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Still Life

Meditation to soothe body, mind and spirit

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Cindy Lou Golin juggles a career in the film industry as an associate producer and post-production supervisor while studying for her doctorate in psychology in Palo Alto, California. A few years ago she experienced the end of a relationship, the disturbances associated with moving and the stress of a career change. With all of these taxing transitions, Golin felt emotionally and physically drained. “I was in a very challenging space. Anxiety issues were very present for me. I was consistently scared, tired, sad, confused and alone. I was exhibiting characteristics of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I did not trust myself, and I did not trust the universe.” She tried various therapeutic activities to ease her stress, such as practicing yoga and joining a spiritual support group.

While studying spiritual psychology, Golin discovered meditation. At first she purchased books and tapes to obtain a basic understanding of meditation. Soon she was meditating daily. She sat in front of her homemade altar, lit candles and nag-champa-scented incense and concentrated on the steady rhythm of her breathing. Golin says she experienced an immediate emotional high during each meditation session, and that meditation has produced noticeable changes in her life. “Daily meditation allows me to slow down and check in, or within, I should say. It helps me to remember who I am, which is so much more than just my body, thoughts or feelings.”

The tradition of meditation, which has roots in many Eastern religious practices such as Buddhism, was popularized in America during the 1960s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Still revered and explored for its healing and calming effects, meditation, a once primarily religious practice, has been adapted to fit our fast-paced lifestyles. “Meditation is an exercise that puts you in a more calm, less stressed state of mind,” says Michele Meiché, certified hypnotic anesthesiologist and PhD in metaphysical theology from the American College of Theology. Just as golfers practice their swings at driving ranges to improve their games, people who meditate get mentally, spiritually and physically in shape to live life more healthily. “Meditation allows you to remove your inner critic and focus on the here and now without letting your mind wander in destructive directions,” says Meiché.

More than just a practice to center oneself, meditation can also be used to ease physical disorders. Herbert Benson, MD, founding president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, is often regarded as the godfather of modern mind/body medicine. He has studied the physiological effects of the stress response, which we often experience in nightmares, and its counterpart, the relaxation response. The relaxation response is a physical reaction elicited by meditation. “Unlike the stress response, which is automatic,” says Benson, “the relaxation response requires two steps. First is a repetitive motion or sound phase.” This phase is often accomplished through various forms of meditation using breath, movement or repetition of a certain word or phrase such as “om” or “sat nam” (Sanskrit for “I am truth”). “The second phase,” says Benson, “is the disregarding of everyday thoughts and returning to the repetition phase.” The relaxation response decreases blood pressure, speeds up metabolism and improves sexual function.

Meditation may help ease and heal some other physical manifestations of stress such as heart disease, hypertension, depression, fertility, sleep problems, muscle tension and cancer. When men are stressed, “sperm count can be reduced and sexual performance can be affected. Women experience increased premenstrual syndrome, infertility and the hot flashes associated with perimenopause,” says Benson. A 1999 study published in the Journal of American Medical Women’s Association established that infertile women who meditated “have a 42 percent conception rate, a 38 percent take-home baby rate and decreased levels of depression, anxiety and anger.” A 1996 study published in the American Journal of Medicine noted that when patients used meditation, “100 percent of insomnia patients reported improved sleep, and 91 percent either eliminated or reduced sleeping medication use.”

Roger Dafter used meditation as an effective adjunct to medication when, in 1974, he was shot in the stomach at point-blank range with a .38 caliber pistol. After interrupting a robbery at a friend’s New Orleans apartment during Mardi Gras, Dafter was hit. The bullet entered the left side of his rib cage, puncturing his stomach, liver, pancreas and colon, then entered the right side of his stomach, liver, pancreas and colon, exiting through the right side of his rib cage. Another bullet barely missed his head. Dafter, already a devout believer in meditation, was able to slow his heart rate and thereby decrease the amount of blood lost. Though he was rushed into emergency surgery, doctors initially doubted that he would survive.

Dafter attributes his physiological and psychological calm and ability to survive the experience to his practice of meditation. Now a psychologist, Dafter is associate director of the Mind-Body Medicine Group at UCLA Medical School and assistant clinical professor of surgery at the UCLA Division of Head and Neck Surgery. In his practice, he promotes and teaches meditation for its healing and restorative properties with cancer patients.

Incorporating meditation into a traditional medical approach strengthens the effects and benefits of the treatment. “The mind-body connection is a source of healing that has been left out in Western medicine. Yet the mind is embedded in the body. They are not separate entities,” says Dafter. Meditation used as medication is an individualized practice, one that uses natural resources that best suit a person’s body, mind, schedule and basic skills. “If you tell a football player that his meditative practice should be yoga, he may do it for a few days, but then he will lose interest and stop. Like any skill, when first learning and adjusting to meditation, it is important to become familiar with the basics through breath work, repetitive words or motions, practicing modes of meditation that are natural to one’s body and pertain to one’s skills and interests. Then, when more advanced, people can fit meditation into their daily lives,” Dafter says.

