WRITTEN FOR THE UK HEART FOUNDATION ( SEPT.2006)

If you are Buddhist, Hindu or even Christian, you may have been taught to meditate. However, for most of us in the West it is something that we have to seek out. There is demand and plenty of opportunity: you just go along to yoga classes, tai chi sessions or Quaker meetings (where it’s called Christian contemplation) to learn how to do it.

There are many reason to learn to meditate. It’s hearing your own thought without the world’s interference and is a pleasure in itself. Meditation slows down the chatter in our heads. And I don’t know anyone in the 21st century whose mental and physical health would not benefit from some.

I really enjoy knowing that when I am meditating there are thousand if not millions of other humans doing the same thing (even though many of them will be on the other side of the planet).

Oh and it’s cheap. Once you’ve been taught the techniques, it’s free. All it will cost you is your time.

You don’t need any paraphernalia, but it may help if you use a candle or music to calm you down, get you in the mood and focus your mind. You can get loads of CDs with guide meditations — these will be a combination of words and music. The topics can vary: health, self-love relaxation, world peace … the list goes on. Try your local library or good book shop for help. And then there’s always the internet.

So, let’s have a look at the basics:

1 Make an appointment with yourself twice a week (to begin with) for 10 or 20 minutes in the morning or evening.

2 Sit comfortably on the floor or in a chair. Try not to slouch or recline so that you’re likely to fall asleep.

3 Keep your eyes open and gently rest them on a chosen point somewhere in front of you in the room.

4 As you look, let your thoughts slow down. You don’t have to try to stop thinking, just try not to let your thoughts run away with you. As you watch your chosen point, your thoughts should gradually slow down and you may begin to feel more peaceful.

5 Finish your meditation by closing your eyes for a few moments or minutes — until you’re ready.

It can be that simple.

Try to build up to two 20-minute sessions each day; ideally once before breakfast and once before bedtime. If you find your technique slow to improve, remember that the more you practise … well, you know the rest.

All you really need is a willingness to improve your health.

How does meditation work? Well, does the phrase “fight or flight” mean anything to you? They’re the traditional choices to a perceived threat. When people are confronted with danger, there are certain physical responses such as the production of adrenalin and cortisol to prepare the body for defence or escape. These chemicals speed up the heart rate, slow digestion and shunt blood to the muscles. They change various nervous functions, giving the body a burst of energy.

When the threat has been dealt with or left behind, the body is supposed to return to normal. However, neurotic city-dwellers often find that it’s not that easy. Sometimes we need to help the body to relax, and to stimulate the production of the brain’s natural happy drug, serotonin. Low levels are associated with depression, obesity, insomnia and headaches. Meditation can do this.

Meditation is thought to strengthen the immune system. Research suggests that meditation increases activity of “natural killer cells”, which eliminate bacteria and cancer cells.

Meditation — by lowering your blood pressure — can help you to sleep better.

MEDITATION TECHNIQUES
There are various ways to meditate. One basic method I outlined above, but of course there are various techniques to relax and focus.

“I tried a few kinds of mediation,” says 52-year-old Rhea Anderson a small businesswoman who lives in Shropshire. “I tried meditation when walking, which meant I was doing two healthy things at the same time and it tried Mandelas [which involves looking at an image] but I found that breathing meditation was best for me.

“I can do it all year round and almost anywhere and it really winds up my children because they have to leave me alone. However, my teenage son has started to do the morning session with me. He says it has helped with his exams.

“I think it’s great. Breathing meditation works best for me because It involves focusing on breathing in and breathing out. I try not to let my thoughts shift from my breath. I love concentrating on something as simple and elemental as the breath. It helps me to clear my mind. And calm me.”

TM
Here’s is a brief explanation of TM. You repeat a mantra to yourself throughout the meditation. A teacher may give you the mantra or you may simply use a word that is calming to you, such as “peace” or “one”. Saying the mantra helps prevent distracting thoughts from entering your mind and allows you to gradually relax and release stress. One goal during TM is a passive attitude that allows thoughts, images and feelings to pass through your consciousness almost unnoticed.

Mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment, acknowledging thoughts as they come up and observing them without judgment. It also makes you aware of the felling in your body, which can be very useful when you visit the doctor and have to describe an ailment.

In mindfulness meditation you pay attention to your thoughts as they come up and observe them without judgment. This technique may include a mental body scan, in which you methodically bring attention to each part of your body from head to toe. As you let go of thoughts or images associated with a certain body part, the body part lets go, too, and releases much of its tension. This “body scan” has been found to be an excellent way to help people who are dealing with chronic pain.

Breath in, now out. Well done, you made it this far. What have we found out? Meditation can help the body relieve pain, lower blood pressure, ease headaches and sooth depression. You will probably discover other benefits that are all your own. Remember, it is not always easy but the effort is worth it. And it’s free.