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by Johnny Adams
Science Journalist

E-Newsletter No. 44

      Meditation has been defined as the "self-regulation of attention." It can clear your head and raise your consciousness. It increases creativity and intelligence, improves memory and learning ability. It improves energy and promotes inner calm and peace. Our muscles and nervous and endocrine systems have a kind of "memory" in that they store the hurts, fears, upsets and sadness that you may experience throughout the day.  Meditation helps dissipate this. The end result is that we are healthier and happier.

     Meditation can be divided into two (or more) kinds of techniques: "concentration" meditation, which encompasses transcendental meditationTM and the relaxation response, and "mindfulness" (or "insight") meditation, which uses one-point attention to cultivate calmness and stability.

     There are many kinds of meditation, and different methods are suited to different people. Some of the major methods are Zen, Yoga, Sufi, Gurdjieff and Transcendental. "Paths" of meditation include through the intellect, the emotions, the body, and through action. How to Meditate by Lawrence LeShan (Back Bay Books) is an excellent book that goes into the background and practical application. 

     Some of the main purposes of meditation are to achieve deep relaxation, and quiet the mind and give it a break and allow it to replenish neurotransmitters. This is accomplished, in part, by stopping all the mental chatter. Meditation reverses the negative effects of stress. Meditation lowers the cortisol and adrenaline that build up when you are under daily stress, reducing the physiological cascade that the these damaging hormones trigger. So worries diminish, problems don't loom as large, worry, anger, frustration decline, and fear and aches & pains will even diminish, blood flow to the brain increases, good hormones like growth hormone, testosterone, and estrogen increase and come into balance. Happiness, confidence and memory improve. The benefits of meditation will become apparent very soon after starting. The result can be dramatic.

     Alpha brain waves (slow electrical firing of the brain associated with relaxation) increase during meditation. The hormone melatonin is associated with better sleep and meditation can increase levels of melatonin in the fluid portion of blood. It remains to be determined whether this is achieved through decreased hepatic (liver) metabolism of the hormone or via a direct effect on the pineal gland, where melatonin is produced. 

     Transcendental meditationTM (TMTM) is based on traditional Indian vedic philosophy and is the method often used in scientific research studies because of the specifics of its application. The goals of TM involve inducing less active thinking processes and creating a state of "restful alertness." It was founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (the guru to the Beatles) and is perhaps the most widely known.  There are seven steps to learning TM. The Maharishi Health Education Centres describe it as a simple, natural, effortless technique. 

     Many effects on physiology have been reported in the TM medical literature. These include decreased respiratory rate, decreased skin conductance, decreased total peripheral resistance, increased alpha-wave activity as measured by an electro encephalogram (EEG), increased frontal and occipital lobe (parts of the brain associated with thought, motor and visual function) blood flow, alterations of hormone levels, decreased serum lipid peroxide, decreased beta-receptor sensitivity, decreased erythrocyte glycolysis and decreased serum. I'll not go into what these are now, but suffice it to say that these are good things. The bottom line -- TM is believed to have a beneficial effect upon risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and even tobacco use.

     Every moment you are relaxed results in an improvement.

Transcendental Meditation and the Prevention of Heart Disease and Other Positive Effects on Health

     This part relates to what is often called "mind-body medicine", addressing the intimate relationship and influences of the mind and body upon one another and it is related to the "placebo effect".  Meditation is one form of mind-body medicine. 

     One randomized, controlled study examined the effects of regular TM on carotid (heart) atherosclerosis. One group was asked to meditate twice a day for 20 minutes, the other (called the "health education group") was asked to devote the same timeframes to any leisure activity, like reading or exercising. The study lasted seven months. In comparison to the health education group, the TM group showed a significant decrease in carotid atherosclerosis -- and the health education group had an increase. 

     Positive results have also been reported in studies using TM for patients with angina (pain or discomfort from a blockage in the coronary artery, resulting in not enough blood getting to the heart), high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

     Some studies have demonstrated positive results of TM such as a reduction in health care visits, mood disturbances, cancer survival rates and psychosomatic symptoms.
Important: TM or other forms of meditation should not be used as a healing method that substitute for traditional medical treatment.

