Problems When Meditating
Do not get frustrated if you keep thinking while meditating. For a while I would alwaaays get songs stuck in my head. It was so frustrating that I completely stopped meditating for a year. As I was meditating a song would be constantly playing in the background. If thoughts pop up, acknowledge them and go back to counting your breaths or focusing on sounds. The harder you try not to think the more you will think. Do not suppress your thoughts. You may notice a pattern of thinking that keeps popping up. This can show you worries or concerns from your subconscious. This is valuable information and can help you learn more about yourself.
Another issue I have experienced is falling asleep. Within ten minutes I would start dreaming. Meditation should not make you tired. If it does, change the time you do it. Find a time where you do not fall asleep. Or you may need to get more sleep each night. Do not let this deter you either. Everyone falls asleep while meditating sometimes. Start meditating for five minutes a day and increase your time when you feel ready.
Studies about the effect of meditation on health
Scientific Studies Showing the Health Benefits of Meditation
Now, as to why you should meditate. There have been many meditation studies performed on cancer patients, HIV patients, and patients with arthritis to assess if meditation was helpful in reducing some of the pain or producing a more positive outlook. Although I came across a ton of studies showing meditation can produce physical benefits like: decreased blood pressure, decreased heart rate, slowed respiration, enhanced immune function, lowering lipid values, lowering anxiety levels, and decreasing levels of circulating hormones I will highlight a few important ones (1).
A study consisting of cancer patients compared whether or not weekly meditation could reduce stress levels more than the group that did not meditate during the study (1). The meditation was similar to that practiced by Zen Buddhism (1). It was found that those in the meditation group after just seven weeks had lower scores on subscales of Depression, anxiety, anger, confusion and Total Mood Disturbance than the non-meditation group (1). The meditation group also reported having more vigor than the non-meditation group (1).
The meditation group had less gastrointestinal and cardiopulmonary symptoms, fewer symptoms of stress, and less emotional irritability and depression (1). The meditation group saw a 65% overall reduction in mood disturbances compared to a 12% reduction in the non-meditation group (1). The meditation group also saw a 30.7% reduction in total stress symptoms versus 11.1% in the non-meditation group (1). The positive effects of mediation seemed to get stronger with time.
A 2002 study measured the brain and immune functions in a group of people after 8 weeks of meditative practice and compared it to a control group of non-meditators (2). The authors believed that meditation would result in increased activation of the left side of the brain that is associated with positive emotion (1). Left side activation is also associated with enhanced immune system activity so the authors used this association to predict that the meditation group would show enhanced immune activity compared to the non-meditation group when both were vaccinated with the influenza virus (1) Vaccination is when a small part of a virus or killed form of the virus is injected into a person so that the body attacks this weakened form of the virus and remembers it so that the next time a person gets the virus the body is quick to attack it.
The researchers measured the brain electrical activity of the subjects before the study, right after the study and 4 months later (2). They found that those in the meditation group exhibited significant increases in the left sided anterior activation of the brain compared to those in the non-meditation group (2). They also found a significant increase in anti-body production (anti-bodies are proteins released by the immune system that attack foreign particles such as bacteria or viruses) against the influenza vaccine compared to the non-meditation group (2). Lastly, they found that the higher the level of left sided anterior activation, the higher the increase in anti-body production (2). Anti-body production represents an enhanced immune system.
A 2001 study measured the impact of 30 minutes of daily meditation on adolescents with high blood pressure. The researchers measured their change in blood pressure and heart rate after 2 months (3). These adolescents were compared with their peers receiving health education which acted as the control. After 2 months they found that the meditation group experienced a 4.8 mmHg greater decrease in their systolic blood pressure (top number) compared to a 2.6 mmHg increase in the control group (3). The meditation group also saw a greater decrease in their heart rate compared to the controls (3).
There are many more studies just like the ones I have talked about. There are studies showing that meditation is effective in relieving the pain associated with certain conditions like arthritis. Meditation can improve our immune system, reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure and heart rate- all of that after only a few weeks, how amazing! People that are sick are not the only ones that benefit from meditation, we can all benefit from a clearer mind and less anxiety. Meditation provides all of these benefits without medication and its side effects, without expensive and dangerous surgery, without having to make drastic lifestyle changes and involves only a small amount of your time each day. One would be foolish to not take advantage of it!
1. Speca, M., & Carlson, L. (2000, February 10). A Randomized, Wait-List Controlled Clinical Trial: The Effect of a Mindfulness Meditation-Based Stress Reduction Program on Mood and Symptoms of Stress in Cancer Outpatients. Psychosomatic Medicine, 62, 613-622
2. Davidson, R. J. (2003). Alterations In Brain And Immune Function Produced By Mindfulness Meditation.Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4), 564-570.
3. Barnes, V. A., Treiber, F. A., & Davis, H. (2001). Impact of Transcendental Meditation® on cardiovascular function at rest and during acute stress in adolescents with high normal blood pressure.Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 51(4), 597-605.