years ago, the word "meditation" may have conjured up a mental picture of a bearded
man sitting cross-legged in front of an entrance to a cave or high on a mountain
top. Today, it reminds us of the giant sign that seems to be in every gym window
with the word "yoga" on it, or of the CD that was for sale on the counter when
we were buying our Starbucks this morning, or of the entire section in Barnes
& Noble now dedicated to the term. It is clear that meditation has become a major
part of our society.
But what is meditation? Is it a way to find the answer to the meaning of life?
Is it a way for to achieve inner peace?
"Meditating is actually a lot easier than you might imagine," said Christy Fisher,
a certified yoga instructor. "I guarantee you have already done some."
Fisher has been my guide to exploring the world of meditation. She came to yoga
after experiencing a knee injury playing soccer in college.
"I had knee surgery and wasn't able to do much," said Fisher. "My doctor suggested
yoga as a low impact activity I could do for strength. I discovered that it had
profound healing benefits, and I was hooked for life. I would call mediation 'relaxation,'
but it's an active relaxation."
Fisher explained what she meant through some examples, and I found that I had
in fact meditated before.
"Have you ever been at the dentist and you try to put your mind somewhere else?"
she asked. She said that this was actually mediation; actively putting the mind
somewhere else in order to relax.
But what is the reason the mind needs to detach itself from the situation? And
why do so many people meditate?
"Our world these days moves so quickly," said Fisher. "Things are exciting, and
fun, and busy, and our minds stay so active that they begin to build up with stress.
Our mind and body can only take so much of this. We reach a point where the results
This is where meditation comes in. An experience at the dentist is almost an unconscious
event. The mind has too much stress and so it wanders elsewhere. For those who
participate in yoga, prayer, or other forms of meditation, it is also done as
a way to release this build-up.
Fisher says that "there is no right or wrong behavior during meditation." The
experience is also different for each person. "It is your time for you," she said.
The Beginning of Meditation
Contrary to popular believe, mediation did not start two years ago when your local
gym stenciled the letters Y-O-G-A on the window. Meditation may go back to the
beginning of time. Meditative techniques are as diverse as the cultures are around
the world and have been rooted in the traditions of the world's great religions.
In fact, many religious groups practice meditation in one form or another.
Of the religions that use meditation, Buddhism is one of the best known. To Buddhists,
the practice of meditation is an essential part of their culture. Buddhists believe
that meditation makes it possible to live life to the full spectrum of conscious
and unconscious possibilities. Even a common prayer is considered meditation.
In spite of its rich history and traditions, it is only during the past three
decades that scientific study has focused on the clinical effects of meditation
on health. During the 1960s, reports reached the West of meditation masters in
India who could perform extraordinary feats of bodily control and altered states
of consciousness. These reports captured the interest of Western researchers studying
self-regulation and the possibility of voluntary control over the autonomic nervous
Today, meditation has become a part of society. Research of both its physical
and physiological effects continues, and controversy surrounds it as an alternative
Types of Meditation
All meditation techniques can be grouped into two basic approaches: concentrative
meditation and mindfulness meditation. Concentrative meditation focuses the attention
on breathing, and on an image or a sound. This is believed to make the mind "still"
or "blank," and thus allow for a greater awareness and clarity to emerge.
"This is often compared to a zoom lens in a camera," said Fisher. "You narrow
your focus to a selected field."
Mindfulness meditation is when a person sits quietly and simply witnesses whatever
goes through their mind. They do not react or become involved with thoughts, memories,
worries, or images. This is believed to help the individual gain a more calm,
clear, and non-reactive state of mind.
"Mindfulness meditation is like a wide-angle lens" said Fisher. "Instead of narrowing
your sight to a selected field as in concentrative meditation, here you will be
aware of the entire field."
Ways to Meditate
says there are endless ways for a person to meditate. Three main ways are defined.
First, there is what "formal sitting." This is when the body is held immobile
and the attention is controlled. Buddhism practices this way of meditation.
Next, there are "expressive practices." This is when the body is moved, and often
thought to be free to allow anything to happen. Yoga uses this way of meditation.
Finally, there is the practice of going about daily activities mindfully. This
is "self-remembering," or being in control of the stress which is occurring around
you and not allowing it to build up inside you. This is said to be the most difficult
of all meditations. All these practices have one thing in common. They all focus
on "quieting" the busy mind.
"The intention is not to remove stimulation, but rather to direct your concentration
to something more focused," said Fisher. "The objective is to keep your mind calm
and peaceful so it does not take on the stress of the surrounding world."
The Believed Effects of Meditation
There is an ongoing debate about how exactly meditation actually works and what
it does. There has also been research into the effects of mediation within the
Research has shown that meditation can contribute to an individual's psychological
and physiological well-being. Some studies have shown that meditation can bring
about a state of relaxation, which has both physical and physiological benefits.
Some of the perceived physical effects include lowered heart rate; lowered levels
of cortisol and lactate (two chemicals associated with stress); reduction of free
radicals; decreased blood pressure; lowered cholesterol levels; and improved airflow
into the lungs.
Some of the believed psychological benefits include: increased brain wave coherence,
greater creativity, improved moral reasoning and higher IQ, decreased anxiety,
decreased depression, decreased irritability and moodiness, improved learning
ability and memory, and increased emotional stability.
Some doctors also believe that meditation can be used to treat specific illnesses.
Dr. Ainslie Meares, an Australian psychiatrist, believes that meditation will
not only increase the quality of life in her patients suffering from cancer, but
it will also fight some of the effects of cancer.
Alice D. Domar, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Mind/Body Medical Institute, believes
that meditation can be used for patients who experience infertility. Drug addiction,
heart disease, high blood pressure, psoriasis, respiratory infections, irritable
bowel syndrome, ulcers, and insomnia are just some of the illnesses which are
being researched as treatable diseases through meditation.
The Words of Taoist sage Chuang-tzu
The Taoist sage Chuang-tzu referred to meditation as "mental fasting." He explained
that just as physical fasting purifies the essences of the body by withdrawing
all external input of food, so the "mental fasting" of meditation purifies the
mind and restores the spirit by withdrawing all distracting thoughts and disturbing
emotions from the mind. Fisher, however, puts it a different way.
"Meditation is a safe and simple way to balance a person's physical, emotional,
and mental states," said Fisher. "It is simple, but can benefit everybody. It's
a flexible approach to coping with stress, anxiety, and perhaps even medical conditions."
The physical benefits of mediation are still debatable, but there are definitely
positive mental aspects of mediation, even if it is just escaping the pain from
a dentist drill in your mouth.
Taoists believe that the mind of emotions is governed by the "fire energy of the
heart." "When your emotions are not controlled, the fire energy of the heart flares
upwards, wastefully burning up energy, scolding the consciousness, and clouding
When put in those words, perhaps more people in this world should take a few minutes
of "mental fasting" in order to keep the "fire" down.
Kristina Cossaboon is a senior Biology Major with a minor
in Professional Writing. She is a staff writer for The Signal and is currently
employed by The Federal Natural Resource Conservation Service.