How to Meditate
     Twenty minutes meditation each day, in the form that works best for you, is essential. Try it first thing in the morning and see how it sets the tone for the day. Or perhaps the middle of the day or the evening is best for you. Twice a day meditations would be even better, and it should be done anytime stress begins to build.

     Some forms of meditation are structured and others are unstructured. Meditations are done sitting, lying or standing. There are meditations to connect you with the spirit, but the one I use is one that empties the mind. Here's a brief introduction to some ways to meditate in this way. You can meditate with a friend, and meditating with a dog or a cat can be soothing for all concerned. 

     One way is to stop all thoughts as much as possible. Deeply relax the muscles -- "past" the point of just being relaxed to where every tension is totally released. Breathe deeply from the diaphragm -- this is vital. "From the diaphragm" means you feel the lower part of the lungs filling up with air first as your tummy goes out, then up through your chest as the lungs fill. Exhale in reverse by letting out the air from the top down. Your heartbeat will automatically slow with each exhalation.

     The idea is to deeply relax and set aside the conscious mind, or ego. Stop the mental meandering and mental chatter.

     Posture is important. Sit up straight, with back straight and lower back supported, and head centered above the shoulders. Legs may be crossed if you like. If you meditate while lying down your mind is more likely to wander or go to sleep. 

     It may take a while to ease into the soothing meditative state of mind. But as the minutes pass, more and more you'll find yourself calming and unruffling. 

     Don't be tempted to fall asleep while meditating. Sleep is good and if you can squeeze in a nap sometime during the day, that's just great. But sleep is not meditation and you do not get the same beneficial effects. And of course, thinking about problems is not meditation. However, ideas, answers to questions or solutions to problems just may pop into your head while without trying. Perhaps you are using the untapped power of your mind, or maybe the angels or God are whispering in your ear. You may have to make a decision whether to write it down on a piece of paper or wait until later. (But if you don't write it down right away you'll probably forget).

     There are many ways to meditate. We're all different, and different kinds of meditation will appeal to different people. Counting breaths teaches the ability to do one thing at a time. Some of us tend to process the world visually, so it stands to reason that they may prefer a visual form of meditation by envisioning something soothing or something to change. Others process the world by sound more than by the other senses, so they may like to hear soothing sounds to help them meditate. And others tend to process the world in terms of the way they feel, so they may prefer to concentrate on their breathing or the feel of something soothing. Perhaps while taking a nice warm bath. There is even a soothing moving meditation where you walk across the room absolutely as slowly as possible. And you can combine several sensory methods. Try different ways and find what works for you.

     You can concentrate on a particular sound, or a color, or an object in the room. Or imagine a calm, soothing scene -- clouds, a park, the wilderness, a sunset. Use your imagination to visualize the scene and hear the sounds of birds or waterfalls, "smell" freshly cut grass, "feel" the warmth of the sun. Or listen to a tape or CD recording of the great outdoors with birdies going tweet tweet and maybe the bgloishhhhh of a blabbling brook. Or go out in the woods to experience these for real. Silently watch the branches of a tree from a window as they gently bend in the breeze. Or listen to soothing music or the slow and deeply resonant tones of a wind chime. 
Perhaps envision all the stress, the problems, the worries and heartaches as draining down and out of you. And imagine the words or symbols for youth, joy, life -- as well as contentment, confidence, carefree, fun, or whatever as they flow into you. Or healing, golden light accompanied by feelings of joy and loving, and the sound of beautiful music. Out with the bad, in with the good.

     A mandala is a circular geometric pattern used as for meditation. Meditators have gazed upon mandalas to induce a quite, inner peace. Mandalas have been used in every corner of the world, from Tibetan mandalas, Native American sand paintings, to Hindu Yantras, to the Christian Rose Window, to the Jewish Star of David, to Islamic geometric patterns.   Do NOT stare at the sun or a bright object.

