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As a holistic physician, I find that meditation and meditative exercises such as yoga and Tai Chi, are some of the most powerful tools we have for optimal health.
When practiced regularly, these time-honored exercises promote healing on every level: physical, mental, emotional, and psycho-spiritual. They reduce stress and expand our heart, increasing our innate love and compassion for ourselves and others. This love and compassion is actually our greatest healer – something I’ve experienced consistently in my personal meditation practice and in clinical work with patients over the last few decades.
New research, ancient practices
Researchers are just beginning to uncover the complex relationships between mind and body, confirming connections that spiritual disciplines have emphasized for millennia. For example, studies show that feelings of gratitude generate concrete health benefits, including lowered stress hormones. Regular meditation reduces inflammation, improves immunity and strengthens areas of the brain related to empathy and emotional processing, among other benefits. On the other hand, studies show that pessimism and negativity fuel inflammation and chronic disease, assaulting DNA, hastening the aging process and increasing risks of cancer.
Innately, we know these findings to be true. How do you feel physically when you experience negative emotions, compared to feelings of love and compassion? The differences are obvious. Nevertheless, we are all slaves to our minds – to some degree or another. We are habituated to cycles of anxiety and neurotic thought patterns, dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. One meditation metaphor describes the mind as “a blind rider on a wild horse.” We have no control over what thought will take over, driving us into unknown territory.
The journey into mind-body healing begins by allowing us to take a step back and observe our thought patterns, so that we’re no longer a “blind rider.” These ancient practices offer us tools which can tame the wild horse, so to speak. With regular practice, meditation helps break the cycles of anxiety and stress, replacing them with mental patterns that heal us instead. This is accomplished not by suppressing or rejecting negative feelings, but by relaxing and allowing these thoughts and emotions to simply come and go, without giving them weight, or attaching any specific meaning to them. Another metaphor compares thoughts and emotions to clouds passing above us, arising and dissipating. Behind the passing clouds, is the open sky. The sky represents our mind’s true nature of clarity and tranquility that is always present, regardless of whatever clouds may obscure it.
From doing to simply being
Meditation is a truly unique activity, because it allows us to shift from doing, to simply being. It cultivates a state of deep relaxation, where we get to let go of our efforts to “become a good meditator.” Many people think that having an “empty mind” is the definition of “good meditation,” but this is an error. Thoughts are not the problem. The problem is how we react to them, getting carried away and dwelling in the past, or projecting our hopes and fears into the future. Instead, just relax into a space where you don’t identify with your thoughts and emotions – you simply let them go on their way, like passing clouds. With practice, the space between your thoughts becomes wider, calmer, and clearer. Within this spaciousness, a deeper, more authentic state of consciousness can arise and expand, expressed as genuine love, compassion, and greater clarity of awareness. Meditation has a naturally calming effect on mental chatter. Like a pond after a rock is thrown in, the ripples fade over time, leaving a reflective surface.
How to begin
I would like to share with you some simple yet powerful techniques to begin your meditation journey. Committing to even just ten minutes a day can offer noticeable benefits in your health and overall quality of life.
There are thousands of styles of meditation, but one of the most profound also happens to be one of the simplest. This is the ancient Buddhist practice of Shamatha meditation, which means “calm abiding” in Sanskrit. Shamatha is intended to help access the mind’s natural state of tranquility and clarity. In Shamatha, we focus our gaze, breath and concentration on a specific object – such as a small stone – letting thoughts arise and dissipate, and gently turning our attention back to the breath and the rock.
Find a quiet place either indoors or outdoors where you will not be disturbed. Let family members (and pets!) know to give you this time of peace. Use a cushion that is comfortable for your body to sit cross-legged, or you can use a chair. Place the small stone (or other object) a few feet in front of you. Keep your spine straight and your chin slightly tucked in. Sense your contact with the chair or pillow and the connection of your feet on the ground. Take a few deep breaths and then just focus on your breath as it moves in and out naturally. Focus your eyes and attention on the stone in front of you. As you breathe, breathe in from the stone and out to the stone in a continuous circle, relaxing and allowing any tension to dissipate away with your exhalation. Very simple, and yet you will see how easily you get lost in a thought. It’s OK – be gentle with yourself as you maintain the perspective of the observer. When you notice you’ve lost concentration, gently bring your attention back to your breath and the cycle of breathing to and from the stone. Developing this “muscle” of focus using your eyes and breathing, helps your mind and your whole being relax. This is sometimes referred to as “effortful effortlessness.” There is the “effort” of maintaining focus on the meditation when your mind wanders, and the “effortlessness” of allowing all that is arising to come and go with no effort.
Resting in this tranquil, quiet space, we make room for our true inner nature of openness, love, peace and clarity to arise and expand. The layers of obstructions, in the form of attachments, hopes and fears, slowly peel away, and our inner light becomes brighter and clearer. This is where healing can take a quantum leap. But it does take practice, so be gentle with yourself.
Dedicating your meditation
There is one more aspect to meditation practice. In Buddhism it’s called “dedicating the merit.” After each meditation session, we say, “May the merit generated by this practice benefit all beings.” We intend that the benefits of meditation are not only for ourselves.
This helps us stay connected to our hearts in today’s world, where we are often overwhelmed by the barrage of suffering we see, hear and read on a daily basis. The tendency is to close down, to distract ourselves, or to enhance our habit of self-focus. Regular meditation and the dedication afterwards, is a way to keep our hearts open to humanity and to ourselves, without getting overwhelmed. In my experience, this is profoundly healing on a personal level and I encourage you to make this a part of your practice.
Regular meditation opens a door to our deepest selves. It nurtures a subtle yet powerful attunement to our true nature and the world around us – something we all long for today.
Engaging in a meditation retreat, either alone or together with a group, can be a profound way to reach a deeper state of relaxation, healing and rejuvenation. In February 2017, I’ll be offering another meditation and healing retreat sponsored by the non-profit organization, Amitabha Wellness Foundation, in Santa Rosa, CA. For more information, visit http://www.dreliaz.org/news-events/retreats-events/.
Give yourself a few extra moments every day to meditate, breathe and unwind your mind. It’s been a busy year – you deserve it.