Posts Tagged ‘Benefits of Meditation’

A mantra a day keeps the doctor away

October 1, 2012

This is a wonderful personal account by Nikki Walsh of her experiences first hearing about and later learning Transcendental Meditation. The article appeared in The Irish Mail on Sunday in their Body & Soul section of the paper and as a feature article in The Mail on Sunday in London, England, September 9, 2012. You can see a colorful layout of the 2-page spread on pages 12 and 13 by downloading the PDFs. You can also see it online if you’re willing to register for a free 7-day trial offer.

A mantra a day keeps the doctor away by Nikki Walsh

It beats stress, aids healing and brings focus to the most anxiety-prone life. So exactly why does the ancient practice of meditation succeed where many modern therapies fail? Nikki Walsh enters the big silence…

I first heard of Transcendental Meditation or TM in my twenties, when I was living in a Georgian house overlooking Dublin’s Royal Canal. The house next door was a TM centre, and the girls I lived with often attributed our happiness to what they called ‘the good vibes’. I never took this too seriously, but there were times I was sitting in the garden, when I became aware of a silence that was not my own. I would look up and feel the stillness coming from the other side of the fence, and wonder what exactly was going on.

I moved out of that house, and did not hear about TM again until almost ten years later, when I befriended an artist in her 60s. Her productivity was impressive and yet she always seemed to have time for family and friends. I asked her how she did it. She told me she practised TM. I asked her a little more about it but when I found out the cost – €600 for four sessions with a trained TM teacher – I put it to the back of my mind. A few months later I attended an exhibition of this artist’s work, and TM came up again. One of her friends, also an artist, told me she had been practising it for some months, and that it had had a profound effect on her work. Another said it had improved her health. ‘I was in therapy for years,’ she said, ‘but I never found the peace that I have found in meditation.’

I booked what the TM website calls ‘a free introductory presentation’ and a week later I met a TM teacher called Judy Kelly. Judy is a tall, slim, dark-haired woman whose warmth is so genuine, it is disarming. In her apartment in Monkstown, she explained that the technique was a simple form of meditation, practised twice daily for 20 minutes. Each beginner is given a mantra, and this word, which they repeat to themselves during the meditation, has a gentle assonance, that helps to bring them deeper within themselves, towards a place of peace. In order to show me what this place might be like Judy used an illustration of a cross section of water. If the ripples at the surface were our thoughts, she said, it was possible to go beneath these thoughts to a calmer, much stiller place, not unlike the bottom of an ocean. Then she outlined its benefits. People who do TM have peace, she told me. They don’t worry as much, their minds are clearer, they are more creative. She spoke of ex-students of hers that she was still in touch with, who felt their lives had been transformed by TM. And she talked a little about her own life too.

I decided to give it a go. The next time we met Judy asked me to bring a flower to represent the life that can blossom through TM, a white handkerchief to represent the pure silence at the centre of life and a piece of fruit to represent the fullness of life. I arrived a week later on a morning in spring, with a nectarine, a white hydrangea I’d snipped from my deck, and a handkerchief of my father’s. Judy arranged them all on an altar of sorts beside some spices and a candle. As she lit the candle, she sang a song. As an ex-Catholic I associate rituals with incense, much kneeling and standing, and an ingrained sense of myself as unworthy; but in Judy’s living room, the pink flesh of the nectarine, the whiteness of the petals, the terracotta depth of the spices and the flame of the candle, all combined to create something altogether more soothing. Judy then gave me my mantra and we began to meditate.

I thought about what I needed to do after I left Judy’s, about something irritating someone had said to me the day before, and about a conversation I needed to have with someone I don’t really like. I opened my eyes. Judy was sitting in front of me, her eyes closed, her face set in an expression of bliss. I closed them again. I thought about what I needed to get for dinner, and how I was going to get home. A breakthrough came when I told myself that it was okay to have such thoughts. They began to drift away. Then Judy spoke, and I realised the meditation was over. That night I meditated again. I could not remember the mantra. The next morning the same thing happened. I went back to Judy, and told her, rather pink-faced, what had happened. She laughed and told me it happens all the time.

The sessions continued. I began to realise that something happens when you distance yourself from your thoughts. You gain a little mastery over them. I began to notice when I was thinking futile or negative thoughts – thoughts that wouldn’t help me get where I wanted to be – and I began to change them, or if they overwhelmed me, to meditate, so I could be free of them. In the same way I was able to move away from my mind, I could also move away from what some meditators call ‘the physical body.’ Around the time I met Judy I had just sold my wardrobe which contained a full length mirror. I never bothered to replace it.

