“For 20 years, I’ve meditated before stressful meetings, when I’m slammed by deadlines and during al kinds of domestic crises,” reports one successful lawyer. “In the middle of a tough day or any time I feel like I’m about to lose it, I’ve learned that if I close my eyes for two minutes, and find that inner place of calm, it will give me the strength to deal with just about anything.”
A string of clinical studies since the 1970’s supports meditators’ claims that the activity works to counteract the negative effects off both acute and chronic stress. Research from Herbert Benson’s Mind-Body Institute and other studies shows that meditation can turn a natural stress response into a natural relaxation response. Instead of the body becoming flooded with chemicals that prepare us to fight or take flight or freeze, meditation releases a flood of calming neurotransmitters and hormones that soothe the system and stimulate immune functions. Meditating helps to bring the body back into balance.
According to multiple studies cited in Daniel Goleman’s The Meditative Mind: The Varieties of Meditative Experience, people who regularly meditate experience lower incidences of high blood pressure and heart disease than those who do not. Richard Davidson’s recent studies at the University of Wisconsin demonstrate that regular meditation decreases brain markers for depression, while increasing brain activity that marks states of peace and joy.
Constance is Key
The key to such healthful effects is regularity. Conducted occasionally, meditating can give us a temporary emotional lift, but the real benefit comes when we do it every day. Then we learn to tune into the inner state that is the source of meditation’s power to heal the body, calm the emotions and stabilize the mind. Meditators often describe feeling states of increased focus and clarity, a sense of connection and empathy with others and above all, the sense of core inner strength that accompanies them through life, even in crises.
But in order to be willing to make meditation a daily priority, we need to find a way to enjoy it. Otherwise, chances are we won’t stick with it. Here are several core strategies for reaping pleasure from our practice.
- The first consideration is physical comfort when sitting to meditate. As long as the spine is straight and the chest open, comfort trumps form.
- Secondly, it helps to approach meditation as an experiment; one we conduct in the laboratory of our inner self.
- The third basic principle is to find a core practice that feels good to us and that we can relax into. Choose one that focuses and draws attention and energy into the peaceful fullness of a deeply meditative state.
Three Classic Approaches
Turning into the Breath – After assuming an upright posture, sense the flow of breath in and out through the nostrils – cool on inhaling and warm on exhaling. The key is to tune into the sensation of how the breath feels, which also engenders a natural sense of well-being.
Meditation in the Heart – Let the breath flow into the center of the chest, as if it were flowing through the chest wall. As it touches the center of the chest, imagine a soft glow in the heart, like an inner sun. With each inhalation, feel the sun glow. With each exhalation, spread it throughout the inner body. (Note: To find the heat center place the right palm over the center of the chest and focus attention on the very center of the body, behind the breastbone.)
Mindfulness – Beginning with the crown of the head, move attention through the body, focusing next on the forehead, followed by the cheeks, ears, mouth, neck, shoulders, front and back of the chest, stomach, lower back, hips, pelvic area, thighs, knees, calves and ankles. Continue on. As straying thoughts arise, notice them, note them as “thinking” and return to the practice.
To realize a daily practice, begin by sitting for five minutes at the beginning or end of the day. Each day, increase the time spent sitting by one minute, until reaching 20 minutes. Benefits accrue when we practice daily and make it a priority.
* Sally Kemption, a master teacher of meditation for over 40 years, is author of several books on the subject, including her most recent, Meditation for the Love of It, which includes 20 practices to optimize meditation.