Golin meditates twice daily for 20 minutes, but many people think they don’t have time to meditate daily. Yet they may already meditate without knowing it. Meditation can take the form of a morning walk through the neighborhood, when you allow your mind to be free from the daily stresses of life. It can also be participating in your evening yoga class, spending time in your garden or taking five minutes to step outside your office building during a hectic day. Meditation can be almost anything, as long as you allow your mind to be free of negative, stress-inducing thoughts (see sidebar, “Five-Minute Meditations”).

Dafter explains the effect of regular meditation like this: “Meditation helps create a feeling of interconnectedness, a feeling of bliss that allows us to navigate through the storms of stress. Imagine a cave that has a simple trickle of water that has traveled along the same path of rocks for hundreds of years. The rock appears solid and impermeable, and the trickle of water appears to be weak and innocuous. Every day the water continues its constant flow and, in time, creates a deep crevice along the rock, allowing for a heavier stream of water down the side of the cave.” Meditation is the trickle of water. Even if you don’t feel change at first, eventually you will carve away at the rock that we call stress.

Golin concurs. After incorporating meditation into her life, Golin says, “I am more centered, more focused. I allow things to roll off me more easily than before. I am aware of who I am in both the physical and emotional sense and aware of who I am not. When I meditate I feel a sense of being truly energized, truly alive.”

Meditation Techniques

Many different types of meditative techniques exist. They can be grouped into two basic approaches: concentrative meditation and mindfulness meditation. In concentrative meditation, you focus your attention on your breath, an image or a mantra to still your mind. In mindfulness meditation, you sit quietly and simply witness whatever goes through your mind, or listen to surrounding sounds, while not reacting to or analyzing thoughts or images. Here are some popular kinds of meditation in both categories.

• Transcendental Meditation. Transcendental Meditation (TM), a concentrative meditation, has origins traced back to the ancient Vedic tradition preserved for generations by a long line of teachers in the Himalayas. The TM technique is not tied to any religion or lifestyle. Newcomers without prior experience can easily learn TM from an instructor. During this meditation you sit quietly, eyes closed, focusing on your chosen image or mantra for 20 minutes in the morning and night. Regularly practicing TM creates more noticeable effects daily, eventually releasing tension and stress caused by the outside world. By eliminating stress and tension, TM provides an effective basis for vitality and accomplishment in life. This state of restful awareness allows the body to be deeply tranquil while the mind dissolves accumulated stress and utilizes dormant creative potential.

• Insight Meditation. Also known as Vispassana Meditation in the Buddhist tradition, Insight Meditation has been practiced in Asia for more than 2500 years. This simple mindful practice focuses and calms the mind in order to overcome negative and unhealthy habits. Much of this meditation consists of silent observation. Learning to experience life from a place of tranquillity teaches the meditator to react less impulsively and to experience less fear and insecurity. This technique consists of silent, motionless observation in which you sit cross-legged, eyes closed, with your mind’s eye focused on the abdomen in order to feel and heighten awareness of the movements of your belly. After about an hour, it is natural to feel leg cramping. In this case, Insight Meditation is often alternated with walking meditation. Like sitting meditation, walking meditation focuses attention on one body part. In the case of walking meditation, the focus is on the movements of the legs and feet. Whether doing a walking meditation or a sitting meditation, the most important element is mindfulness: awaking awareness through slowing down and thoroughly observing life. Through observation you gain the ability to see life as a constantly changing process.

• Kundalini Yoga. Kundalini Yoga, which has ancient roots in India and Nepal, is a concentrative meditation. It stimulates your nervous and immune systems and improves strength and flexibility. At the same time, it centers your mind, clearing away the mental clutter surrounding the subconscious. Unlike many other types of meditation, Kundalini Yoga makes you sweat. Using breathing, chanting and repetitive motion simultaneously, this technique teaches you to overcome the difficulty in various exercises through the use of mental power and concentration. The movements consist of anything from a very small arm movement repeated for 11 minutes, to larger movements of jumping while punching for six minutes.

Meditative Spaces

Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, co-founder and director of the Golden Bridge Yoga studio in Los Angeles, coaches her students on creating a meditative space. You can meditate anywhere: a corner of a room, in a car, at a desk at work or at a windowsill. Use all of your senses to help get into a meditative state. “Fill your special space—some people think of their spaces as their personal shrines—with objects, images, scents and reminders of positive, relaxing things that help to center and relax the mind,” says Khalsa. “Someone who takes vacations in order to lull and luxuriate may want to include souvenirs or pictures from favorite places. For someone who loves flowers, keep a live plant or vase filled with fresh-cut blossoms. Incense and candles are wonderful additions to soothe the mind or awaken the senses; the scent lingers for days, sometimes even weeks, and marks your personal territory. Photos of close friends and family members, comfortable fabrics and relaxing or comforting sounds add to the overall ambiance of the meditative space. You have complete liberty to decorate that space exactly as you want it. No one can tell you it looks silly or cluttered, because it is your own space, as individual as you are.”