Talk to people who practice TM and they will tell you that its effects are subtle and profound. Some feel calmer, others more efficient. The other day I met a 50-year-old woman who told me that TM is the only thing that has helped her stay away from alcohol. ‘It did wonders for my self-esteem,’ she told me. ‘I realised there was a place inside me that was so peaceful and beautiful. I said to myself, how could I be a bad person if such a place was inside me?’ It has given her a coping mechanism she never had. ‘At times of stress, I say my mantra and it is a call to the deepest, strongest part of me, that soothes me like nothing else and enables me in the midst of crisis to feel very still. It is empowering.’ She is also better at making decisions. ‘I have
higher concentration and know more easily what I want.’

TM teachers recommend 20 minutes practice twice a day, but I tend to skip it in the morning and do a longer meditation in the middle of the day. I don’t see colours or have mystical experiences, and some meditations are more frustrating than others, but it does clear my mind. Afterwards I feel lighter and more vital. Now I know when I need to do it: I feel as if I have not showered; there is a fuzziness, a sense of incompletion.

Last week I met an old friend. She told me her husband had begun to meditate six months ago. Since then she has seen a marked improvement in his wellbeing. She would like to try it herself, but – at this I had a smile – she couldn’t get comfortable. She is jealous. ‘He has this place inside him where he can go, and that must be such a comfort.’ Judy Kelly puts it differently. ‘I am so happy,’ she once said to me. ‘I have so much inside me. I really don’t need anything. I am my own best friend.’

Did you know? According to TM Ireland, around 40,000 Irish people have learned the technique in the last 50 years. Celebrity TM practitioners include Eva Mendes, Naomi Watts, Oprah and – a bit less Hollywood – British Deputy PM, Nick Clegg.

WHAT MEDITATION CAN DO FOR YOU
■ Provides a deep physiological state of rest
■ Increases energy
■ Lowers blood pressure and cholesterol levels
■ Increases happiness and improves relationships
■ Reduces stress and anxiety – decreases stress hormones
■ Improves sleeping
■ Reduces the symptoms of asthma
■ Increases creativity and intelligence
■ Gives broader comprehension and improved ability to focus
■ Improves perception and memory
■ Improves students’ learning skills and intellectual performance
■ Increases orderliness of brain functioning increases Self-Actualisation and Self-Concept
■ Reduces the use of cigarettes, alcohol and non-prescription drugs
■ Improves general psychological health and wellbeing
■ Results in more positive health habits
■ Increases life span and reduces effects of ageing
■ Increases levels of DHEA – a hormone described as the elixir of life
■ Improves job performance (productivity) and job satisfaction
■ Helps in the treatment of traumatic stress
For more information on TM, and details of a teacher near you, log on to www.tm-ireland.org

THP: How Meditation Techniques Compare

September 23, 2010

Posted: September 22, 2010 04:50 PM

How Meditation Techniques Compare — Zen, Mindfulness, Transcendental Meditation and more

Meditation shopping? Sounds like an oxymoron, right? Yet millions of Americans are seeking tools to turn within. As a nation we’ve tried to fix our problems with everything from psychotherapy and Prozac to positive thinking and politics. Now people everywhere are ready to close their eyes and take a dive — not to escape, but to more fully be.

Having lectured on meditation for 25 years, I find that audiences no longer need to be convinced of meditation’s practical benefits. But people do often ask, “Aren’t all meditation techniques basically the same?”

Experts in the venerated traditions of meditation have always marveled at the mind’s subtlety, appreciating its keen responsiveness and sensitivity to different mental procedures. Great master teachers of meditation have recognized that the various techniques engage the mind in different ways and naturally produce different results. With advancements in neurophysiology, scientists are now identifying distinctions among varieties of meditation practices.

The Myth of the Relaxation Response

The old “scientific” myth that meditation practices all induce the same, general state of physiological rest — called the “relaxation response” — has been overturned. Though many practices provide relaxation, decades of research show that not all techniques produce the same physiological, psychological or behavioral effects.1

Recently a doctor came to me for meditation instruction. He had learned a “relaxation response” technique in a class on integrative medicine during his training at Harvard. He was attracted to meditation by the promise of deeper insight into consciousness — access to the mind’s hidden, transcendent potentialities. He enjoyed the relaxation technique but yearned for deeper experience and understanding.

