Why Meditation Really Works
Meditation works to relieve stress. Studies show that people who are meditating have lower blood pressure, slower breath and heart rate, and brain waves that signal a state of alert but, at the same time, deep relaxation. Meditation also works to train the mind to avoid negative patterns and thought processes, vicious circles of failure and low self-esteem, even the perception of chronic pain as an intensely negative experience.
The brain is a complex and amazing organ, and meditation can teach you to harness your mind's power, integrate your mind and body, and feed your hungry spirit. Meditation comes in many forms, including sitting meditation, walking meditation, mindfulness meditation, yoga meditation, mantra meditation, mandala meditation, visualization, and even prayer. Whether or not you are affiliated with any specific religious tradition, you can pray, either to God, to Goddess, or toward whatever makes sense for you — the universe, the spirit of love, positive energy.
As broad a category as meditation may be, it all boils down to one thing: the honing of focus. Modern life promotes an unfocused mind. We are constantly bombarded with stimuli, from the media, from our environments, from people, from our computers. Television switches shots every few seconds and breaks up each show with commercial after commercial. Movies move fast and don't often demand too much concentration anymore.
Work is full of so much to do that it isn't easy or even possible to spend very much time on any one task, even if more time would result in higher quality. It's a get-it-done-fast-and-move-on-to-the-next-thing-quick kind of life for many of us, and so the mind gets used to multiple points of focus and constantly moving focus. The ability to concentrate becomes irrelevant and, consequently, begins to disappear.
If your concentration seems really off, you can boost it with herbs in addition to meditation. Much research points to ginkgo biloba as an effective brain booster that improves circulation to the brain and, consequently, improves concentration, memory, and mental clarity. Because of possible drug interactions or side effects, you should always check with your physician before taking any herbal remedy, especially if you are on any other medication or have a health condition.
Think of your life as an all-you-can-eat buffet. You've got 30 minutes for lunch, and there you stand with your little plate, faced with a fantastic array of options: three kinds of lettuce, two kinds of tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, hot peppers, olives, broccoli, cauliflower, eight kinds of dressing, cottage cheese, potato salad, macaroni salad, three different marinated salads, a taco bar, a pasta bar, four soups, three breads, ribs, wings, meatloaf, fish sticks, drumsticks, ham, turkey, pork, corn, mashed potatoes, strawberries, cantaloupe, honeydew melon, watermelon, peaches, pears, pineapples, three Jell-O salads, and four different colors of some kind of creamy whipped dessert (are you hungry yet?).
It doesn't take most people long to dive in and start loading their plates with the things they like. You may start out with good intentions — ” I'll just get a small salad and a little of one entrée — ” but with so many tempting options, most people end up taking just a little of this, and that, and this, and that, and this …
What often results is a plate filled with so many different things that it's hard to focus on or fully enjoy any one thing on your plate. It's such an overwhelming variety mounded on that little plate that the pleasure comes in the feeling of indulgent excess, the “Look at all this food!” response.
Never mind the food's quality. That's why all-you-can-eat buffets can get away with food of lesser quality than a restaurant that serves just a little of a few choice dishes. If you're impressed with the array of choices, you won't notice so much that everything isn't exquisite in taste. You might be charmed by the price. “Well, as long as it's all I can eat …” Or, maybe you are seduced by the possibilities of sampling lots of things you don't normally get to eat. “Wow. Five kinds of potato salad? I'll have to try them all!”
The experience of the all-you-can-eat buffet can even become addictive. You lose sight of the pleasure of the food itself because you have become so enamored with the massive quantities and the impressive arrangement.
Now, let's carry over the metaphor. Life is full of stuff to think about. What you have to do today, what you didn't finish from yesterday, what to wear, where to go, who to go with, how to do things, not to mention what to eat. We've got schedules, lists, assignments, deadlines, and responsibilities. We've got dependents, friends, and pets. We've got houses or apartments and cars or trucks to maintain. Some of us have more than one house, more than one car or truck, even a boat. We've got to worry about looking right, acting right, making a good impression. What do others think of you? How well did you complete that task? How much money do you have and what should you spend it on? Or, should you save it?
The list of things the average human thinks about in one day far exceeds the list of items on any all-you-can-eat buffet, so just imagine how much more deluded and seduced into accepting the unacceptable our minds (like our buffet-abused palates) become. Our minds are pulled in different directions, at a pace that can be described, pretty accurately, as frantic. When the amount of information coming in and the thoughts being generated from within become overwhelming, we start to forget things, lose things, fail to pay attention, make more mistakes, have more accidents, feel more frustrated and less in control of our lives than ever.
If you are ill or in pain, meditation can help to support the healing efforts of your health care practitioners. Meditate on your illness or pain with an open mind and without judgment, as an observer, apart from the negative feelings attached to your condition. As you become comfortable with this process, pose the question, What can I do to help you heal? Don't grasp for an answer. Just stay open. This technique taps into your intuition. Eventually, very specific thoughts may arise about what you can do to support your body's healing efforts.
But it's hard to stop. Thinking and taking in information can be even more addictive than the indulgent prospect of five kinds of potato salad. Have you ever turned the television on to watch while working on your laptop, even though you have a lot to get accomplished and know the din will slow you down and distract you? Have you blasted the stereo while reading or called one person after another on your cell phone while driving the car? We can't stop generating input! We feel comforted, dulled perhaps, or at least lulled by the incessant din of media, noise, distraction.
But the price is high. Going through life without ever really paying attention means going through life as a watered-down, lukewarm version of yourself. Maybe spending your days distracted and only partially aware feels safe because you don't have to confront the big questions, the strong emotions. Or, maybe you would like to cut down on all that distraction but don't have the first idea how to start or, for that matter, time to figure it out. But to go through life with your mind going in so many directions all at once isn't really living, and it certainly isn't living up to your potential.
Meditation puts a slow, painless end to this life-numbing process. It hangs a “closed” sign on the buffet restaurant's door for just a few minutes each day. And those few minutes give your mind the opportunity to slow down, wake up, come out of its stupor, and pay attention. To what? To you. To who you are, how you feel, what you are right now, regardless of all the incoming information, regardless of all the internal worries, anxieties, thoughts, and emotions. Meditation also helps you to pay attention to the world around you while helping you to remain unengaged and caught up in that world. You can step back and look, an uninvolved observer, and that can be pretty enlightening.