Meditation can seem mysterious, but recent research is demonstrating many benefits. Meditation has been around for thousands of years in most spiritual traditions, including Christianity. It has various meanings including “to dwell upon, to contemplate, to heal and wisdom.”
Meditation has become popularized in recent years because of scientific studies on positive health effects for concerns such as pain control, heart conditions, cancer, infertility, increased immune response, decreased blood pressure, decreased muscle tension, lessened colds/flu, reduced irritable bowel syndrome and improved diabetic symptoms.
Meditation also has demonstrated positive mental health effects with reduced anxiety, depression and ADHD. Soldiers returning from Iraq are being taught meditation to help them in handling psychological trauma. Many people will remember Phil Jackson, coach of the Chicago Bulls, using meditation with basketball players for benefits in concentration.
There are also myths about meditation.
Do you think that you can’t sit cross legged, or you need absolute quiet, or that meditation is a religion? Or that it is just too hard, you can’t empty your mind or you might fall asleep? Those are normal concerns, but anyone can practice meditation in any comfortable position. Meditation, like contemplation, is not religion, but a mental self-training. Conditions may never be perfect to practice, and that’s Ok. You are not expected to empty your mind, and, yes, you might fall asleep!
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Government studies show that about 10 percent of the population has tried meditation for health, stress or spiritual reasons. The National Institute of Health revealed meditation also helped with better academic performance, concentration, reaction time, memory, self-control, self-esteem and effective functioning.
There are dozens of different styles of meditation in the West. Meditation is sometimes thought of in two broad categories: concentrative meditation and mindfulness meditation.
Concentrative meditation is a type of focused attention on some chosen area such as your breathing or focusing on something visual like a candle or beautiful scene, or on a phrase such as a prayer or Bible/spiritual verse, or using prayer beads. One may focus on a particular internal state that they wish to cultivate or affirm, such as practicing a sense of compassion, loving kindness, peace, forgiveness, contentment or other positive state.
Mindfulness meditation is described more as an open monitoring rather than a focused attention. In this open monitoring state, one does not focus on any one particular thing like breathing, visuals or phrases, but simply becomes more clearly aware of whatever is going on around them in a moment to moment quiet state. That observational state is compared to being aware of the clouds going by in the sky. A person might simply note their own body state, their thoughts drifting by, notice whatever they are hearing. To them, sitting quietly while being aware of simple thoughts, feelings and sensations without getting stuck in any mental story or attachment is mindfulness meditation.
Both types of meditation are used for relaxation. In fact, meditation is considered the oldest type of relaxation. It is currently being used in prisons, hospitals and schools. Taking even 5 to 10 minutes a day to practice can yield positive benefits.
BARB ELAM is a licensed clinical professional counselor and a member of the Southern Illinois Behavioral Health Team.