Not long ago, I was asked to submit a post on my views on meditation as a clinical psychologist. What follows below is that post which I hope provides serious food for thought for anyone considering starting to meditate.
Healing Through Meditation
Shielagh Shusta-Hochberg, Ph.D.
Meditation is an ancient practice that has become very mainstream over the past few decades. Celebrities extoll its virtues, doctors recommend it for patients, therapists urge clients to try it, and libraries, community centers and health clubs offer classes in meditation along with yoga, tai chi, and aerobics. Chances are you know someone who practices meditation. Perhaps you yourself already meditate. If so, you already know the benefits. If not, perhaps reading this will inspire you to try meditation or return to it if you left it.
Meditation’s History and Variations
There are many forms of meditation: Loving Kindness (metta), Insight (vipassana,) Calm Abiding (shamatha), Concentration (dhyana), Mindfulness (sati), Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), chanting, Zen parables (koans), Transcendental Meditation (TM), and quite a few others. Meditation comes to us from India where it was practiced in the earliest Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
Yogic meditation was studied about 2,500 years ago by a rich, Indian prince by the name of Gautama Siddhartha who left his life of affluence to seek enlightenment. After wandering through parts of India, China, Nepal and Tibet and studying with teachers he hoped could enlighten him, he followed an ascetic path of self-denial and neglect of the physical self. He came to believe in time that asceticism was a mistaken self-imposed suffering.
Gautama eventually found the state of enlightenment he sought by sitting still and quiet for many months in what we now call a meditative state, seated beneath a tree which became known as the Bodhi tree or tree of awakening. As one who achieved enlightenment, he became known as The Buddha. Having realized the enlightenment he had sought, The Buddha searched out past teachers and fellow ascetics to share what he had learned and urge them to live accordingly if they would. Many joined him and continued to share the message after his death. Many millions have followed his teachings, and millions around the world follow them today.
Any of the various forms of meditation, Hindu, Buddhist and that of other religious disciplines as well as the more secular Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction method, can promote calmness and serenity and assist the body in quietly doing that which each of its parts was intended to perform. When we slow our breathing and take note of it, we let go of much of the turmoil that tends to inhabit our busy minds. The thoughts will continue to drift into our awareness, but when we meditate we learn to notice but not engage them.
Integrating Body, Mind and Spirit
One of the greatest benefits of meditation is the interconnection of body and mind. We breathe slowly and mindfully, we sit upright with good posture (or we walk mindfully), and we attend to our thoughts without letting them gallop away with our awareness of ourselves and where we are. In our technological age, it is easy to forget our physical bodies for extended periods of time, especially when engrossed at the computer. Numbness in our legs or stiffness in our back may remind us of this. At times like these, as well as when we are stressed with anger, anxiety or fear, we may forget to breathe deeply, and our shallow breathing can aggravate any distress we already feel. Meditation can bring us back to ourselves, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Meditation as Physical Self-Care
Many health challenges are either relieved or exacerbated by our lifestyle choices such as level of physical activity, diet, emotional stability, self-esteem and beliefs. A holistic approach considers these while addressing the symptoms of any condition. Prescription medications and other medical interventions can be effective in treating physical illness and are widely accepted as such, but if we persist in lifestyle choices that undermine our health, such as substance abuse, tobacco use, lack of exercise, poor eating habits, inadequate sleep, too much TV and not enough intellectual stimulation, and so forth, the benefits may be limited.
The practice of meditation can promote physical, emotional and mental well-being, a fact supported by research (references follow). Many studies have been conducted in recent decades correlating meditation with health benefits, including reductions in hypertension, chronic pain symptoms, cancer, anxiety disorders, depression and various conditions related to stress, with increases in sense of well-being, relaxation, attentiveness, self-efficacy and self-control.
How We Meditate
When we decide to meditate, we set up a place where we will do it. This can be a cushion, or several, on the floor. It is important that we are properly supported and sitting up as straight as possible and comfortable enough not to be too distracted by discomfort. If sitting on the floor, the full or half lotus positions are considered ideal, but simply sitting cross-legged or seated on a straight-backed chair with feet flat on the floor will do fine. We try to avoid slouching, slumping or curling ourselves up during meditation. If necessary, we can use special cushions, benches or stools to facilitate the upright posture of sitting, kneeling or one of the crosswise positions. Buddhist monks, perhaps the world’s best experts on meditation, stress the importance of posture, sitting up straight, as if the vertebrae of the spine were a stack of coins.