     Some people can go into a meditative state by tilting the eyes upward about 45 degrees. 

     A relaxation audio tape can put you into deep meditation and keep the mind from wandering. Just sit and listen. Try to sit up straight while meditating, as lying down usually doesn't work well. 

     Try a relaxing "rolling meditation". No, not by rolling on the ground. Feel the relaxation roll up and down your body from head to toe with each cycle taking about 2 or 3 seconds and a brief pause between each one. Spend more time on any part of the body that's particularly tight. Scan your body, seek out and unwind those tense body parts on a "search and relax" mission.

     And if you need a creative solution try this: tell yourself what you want, sit and meditate, clear your mind of all thoughts (do not think or try to reason through the problem). Wait for answer to pop out.

     Or count slowly from zero and go as high as you can without having thoughts pop into your mind (number cruncher types may like this, but then again, they may want to get away from numbers for a while). The moment you feel a thought, start from one again. Don't be concerned if you didn't get very far. It's not a contest. If your mind should wander, just keep coming back. With each count, and in each moment, you are healing your mind and body and becoming more refreshed. 

     Or if you are an engineering type, envision gauges or bar charts with the labels of physical parameters like "cortisol", "adrenaline", "blood pressure" and the like, and others with labels pertaining to yourself like "worry", "anger" and "tummy upset" or the like -- these are going down as you meditate. And the ones labeled "white blood cells" or "oxygen flow", "calm", "contentment", "joy", etc. are rising.

     See how low you can get your heart rate (your heart rate monitor will come in handy for this). 

     Chanting can be good -- like "Aaaaahhhhhh" (the sound of creation) or "Ooooohhmmmm" (the sound of thankfulness), or "whateverrrrr". It would be fine to make a chanting sound throughout your meditation, or if you feel your mind start to wander, start chanting until it's again centered. Sunrise and sunset are particularly synchronous powerful meditation times.

     Write down a question or a problem on a piece of paper, then meditate. Wait for an answer.

     I have known a couple of people who seem to process their worlds by food! One was a really good cook and the other was bulimic. Analogies of food are often woven into their conversations, and they will tend to laugh more at jokes when produce is involved. I once heard how, if asking for directions, some people will say "Go down the street until you reach the McDonald's Burger Joint and turn right, then go down to the Piggly Wiggly supermarket and turn left . . ." etc. I don't know, maybe to meditate they could think of jell-o gently jiggling in the breeze. Better make that steamed vegetables. Or the ancient zen quotation "Life is just a bowl of cherries."

     Just be still. Quiet the chatter. Listen. You will feel the hurts, fears, upsets and sadness, all the upsetting memories of events of the day that have caused you stress will dissipate.

     Feel your body becoming filled with health and healing.

     Don't be dismayed if you do experience an unusual sensation resembling a flash of light, a scene or a sound. This could be anything from auto-suggestion (self-hypnosis) leading to a self-induced hallucinatory experience (similar to an LSD effect), to a release in neurochemicals such as endorphins or neurochemicals that have a stimulatory effect on the senses arising from the occipital lobe (associated with vision) or the mid brain and limbic system (emotions).

     Perhaps ask the spirit for an answer to a question, then sit quietly and listen for the answer. And don't forget to give thanks in your meditations for your many gifts.  Also, thinking about events, problems etc. is not meditation. But don't be surprised if ideas or solutions to problems pop into your head without trying. If this happens to may be faced with a decision whether to interrupt your meditation and write down on a piece of paper what has come to you. (You probably will forget if you don't write down then and there).

     Just stop thinking for a while.

     Similar to nutritional habits and adequate amounts of daily water intake, this one is easy to let slip. The ultimate goal of every meditation is to empty the mind of all thoughts, even if it is only a brief moment in time.  A successful meditation passes quickly, because for that moment, you have you have left your body and are floating in timespace. 

     Any meditation should make you more alert, but if you do also feel kind of groggy after meditating, don't operate a motor vehicle, heavy equipment, fly an airplane or do anything dangerous that would require your full concentration.

Johnny Adams 

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