The Science of Living and Art of Meditating

Meditation Photo courtesy of MedluxOpens in new window

Meditation is a practice that involves calming the mind and the body and has a history of at least 2,000 years, having descended from Zen Buddhism and yoga. Examples of practices include Zen meditation, Chakra yoga, mantra meditation, transcendental meditation, breath-counting meditation, walking meditation, and others.

Meditation involves a control of one’s attention such that the attention is either focused or expanded.

  • In focused attention, the meditator may concentrate on a sound or a single visual stimulus.
  • Mantra meditation, silently repeating a sound (i.e., “peace,” “om,” or another word or phrase) to oneself, is the most common form of meditation throughout the world (Davis, Eshelman, & McKay, 2008).
  • Visually concentrating on a mandala, a colorful geometric figure, is another type of focused meditation.
  • Walking meditation is usually practiced as a form of expanding one’s attention; as the meditator walks, she attends to all stimuli external to her own thoughts or feelings — the surrounding environment, the act of walking, physical sensations of walking, and so on.

Goldstein (2003) stated that three central concepts unify the diverse meditation approaches:

  1. mindfulness (awareness),
  2. compassion, and
  3. nonclinging.

A goal of meditation is to allow an individual to simply “be” in the present moment, focusing on something outside of the self without worrying about the past or future. While meditating, one reduces the typical mental chatter that includes worrying, planning, fantasizing, and remembering.

The idea is that practicing meditation regularly leads to a calmer state of mind that extends to all of one’s life experience. A number of books provide how-to instructions for various types of meditation, including

  • Girdano, Dusek, and Everly’s (2009) Controlling Stress and Tension,
  • Davis et al.’s (2008) The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Warkbook, and
  • Yogi’s (1963/1995) Science of Being and Art of Living: Transcendental Meditation.

Practicing most types of meditation involves sitting quietly in a comfortable position (ideally, in a quiet environment). Stretching muscles or performing progressive muscle relaxation (tensing and relaxing of muscles) can help ensure that the muscles are relaxed.

It is probably best for inexperienced meditators to close their eyes. Next, one should focus on quieting the mind. This is an area where practices may differ. One approach is to focus on a mantra, a relaxing word one states to oneself.

The individual should try not to get carried away with thoughts, simply focusing on the mantra. If she notices that she is having a thought, she may push it away gently or allow it to pass through her.

This is the attitude that one should have for the duration of the meditation. An individual may meditate for only 5 minutes if that is what works, but ideally, meditation should last at least 20 to 30 minutes.

The preceding description is consistent with transcendental meditation, which was developed in the 1950s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to make meditation more accessible to Western cultures.

Benefits of Meditation

Regular meditation is beneficial in a wide variety of ways. Roth (1994) reviewed 500 studies from 35 different countries spanning 25 years and concluded that:

Meditation can reduce stress, reduce insomnia, increase happiness and self-esteem, reduce anxiety and depression, and produce a number of other positive effects.

The benefits of meditation were discussed at the 2004 annual meeting of the Mind and Life Institute on Destructive Emotions, a meeting of scientists and spiritual leaders including the Dalai Lama.

As science writer Begley (2007), who attended the conference, states, some types of meditation can effectively treat depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Additionally, she describes how meditation appears to change the structure of the brain.

The right prefrontal cortex, which tends to be associated with a state of happiness, is larger in meditators than in nonmeditators. Additionally, the left prefrontal cortex, which is associated with negative emotions, is smaller in meditators.

Continued study in this general field, neuroplasticity (the changing of brain structure, including growth of new brains cells), may reveal additional findings that support the positive attributes of meditation and other stress-management techniques.

See also:
  1. Begley, S. (2007). Train your mind, change your brain. New York: Ballantine.
  2. Davis, M., Eshelman, E.R., & McKay, M. (2008). The relaxation and stress reduction workbook (6th ed.). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
  3. Girdano, D.A., Dusek, D.E., & Everly, G.S., Jr. (2009). Controlling stress and tension (8th ed.). San Francisco: Benjamin Cummings.
  4. Goldstein, J. (2003). One Dharma: The emerging Western Buddhism. San Francisco: Harper.
  5. Roth, R. (1994). Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s transcendental meditation. New Yorkd: Primus.
  6. Yogi, M.M. (1995). Science of being and art of living: Transcendental meditation. New York: Meridian Books.