Meditation is a method of calming oneself, focusing attention and clearing out internal disturbance. It can be used as part of a religious observation or it can be a secular practice. The best-known type of meditation is call transcendental meditation or TM. It was made famous in the United States by a group of poets, writers and philosophers who have become known as Transcendentalists. Ralph Waldo Emerson was the central figure in this group, but others included Amos Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott, the writer), Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Frederic Henry Hedge, and Theodore Parker. This group known to, or were associated with, the Peabody sisters and the Hawthornes.
Meditation can be practiced on its own for simple psychological reasons. A study done by Ron Jerving, A.F. Wilson, and J.M. Davidson examined adrenocortical activity during meditation. The study involved three different groups: One group did nothing; one group was composed of people who were new to TM, and practiced it for 3-4 months; the third group was one where the participants had practiced TM over a time period of three to five years. Although there was little difference between the group that did nothing and the people who were new to TM, the group that had practice transcendental meditation for three or more years showed a marked decrease in cortisol during meditation. Cortisol has been named the “stress hormone” and is part of that whole “fight or flight” syndrome. Some cortisol is essential for good health as it helps regulate autonomic functions such as breathing, but too much cortisol is believed to lead to a variety of illnesses such as ulcers or heart disease.
Meditation has been practiced by contemplative religious orders of many different faiths, but you don’t have to belong to any religion to meditate. You can use it to calm yourself down in order to focus on a problem or to relieve anxiety. The key word here is “practice.” It is a skill that is learned – much like riding a bicycle or typing. That might be an over-simplification, but not by much.
A person who has been meditating for many years can go into a light trance almost anywhere – including in the middle of a chaotic situation. The rest of us might need a little more preparation and freedom from distraction. It is for this reason that many books on meditation recommend taking a little time early in the morning before the rest of the world is awake, or late in the evening after other family members have gone to bed to practice meditating.
Dim down the lights in the room so that you will be less distracted by your surroundings. If you wish, you can focus on a single candle or use a lamp – such as a Himalayan Salt Lamp – to illuminate a mandala. Mandalas are complex drawings that are used to focus attention. Focus on your breathing, and let the soft glow of the candle or lamp fill your consciousness. At first, you will find this difficult. The human mind is a busy place. Thoughts zip in and out of our heads at an amazing rate. This can be a good thing, but when the thoughts center around a loop of sadness or anger or even some types of happiness, we respond physically. Our muscles tense, we hold our bodies in cramped, uncomfortable positions, our hearts work harder and so do all our other organs. This physiological response, when extended over time, can cause illness. Through meditation, you learn to control your breath. By controlling your breath, and through relaxation exercises, you can teach your body to let go of the fight or flight response. This allows your mind to examine the situation and come up with a solution. Sometimes the solution is simply to decide not to respond emotionally. Sometimes, once the body has been coaxed out of panic mode, a solution will surface.
The key is to let go of the things that disturb you, and to just breathe. Count your breaths, in and out. Breathe deeply and slowly, then let each breath go fully and completely. Your breath is always with you. When you consciously make it slow and steady, you can steady the rest of you. Thoughts will swim in and out. Just let them go. Imagine them as leaves that flow away on the wind – which is the breath of the world.If possible, set a little timer that has a soft chime to let you know when a minute or two has passed. At first, it will seem as if a minute is forever; but after you have learned to focus your attention, you will find that an hour or two can pass and you will feel as if it was just a minute. Or you can meditate for as little as thirty seconds and find that you are refreshed and calm.