Practice Mindfulness, Concentration and Going With the Flow
If meditation heals half of what advocates claim, we're on to something good.
When anything claims to cure or alleviate 25 things that ail you, you are justified in being skeptical. The snake oil salesmen of the 19th century have re-created and resold their wares in all kinds of ways into the 21st century.
Advocates of meditation might sound like those same hucksters. They claim physical, emotional and even vocational benefits in everything ranging from hypertension to insomnia, infertility, chronic pain, PMS, self-esteem, success at work and grades in school. But meditation is thousands of years old, as ancient as almost all the faith traditions and integral to most of them. There is also an appreciable body of research that supports its many claims.
For example, a four-year study of 225 individuals suffering from chronic pain found that “large and significant overall improvements were recorded post-intervention in physical and psychological status” (J. Kabat-Zinn, L. Lipworth, et al., The Clinical Journal of Pain 2, no. 3 ). Study participants stuck with the program to a high degree, indicating they strongly associated their positive results with meditation. Similarly positive results are reported for meditation’s effect on insomnia (91 percent of study participants were able to reduce or eliminate their use of sleep medications), reduced hypertension (80 percent experienced lower blood pressure, and 16 percent cut use of medications altogether), and 57 percent of women with severe premenstrual symptom (PMS) had reduced symptoms, all from a meditation program.
The worldwide, pancultural nature of meditation -- and perhaps the fact that nobody makes a lot of money from it -- suggests it is the real deal. Those advocates, after all, really believe in it and freely share their understanding and methods of meditation with others.
What happens when you meditate?
The term “meditation” is used in many different contexts to mean many different things (some use of the term is cavalier and disconnected from how practitioners define it). In simplest terms it is a form of thinking, but it is about much more than working out a problem in your head.
Some meditation gurus break meditation down into two types, “mindfulness” and “concentration.” When the meditator engages in mindfulness, it means he or she finds a way to effortlessly center mental attention on breathing or repeating a phrase, word or sound (a mantra). Throughout, the mind remains open to what occurs, the thoughts that enter one’s consciousness while attempting this focus, and then allows those thoughts to leave just as quickly. Mindfulness embodies the idea of going with the flow, of letting go. It is unselfish, nonegotistical, an unvarnished sense at oneself and life in general.
Alternatively, the meditator can engage in the concentration approach, eliminating all distractions while focusing on a repetitive chant. Practitioners regard this as a highly developed skill, where one is able to center the mind on a static point. For example, a monastic existence -- where objects of greed and lust and other stimuli are ostensibly removed -- lends itself to concentration-style meditation because these other factors are blocked out completely and for extended periods of time (several hours, for those who are highly developed).
I spoke with Ed and Deb Shapiro, authors of Be the Change: How Meditation Can Transform You and the World (Sterling Ethos, 2009) and featured writers on Oprah.com and HuffingtonPost.com. The husband-and-wife team has studied and taught meditation for decades in the United States and around the world. They do not draw stark distinctions between the mindfulness and concentration forms of meditation. Instead, they suggest the meditator consider how the brain is somewhat hyperactive, typically allowing a dozen thoughts to occur to it every minute. Meditation allows those thoughts to come in but also to flow out, while one point (one’s breath, for instance) remains the primary focus. Practice makes you better at it.
“It’s like when you look at the sky and watch clouds come and go,” says Ed Shapiro. “You allow the things that come at you in your life to just be and then leave, without it disturbing you.”
In other contexts that sounds like the person who can let the bad things just roll off him or her. Not everyone can do that -- clearly, there are those people who seem to hold on to and even wear their suffering for far too long -- so in such cases meditation is an acquired means for coping with difficulty.
Is meditation sitting still or moving?
For some of us, meditation that involves sitting for long periods of time looks very challenging. Fortunately, that is not the only way to do it.
Meditation of either type can happen while sitting (in various positions) perfectly still or while engaged in a largely repetitive physical activity. Distance runners speak of a type of meditation that happens while training, a state that occurs when the pace of their stride and respiration (inhale-exhale) remains constant for a period of time; the sensation can include a mental disconnection from the physical, yet fully aware of it as it is happening. For practitioners of yoga, the lotus position -- sitting on the floor, legs crossed, spine erect and hands cupped upward -- allows a person to meditate with little or no environmental stimuli. Walking, too, can be meditative.
In general, I am interested in learning more about how to meditate. From my research on these articles for HairLoss.com, it strikes me as being in the same category as fruits, vegetables and exercise -- incorporating meditation into every day will likely yield improved mental and physical well-being.
In three articles here on HairLoss.com, we look at three ways meditation can affect us -- emotionally, physically and spiritually. Because stressful events often lead people to pull out their hair, figuratively and sometimes literally, perhaps this is the alternative therapy necessary for keeping our lives, and our hair, intact.
4 PART MEDITATION SERIES
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