Brain scans show how meditation cuts stress
Akron, Ohio (USA) -- Recently, in speaking before a luncheon audience, I mentioned that I try to meditate for about 10 minutes every morning and 10 minutes before bedtime.
"How do you meditate?'' a woman asked.
I felt so ill equipped to answer, because I'm new to it, too, as many Westerners are.
Yet, you know meditation has penetrated our culture when Time magazine devotes a cover story to it, as happened recently.
Time reported that 10 million American adults now say they meditate regularly in one way or another -- twice as many as 10 years ago.
"It's becoming increasingly hard to avoid meditation,'' the article said. "It's offered in schools, hospitals, law firms, government buildings, corporate offices and prisons.''
Further, new research using sophisticated imaging techniques suggests that meditation can alter brain activity in a way that reduces stress.
It's as if science, once again, is validating an ancient practice. East and West find common ground.
The late philosopher Karl Jaspers, in writing about Buddhist teachings, described a doctrine whereby truths are reinforced and established only by meditation. In Jaspers' words, this involves the carrying of ``light into the depth'' and the creation of an awareness that ``illumines the unconscious down to the last nook and cranny.''
Buddhism teaches that meditation is a cultivation of concentration, and a state of wakefulness. In the book Destructive Emotions, thought-free wakefulness is described as the mind being ``open, vast and aware, with no intentional mental activity. This mind is not focused on anything, yet totally present -- not in a focused way, just very open and undistracted.''
Thus, the big challenge: How to still our thoughts, quit the mental conversations we have with ourselves, and just hush up.
There are so many techniques and forms of meditation. Centering prayer, for example, is a common Christian form. It often involves repeating a mantra -- a single word or phrase over and over -- while pushing all other thoughts aside. (To be sure, the repeating of a mantra is common in other forms of meditation as well.)
I first tried centering prayer nearly two years ago, after hearing about it in a scripture study class at my church. For nearly a year, I had almost no success; thoughts kept coming into my mind, and it was difficult to set them aside for more than a minute or two.
It wasn't until I read Wayne Dyer's book, There's A Spiritual Solution To Every Problem, that I started to make progress. It's not a how-to book on meditation -- but meditation is explained throughout in various passages. Dyer helped me understand that at least in part, meditation is a process of moving into the gap between your own thoughts.
"When we empty our mind of our ego-driven thoughts we invite forgiveness into our hearts,'' he wrote. ``And by letting go of the lower energies of hatred, shame and revenge, we create a mind-set of problem resolution.''
But, oh, it's not easy.
In his book Contemplative Prayer, the late Trappist monk Thomas Merton got down to the practical difficulty of meditation.
"One cannot begin to face the real difficulties of the life of prayer and meditation unless one is first perfectly content to be a beginner and really experience himself as one who knows little or nothing, and has a desperate need to learn the bare rudiments,'' Merton said. ``We do not want to be beginners. But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners, all our life!''
How to meditate?