Introduction to Meditation

Find out what it is, how to try it and how you can benefit from a meditation practice.

| Dec. 31, 2008

  • Meditation
    Meditation can be used to lower blood pressure and alleviate pain, depression, even diabetes — and anyone can learn how to do it!

  • Meditation

Meditation is not just for Zen masters. It’s for anyone who ever wishes to feel less frazzled, which, these days, is just about all of us. But meditation remained an Asian enigma ignored by Western scientists until the 1970s, when Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson accidentally popularized it.

In 1968, Benson was using biofeedback gear to teach monkeys to lower their blood pressure. Devotées of transcendental meditation (TM), the practice that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had taught the Beatles, learned of his research and told Benson that they could lower their blood pressure without biofeedback equipment, simply by meditating. Benson was skeptical, but tested the meditators and discovered that TM did, indeed, reduce blood pressure. It also lowered metabolic rate and oxygen consumption to levels unheard of except in hibernation or deep sleep.

Benson realized that the physiological changes caused by transcendental meditation were not unique to meditation. Other relaxation techniques also produced them, including yoga and hypnosis. The calm induced by meditation was a natural reaction, the physiological opposite of the fight-or-flight instinct that prepares the body for defense or escape. The fight-or-flight reflex increases blood pressure, heart rate, breathing and metabolism. The relaxing disciplines did the opposite. They reduced blood pressure and slowed heart rate, breathing and metabolism. Benson called this meditative reaction the “relaxation response.”

In 1975, Benson’s book The Relaxation Response became a bestseller. It broadened the Western concept of meditation beyond spiritual associations and presented a physiological case for deep relaxation that was palatable to Western sensibilities. Meanwhile, for the spiritually minded, it proved the value of age-old religious practices. Benson presented meditation as a physiological gift that anyone could use to calm down, cope with stress and, for those so inclined, feel at one with a higher power or the universe.     

How to Meditate

To elicit the relaxation response via meditation:

  • Find a quiet place with a comfortable chair.
  • Sit with eyes closed.
  • Select a word or phrase — one, peace, ice cream — whatever. That’s your “mantra.”
  • Silently repeat your mantra. Begin with a minute or two. Work up to 20 minutes once or twice a day.
  • While meditating, try to empty your mind of other thoughts. Assume a passive, accepting, nonjudgmental attitude. When distracting thoughts intrude — they’re inevitable — notice them, accept them, then dismiss them as you refocus on your mantra.

In another type of meditation, breath meditation, there is no mantra. Practitioners focus on their breath. The other steps remain the same.

K Williams
1/6/2009 9:09:23 PM

Ice Cream for a mantra? Excuse me, but meditation is more than a collection of side effects like improved blood pressure and relief from hot flashes. It is a profound discipline aimed at insights to be gained from spiritual worlds. I hope that your focus will quickly return to reporting on chicken raising techniques and yoghurt recipes, where you truly excel.

Fritz Owens
1/6/2009 5:08:41 PM

For heavens sake! Don't make it so complicated! Sit down and be QUIET for thirty minutes. That means no talking , no eating, no drinking, no listening to the radio or watching tv. The first 20 to 25 minutes are excrutiatingly difficult but then a channel seems to open up and you begin to see things as you never have before. Ever heard of getting in the "Zone"? It's exactly like meditation. In general the "gurus" of meditation really don't want to give the secret away. It makes them too much money.

Matthew Taylor
1/6/2009 11:55:35 AM

Great article. I have only one complaint. You give the following meditation instruction: "While meditating, try to empty your mind of other thoughts." The problem with this instruction is that "trying" causes people to tense up and is therefore counterproductive. Instead, "When you realize that your mind is not on the mantra, let go of other thoughts and easily return to the mantra." Meditation is all about letting go. Letting go is a relaxing action. "Trying" is a tensing action. Remember Yoda in Star Wars, when he's showing Luke how to lift the starship out of the mud with the power of the mind? He said, You do, or you do not. There is no "try". Yoda was right.


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