This article was co-written with Andy Swanson, ND.
Each thought is like a horse that wants to run, and the mind is like a band of wild horses galloping in every direction. Behind each quiet moment lies a host of fears, anxieties and to-do lists that pose a challenge to the desired peace of mind.
Meditation is the exercise of placing each horse back in its stable. With this skill, the mind becomes a forged tool, strengthened with focus and presence so that at our choosing, we can actively select the horse we want to ride and more effectively find “the way” towards our goals and dreams.
This “Way” is an ancient term coined thousands of years ago by the Taoist masters in describing the alignment of one’s personal energy with the larger expanse of universal life force energy. We can tell we’re in this state of alignment when the activities we direct our energies toward happen more easily and joyfully and with outcomes that are in harmony with our environment.
A more contemporary cousin of this state is “Flow,” highlighted by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-hy, chek-Sent-me-hy) in his seminal book called Flow. He studied a variety of high-level performers, from extreme athletes to jazz musicians and noted their ability to drop into a state of absolute concentration to the exclusion of everything else, simply for the sake of the activity at hand.
The bridge between the Way and Flow is focus. Both are states of being, fostered through either quieting the mind or ultra-focusing the mind, in order to perceive the best action while avoiding what is unnecessary. As meditation is the art of how to train the mind as a tool, accessing the “the Way” is what one is able to artfully create through skillfully using it.
So what happens in the brain during meditation and how can we use this state of directed awareness for benefit? Studies over the last four decades have sought to answer this question. Herbert Benson, MD, author of the book, The Relaxation Response, pioneered some of the first scientific studies on meditation. Over the last 40 years, he and other scientists have amassed a large body of data in efforts to explain empirically what ancient peoples have observed for thousands of years; that meditation greatly enhances the brain’s ability to regulate emotion, sustain attention, and build self-awareness.
The usefulness of meditation in the medical setting is gaining ever more momentum particularly relevant to the way we live in today’s fast paced, production driven culture. Much of this early research was due in large part to the efforts of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. The program has been well-received by the medical community, and there is ample research supporting its ability to reverse the state of sympathetic dominance, meaning the body and brain are no longer locked in a state of fight or flight. Once this occurs the body starts to heal more effectively, and it’s been shown particularly useful for a variety of conditions, including chronic pain, psoriasis, ADHD, anxiety and depression. Meditators also experience improvement in immune system function through inhibiting the effect of cortisol, the stress hormone, as cortisol directly inhibits immune response. Those who participated in an 8-week guided meditation program exhibited an improved immune system function, as measured by significantly greater antibody response to the influenza vaccine.
Bottom line for the body and brain: improved immune function = improved overall performance and injury recovery.
As with training to use any tool, the brain learns through repetition and one benefits more from increasing the frequency of meditation rather than duration. In other words, five minutes of meditation 3-4 times daily would accomplish more stabilization than one thirty minute session. Forcing longer sessions prematurely will not offer the same benefit, and in fact may be counterproductive as the pressure to perform builds stress and tension. As we get stronger in our practice and focus, we strengthen the capacity of various brains structures, such as the prefrontal cortex (PFC), and we can increase the duration without getting overwhelmed. As relaxation and clarity build, it is natural that one will create more time for these positive experiences, and thus the natural draw to sit for longer periods of time.
Many world traditions have developed ways of meditating, and the word itself has a host of interpretations. Each practice varies in their effect on the brain. Herbert Benson distilled the practice down to its bare essentials, presenting a style that everyone can use. He called this style the “Relaxation Response.” This technique is offered as a way of learning to cultivate relaxation, focus and attention, while reducing fear and anxiety.
When possible, nature is the best backdrop. If you can create an outdoor space for meditation, this would be ideal. Find a place where you will not be interrupted, away from the noises of city life, and one that offers a feeling of safety. A large stone or tree is recommended for grounding.
If an outdoor setting is not possible, then find yourself a quiet room with soft light. Natural morning light offers a gentle, inspiring sense of newness as the sun slowly rises to greet the coming day. Those with sensitivity to sound and light may choose a darker room, or even a sleep mask to cover the eyes.
The following are instructions for meditation, adapted from one of the original masters Herbert Benson, MD, author of The Relaxation Response.
Repetition of a word, sound, praise, prayer, or muscular activity helps to establish focus. Pick a focus word, short phrase, or prayer that feels right and stay with it.
Passively disregard everyday thoughts that inevitably come to mind, returning to your repetition.
Setting a timer for 10-20 minutes can relax the desire to estimate how long it’s been.
Sit quietly in a comfortable position and close your eyes.
Relax your muscles, progressing from your feet to your calves, thighs, abdomen, shoulders, head and neck.
Breathe slowly and naturally, and as you do, say your focus word, sound, phrase, or prayer silently to yourself as you exhale.
Assume an easy state of mind. Don’t worry about how well you’re doing. When other thoughts come, just notice them with an “Oh well” attitude, and gently return to your repetition.
Continue for 10-20 minutes or until the timer sounds. When finished, do not stand immediately. Continue sitting quietly for a minute or so, allowing other thoughts to return. Then open your eyes and sit for another minute before rising.
Practice the technique once or twice daily. Before breakfast and before dinner are good times.
1. JW Hoffman, H Benson, PA Arns, GL Stainbrook, GL Landsberg, JB Young, A Gill, “Reduced sympathetic nervous system responsivity associated with the relaxation response”, Science 8. January 1982: Vol. 215 no. 4529 pp. 190-192.
2. Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Wherever you go, there you are: mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.
3. Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). “Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits. A meta-analysis.” Journal Psychosomatic Research, 57(1), 35-43.
4. Miller, G. E., Cohen, S., Pressman, S., Barkin, A., Rabin, B. S., & Treanor, J. J. (2004). Psychological stress and antibody response to influenza vaccination: when is the critical period for stress, and how does it get inside the body? Psychosomatic Medicine, 66(2), 215-223.
5. Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., Urbanowski, F., Harrington, A., Bonus, K., & Sheridan, J. F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation.[see comment]. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4), 564-570.
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7. The Relaxation Response, Herbert Benson, C. 1975, pg 12-13.