Anyone who has begun to sit still and upright for more than a few minutes in meditation will notice muscles responding to the effort while sitting, and later when arising from the seated position. It is wise to get to one’s feet slowly with attention to pins and needles in the legs or feet and carefully reestablish one’s upright balance, particularly if we are not accustomed to the position, have blood pressure issues or are not very physically fit.
We decide how long we will sit and use a timer of some kind so that we don’t feel the need to keep peeking at the clock. We still may yearn to sneak a peek at the time, and most of us will do so at times, but the timer assures us we won’t miss any important appointments or plans by doing it for too long. We close our eyes or focus softly on a pleasant object or scene (such as an altar, candle, photo, flower, or natural view) and focus on the breath. Notice the breath as you breathe in, and notice your breath as you breathe out. You may say or think a mantra to help with this process, and it can be as simple as in on the in-breath and out on the out-breath, or so and hum.
Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh is an esteemed teacher of meditation whose book, Making Space: Creating a Home Meditation Practice, is an excellent resource to help anyone get started with a meditation practice. He recommends, in addition to sitting meditation, the practice of walking meditation. In this practice we mindfully and carefully walk as we think or say aloud a pair of simple but powerful phrases, called gathas, such as: “I have arrived; I am home,” or “Breathing in I know I am alive; breathing out I am calm.”
Harnessing Technology to Support a Meditation Practice
If we wish to learn to meditate, we can explore an abundance of resources online, from instructional articles and videos, guided meditations, and meditation apps for smartphone and tablet, to chanting and instrumental music designed to accompany meditation. Most of us have our phones handy all the time, so downloading a meditation timer, and perhaps a radio app to play nature sounds, bells, chants, music and so forth, means we can meditate virtually anywhere. Guided meditations are also easily accessible. Some app suggestions: Insight Timer, i-Q Timer, Calm Radio, Om Bowls, Lotus Bud, and Dharma Seed, to name only a few.
Metta Meditation and Compassionate Listening
When we become calmer, brighter and more whole, those with whom we interact can sense it, whether or not they know of the positive changes we are making by doing so. A fight or argument requires at least two parties engaging in the process. The practice of Metta or loving kindness meditation is a Buddhist practice derived from the Pali Metta Sutta (called the maitri sutra in Sanskrit), and presents the dharma, or teachings, from the Buddha, and it is widely studied, recited and recommended. The Metta Sutta comprises two paragraphs to inform our actions, our thoughts and our emotions so that we harm no one, not ourselves nor others in any form. There are many variations on the Metta practice, but this will give you an idea of the Metta format in an abbreviated and simplified way:
May all beings be free.
May all beings be peaceful.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be safe.
May all beings awaken to the light of their true nature.
May all beings be free.
When we make the principles of Metta meditation a part of our daily practice, these aspirations for self and others can begin to melt the frozen heart, soothe the damaged soul, and ease the pain of life expressed in anger, fear, anxiety and other afflictions. The practice of loving kindness meditation leads to compassionate listening. We learn to hear others with compassion rather than being pervaded by the need to counter their words and be right. The argument never develops because the other is being heard with kindness, even if the argument that is being advanced conflicts with our own values and beliefs. Try it and see.
The goodness that is in me
bows to the goodness that is in you.
Shielagh Shusta-Hochberg, Ph.D.
Crossposted at Allergies and Your Gut
Suggested Readings and References
Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., and Walach, H. (2003). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A metanalysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57, 35-43.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living (revised edition): Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York: Bantam.
Keyes, C. L. M. (2002). The mental health continuum: From languishing to flourishing in life. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 43(2), 207-222.
Nhat Hanh, Thich (2013). Being #1 and/or being happy. December, 22, 2013 dharma talk accessible at http://tnhaudio.org/2013/12/.
Nhat Hanh, Thich (2012). Making space: Creating a home meditation practice. Berkeley, CA:Parallax Press.
Pagnoni, G., and Cekic, M. (2007). Age effects on gray matter volume and attentional performance in Zen meditation. Neurobiology of Aging, 28, 1623-1627.
Rubia, K. (2009). The neurobiology of meditation and its clinical effectiveness in psychiatric disorders. Biological Psychology, 82, 1–11.
Shapiro, E., and Shapiro, D. (2011). Be the change: How meditation can transform you and the world. New York: Sterling.
Walton, K. G., Schneider, R. H., and Nidich, S. (2004). Review of controlled research on the Transcendental Meditation Program and cardiovascular disease: Risk factors, morbidity, and mortality. Cardiology in Review, 12(5), 262-266.