July 28, 2011 -- Little by little, meditation is shedding its image as a strange spiritual discipline practiced by monks and ascetics in Asia. Gwyneth Paltrow meditates. Rivers Cuomo, lead singer of the rock band Weezer, meditates. David Lynch -- his movies are strange, but he is strangely normal -- meditates. Meditation has helped recent military veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Beyond celebrities and the military, there's science. A growing body of research shows that meditation has a discernible effect on the brain that promotes various types of health and well-being.
Anyone interested may need to surmount the final hurdle: the assumption that meditation is hard, time-consuming, painful or complicated. Or religious. While there are lots of different kinds of meditation -- from transcendental meditation to Zen -- experts and health organizations such as the National Institutes of Health agree a beginner need not bother grappling with them. Meditation is simple and easy, and everyone can do it and benefit from it. Here are some tips:
Find some free time -- at least 20 minutes -- and as calm and quiet a place as you can. Meditating with interruptions from your BlackBerry or your computer doesn't really work.
Sit down and make yourself comfortable. Some traditions use physical positions -- mudras, in Sanskrit -- in meditation. The most famous is sitting on the ground in the lotus position, i.e., Indian style. If you are comfortable sitting this way for longer than a few minutes, fine. If not, sit in a chair.
Don't just do something, sit there -- to quote the title of a well-known book on meditation by Sylvia Boorstein. Don't launch immediately into what you think meditation is. Let your mind and body settle for a minute or so. Life is stressful enough; don't make meditation stressful and rushed.
Pick something and gently center your attention on it. It can be your breathing, which works well because of its easy, natural rhythm. It can be an image, mental or physical -- one can meditate with eyes open or closed, whichever works. It can be a mantra, a sound or word that you repeat in your mind or with your voice. "Om" -- with most of your time resting on that nice m sound -- is the most famous.
When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the thing you picked.
When your mind wanders again, gently bring it back to the thing you picked. The mind is a wandering machine. Meditation is not having an empty mind; it's gently quieting your mind using the technique of concentrating on one thing. Over the time you sit, you will likely notice your mind getting a bit quieter.
When your mind wanders again, gently bring it back to the thing you picked. The key word is gently. Meditation is a simple technique, but it's also an approach, a way of being. People, especially Americans, tend to worry about doing it right. Worrying about doing it right is the one wrong way to meditate. Don't be angry or frustrated with your mind or yourself.
Gently close your meditation when you wish or need to. The idea is relaxation and reducing stress, remember? Make it smooth, not jarring. Let the relaxation you cultivated breathe a bit before going on to the next thing in your day.
Repeat as needed. Meditation works best when it's done regularly and over a long period. That doesn't have to mean for hours every day. It can be once every other day for 20 minutes. Many meditaters refer to their "practice." Its benefits happen, and happen more deeply, when it's something you do regularly for some time.
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