Once considered an exotic and exclusively spiritual practice, expert doctors and scientists now credit meditation with alleviating a host of physical and mental ailments such as anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and chronic fatigue.
But what comes to mind when you think of meditation? Is it monks wearing enlightenment on their sleeves, drinking super caffeinated green tea, levitating at will, and disappearing into tree-lined monasteries for days, weeks, or years at a time? Is it gym yoga classes complete with $22.95/pair purple pastel blocks and trendy attractive people in the front row? The gazillion ads for guided meditation CDs that pop-up whenever you put "meditation" into a search engine?
Clearly, the word meditation conjures up some interesting images, but arguably the general idea behind mindfulness meditation is inherent in all forms of meditation. 99.9% of the time, our mental processes are dominated by a never-ending stream of angry, anxious, and reactive thoughts that rob us of our inherent ability to feel at peace and focused in any given moment.
By contrast, during a meditation practice, you encourage yourself to feel aligned with whatever is happening in the present moment, instead of getting caught up in habitual perceptions of what has happened in the past or may happen in the future. By meditating, you gently turn off the never-ending and very popular "what if THIS happens" channel in your mind and just exist in the here and now. As Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, renowned meditation teacher, psychologist, and facilitator of the Stress Reduction and Relaxation program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center says in Full Catastrophe Living:
Simply put, mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness. It is cultivated by purposefully paying attention to things we ordinarily never give a moment's thought to. It is a systematic approach to developing new kinds of control and wisdom in our lives, based on our inner capacities for relaxation, paying attention, awareness, and insight.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living. Dell Publishing, New York, 1990, 2.
So if we accept the premise that feeling centered in the present moment can be beneficial to our physical and mental well being, how do we learn how to meditate?
While there are many ways of introducing yourself to meditation, three simple methods come to mind:
1) Taking a meditation or yoga class with a teacher and other students.
2) Using guided meditation tapes or CDs to create your own practice.
3) Cultivating focused awareness through short "spot" meditations, even if you can't commit to a full fledged meditation practice.
Taking a Class with Others
Your local gym or YMCA probably sponsors yoga classes which can function as a kind of meditation-in-motion practice, even if you don't have a full-fledged yoga school in your area. Typing "online meditation class" into a search engine also yields virtual classes encompassing many different time zones and meditation philosophies compatible with almost anyone's belief system or schedule.
Using Guided Meditation CDs
Using guided tapes and CDs can be a great starter program for anyone unsure about beginning a meditation practice on their own.
Meditation for Optimum Health: How to Use Mindfulness and Breathing to Heal Your Body and Refresh Your Mind, by Drs. Jon Kabat-Zinn and Andrew Weil, is an excellent meditation starter program for anyone (especially those interested in scientific validation that meditation works).
Radical Self-Acceptance, by renowned meditation teacher, Buddhist lay priestess, and psychologist, Dr. Tara Brach, combines psychological awareness with Buddhist teachings about compassion in exploring how mindfulness meditation can alleviate the shame or "the trance of unworthiness," so common and destructive in modern life.
Belleruth Naparstek's guided imagery series frequently gets rave reviews from individuals using guided meditation/visualization in working with specific issues such as post traumatic stress disorder, weight loss, or insomnia.
Cultivating a Smidgen of Meditative Awareness: Spot Meditations
Meditations designed to be done in 5 minutes or less may not bring instant enlightenment, but they can still provide a taste of feeling calm and focused in the present moment. Flip the Switch: 40 Anytime, Anywhere Meditations in 5 minutes or Less by Eric Harrison, is an excellent resource for anyone who can take a few deep mindful breaths while waiting for a red light to change or a meeting to start. Meditation from Thought to Action by Alexander and Annellen Simpkins, also contains many short exercises designed to focus the mind in a few minutes.
Most people who have tried meditation usually agree that simply having the intention to meditate has a profound effect on anyone's mental/physical health and personal development. So what not order a book or CD about meditation right now, and make an investment in your well being?