Gill Stannard

Monday, May 25, 2009


The word meditation, is derived from two Latin words : meditari(to think, to dwell upon, to exercise the mind) and mederi (to heal). Its Sanskrit derivation 'medha' means wisdom.

There are many adjectives I have heard lately when I ask people to describe their life: busy, frantic and chaotic are in the top five. Never has anyone answered calm, serene or peaceful. This anecdotal evidence comes primarily from people working or studying in a large city, where many feel pressured juggling many roles in life.

Meditation is a conscious state of calm and clarity. The key to meditation is awareness, yet it is not about thinking. It is all about being in the moment and conscious rather than drifting off to sleep. A common form of meditation is “mindfulness”, where initially the attention is drawn to the observing your breath and nothing else.

There are many forms and styles of meditation, some associated with a spiritual practice (such as Buddhism) and others that are not. They all have the same aim of calming the mind to encourage a state of awareness.

While meditation doesn’t change what is going on in our world it can help us alter the way we respond to it. In a way it “heals the mind” to help us be less reactive to the stresses of daily life.

How do you meditate

If you have never meditated before I would suggest that you take a class as many of the problems that most people encounter that hinder the practice of meditation are universal. A skilled teacher can guide you through these and help you find a remedy for them.

To begin with most of us can feel physically or emotionally uncomfortable when we learn to “sit”. While our back may ache or we feel plagued by an uncontrollable itch, it is what an unquiet mind can throw at us that can be even more disconcerting. Sometimes learning to meditate can be the first opportunity in a very long time that our psyche finds a ‘break in the traffic’ to bring up buried thoughts or feelings. Working with an experienced meditator can help you work with this. But be aware that sitting down the first, or even the tenth, time may not be an instantaneous road to bliss. Despite its simplicity, it can be hard work initially.

Like many other things in life, meditation is referred to as a “practice”. Even someone who has practiced meditation for years can have different experiences when they sit. It is a work in progress.

Can regular meditation improve your health

Regular meditators often appear calmer, less stressed and have a greater clarity of mind. But is there any evidence to back this up?

Evidence based medicine provides rigid guidelines to prove or disprove anecdotal evidence such as this. One of the problems when it comes to meditation is that rats cannot be taught to meditate.

Most studies in this area use mindfulness meditation in some form and tend to be small studies. This may be because the biggest source of funding in medical research is from pharmaceutical companies. They want a return on the investment in the form of being able to sell a drug or device. As meditation can be taught for free or low cost, it does not attract the kind of money needed to meet the criteria for the large, repeatable studies.

There is small study evidence to support that meditation can increase immunity (from CD4 cell and other immune markers in HIV to increasing the positive biological response to the flu vaccine), decrease stress, reduce blood pressure, help us sleep better and help us deal with chronic pain.

There is evidence to show that even for novice meditators, brain activity changes with meditation. To distil complex neurological information into a few simple sentences, the changes in brainwaves include less Beta, the thinking and stress related brain wave and more Alpha, Theta and Gamma - the relaxation and meditation brain waves. A fascinating study that took MRI’s of Buddhist Monk’s brains found significant changes in the architecture of the brain. Sara Lazar, the study's leading author summarized this as, "The area where we see these differences is involved in both the modulation of functions like heart rate and breathing and also the integration of emotion with thought and reward-based decision making – a central switchboard of the brain,"“

The take home message regarding the research behind meditation is that the small studies to date provide positive evidence that it can benefit both body and mind but what I would say is “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”, try it for yourself and see how you feel.

What if you’ve tried to meditate and feel you can’t do it, is there any other way to get the benefits of mindfulness?

If you’ve given meditation a go, especially in the form of classes over a number of weeks and find it too challenging, I’d suggest you try an active form of exercise that involves a meditative element such as chi gong, tai chi or yoga classes (that end with a decent period of yoga nidra).

A guided relaxation CD may also be a useful tool to begin to calm down and relax.

It also helps to keep off caffeine and alcohol and cultivate a practice of being in the moment as much as possible. For example doing mundane tasks like doing the dishes consciously stay with the job you are doing, feel the warmth of the water, really look at each dish as you clean it and take note of how often your mind drifts away from being in the moment. Like meditation, this is something requiring frequent practice to get the hang of it.

One aspect of meditation is that it is also about what we are not doing for a period of time. When we meditate (usually for 20-40 minutes) the time is not spent on a computer, watching TV, thinking, talking, arguing or working

Disconnecting from screen-based entertainment (TV, computer, video games etc) may be a first step to achieving calmness and clarity.

Learning meditation

There are many places to learn meditation, the following are my favourites.

The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order is a worldwide organisation that teaches two forms of meditation – mindfulness and Metta (loving kindness). I have personally found this to be very effective. They teach meditation without necessarily promoting Buddhism making it very accessible to people regardless of belief structure.

The Melbourne CAE (adult education) usually has a variety of meditation courses on offer.

The Gawler Foundation has meditation retreats, workshops and ongoing groups.

Melbourne Life Coach Kate James runs regular meditation classes and has inexpensive guided meditations available from her website.

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