Reviewing the science journals, the doctor arrived at the same conclusion reached by leading meditation researchers: the “relaxation” model was based on inconclusive evidence and had never been substantiated. Hundreds of published studies on meditation techniques show varying effects from different practices — ranging from measures of rest much deeper than the “relaxation response” to physiological states no different from sliding back into your easy chair.

The emerging paradigm: three major categories of meditation

Meditation labs have sprung up at universities across the country–places such as Yale, UCLA, University of Oregon, UW Madison and Maharishi University of Management. Their contributions have helped researchers identify three major categories of techniques, classified according to EEG measurements and the type of cognitive processing or mental activity involved:

  • Controlled focus: Classic examples of concentration or controlled focus are found in the revered traditions of Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, Qiqong, Yoga and Vedanta, though many methods involve attempts to control or direct the mind. Attention is focused on an object of meditation–such as one’s breath, an idea or image, or an emotion. Brain waves recorded during these practices are typically in the gamma frequency (20-50 Hz), seen whenever you concentrate or during “active” cognitive processing.2
  • Open monitoring: These mindfulness type practices, common in Vipassana and Zazen, involve watching or actively paying attention to experiences–without judging, reacting or holding on. Open monitoring gives rise to frontal theta (4-8 Hz), an EEG pattern commonly seen during memory tasks or reflection on mental concepts.3
  • Automatic self-transcending: This category describes practices designed to go beyond their own mental activity–enabling the mind to spontaneously transcend the process of meditation itself. Whereas concentration and open monitoring require degrees of effort or directed focus to sustain the activity of meditation, this approach is effortless because there is no attempt to direct attention–no controlled cognitive processing. An example is the Transcendental Meditation technique. The EEG pattern of this category is frontal alpha coherence, associated with a distinct state of relaxed inner wakefulness.4

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Some techniques may fall under more than one category: Guided meditation is controlled focus if the instruction is, “Hold attention on your breath.” But if the instructor says, “Now just watch your thoughts, letting them come and go,” then you’re probably doing open monitoring–and your EEG would say for sure.

Different practices, different results

Without the scientific research (or until we have a cell phone app for measuring our EEG and biochemistry), meditative states and their effects remain subjective. Brain research, along with findings on psychological and behavioral effects, gives a more objective framework for health professionals or anyone to determine which meditation technique might be most beneficial for a given purpose.

For example, research suggests that concentration techniques may improve focusing ability. A study on advanced Buddhist monks–some of whom had logged more 10,000 hours of meditation — found that concentrating on “loving kindness and compassion” increased those feelings and produced synchronous gamma activity in the left prefrontal cortex — indicating more powerful focus.

The effect of open monitoring or non-judgmental observation is said to increase even-mindedness in daily life; studies on mindfulness-type practices indicate better pain management and reduction of “negative rumination.”

For relief from stress, research suggests that an automatic self-transcending technique might serve you better than a practice that keeps the mind engaged in continuous mental effort. Because of the natural mind/body relationship, the more deeply settled the mind, the more deeply rested is the body. Studies show that the deep rest of “transcending” calms the sympathetic nervous system and restores physiological balance — lowering high blood pressure, alleviating chronic anxiety and reducing stress hormones such as cortisol.

More research is needed to verify benefits of controlled focus, but there are numerous studies on mindfulness practices and automatic self-transcending, with over 600 studies on the Transcendental Meditation technique alone.

As meditation becomes a new frontier of scientific research, more and more people are becoming aware of the mind’s enormous potential for impacting health and wellbeing. I find that most meditators are no longer concerned that a technique might come from the East or have roots in a spiritual tradition–their main concern is that the practice works, and science can help remove the guesswork.

Americans are opting for meditation to counterbalance a life that’s been plugged in, outer directed and over stimulated, and we’re turning to something as simple as our own inner silence.

Whether you’re an athlete aiming for the “zone,” an executive striving for peak performance or a harried mother needing some serenity, a reliable meditation practice can be your best friend.

1. Orme-Johnson, Walton, 1998. American Journal of Health Promotion 2(5), 297-299.
2. Lutz, Greischar, Rawlings, Ricard, Davidson, 2004. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 101,16369-73.
3. Cahn, Delorme, & Polich, 2010. Cognitive Processing 2010 11(1):39-56.
4. Travis et al, 2010. Cognitive Processing 11(1), 21-30.

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Also see: THP: Keeping Your Prefrontal Cortex Online: Neuroplasticity, Stress and Meditation

And: Are all meditation techniques the same?

See this article and infographic on Three Categories of Meditation.


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