MoonDragon's Alternative Health Information
Mind & Emotion Therapies
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A mental discipline included in the practice of many world religions, medication is intended to induce a state of profound relaxation, inner harmony, and increased awareness. Various techniques can be used during meditation; all involve focusing the mind on a particular object or activity, and disregarding distractions. Meditation has been shown to reverse the body's "flight or fight" response to stress, and while it is practiced as a means of spiritual enlightenment in Eastern societies, in the West it is widely used in a non-religious context to treat stress-related conditions.
MAIN USES OF MEDITATION
Stress-related conditions, such as high blood pressure, anxiety, insomnia, headaches, migraines, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome. Fatigue and depression. Long-term pain. Addictions Enhancing the immune system. Personal development.
MoonDragon's Womens Health Information: Stress
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Meditative techniques are practiced in all the world's major religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Paganism. In the West, meditation has traditionally take the form of prayer and contemplation. Medieval Christian mystics, such as Hildegard of Bingen and Meister Eckhart, spoke of withdrawing to a level beyond ordinary consciousness. The Eastern Orthodox Church uses the repetitive "Jesus Prayer" as a mantra (a chant to focus the mind, formed from a single word or phrase).
A religious depiction, such as the 15th century Greek icon of St. Demetrious of Thessalonik, or any image with spiritual significance for the meditator, may help the mind withdraw from and transcend everyday reality.
In the East, meditation has long been a way of both achieving bliss and exploring consciousness itself. Indian yoga practices were taken to England by the Theosophists in the 19th century. This was followed by the introduction of Buddhist practices, especially those of Zen Buddhism, to the US. Both were well established in Europe and the US by the 1960s, when the Indian yogi Maharishi Mahesh introduced Transcendental Meditation (TM) to the West. A form of mantra meditation based on Hindu philosophy, it attracted immense publicity, and scientific research into the therapeutic value of meditation began in the US.
Buddha in a meditative posture, surrounded by deities, is depicted in this Tibetan thang-ka, a banner for a sacred temple.
Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University defined the "relaxation response" after studying the physiological effects of the TM meditation on practitioners, and his work encouraged the development of a non-religious style of meditation. With the exodus of monks from Tibet, yet another form of meditation has reached the West, but TM is still one of the most popular forms of meditation.
The state of meditation can be interpreted in various ways. It may describe a condition in which the mind focuses on a thought or image, a non-judgmental receptiveness to whatever enters the mind, a state of "relaxed awareness", or one in which the mind is "empty". All involve withdrawing from external reality and achieving deep relaxation and increased mental clarity.
Meditation has been shown to reverse the effects of stress. When under threat, the brain tells the adrenal glands to produce certain hormones in preparation for the "flight-or-fight" response. This causes blood pressure and muscle tension to increase, the heart to pound, and breathing to become fast and shallow. Some people find that this response is provoked not only at times of real danger, but when they are faced with what they perceive as stressful situations. In meditation, the brain waves change to a distinctive alpha pattern linked with deep relaxation and mental alertness. Regular meditators can shift into this mode at will, which allows them to deal with stress efficiently and counter conditions such as high blood pressure and muscle pain.
Various schools of meditation favor particular techniques. All, however, stress the initial need for a focus of attention to which the mind can return if distracted. This may be the rhythm of the breathing, a mantra, a physical object, such as a religious icon, or a repetitive movement, such as t'ai chi ch'uan.
THE THEORY OF MEDITATION
The state of altered awareness and deep relaxation experienced during meditation is associated with distinctive electrical activity in the cortex, or "thinking" part of the brain. This activity can be charted as brain-wave patterns on a graph. Significant psychological and physiological benefits are linked to those patterns that occur during meditation.
The cortex is the largest part of the brain. It is where conscious thought arises and sensory perceptions are translated into actions such as speech and movement. It is also linked through the midbrain, which generates emotions. These hemispheres are each associated with different kinds of mental activity.
The two hemispheres consist of an outer layer rich in nerve cells, called gray matter, and inner areas rich in nerve fibers, called white matter. The "dominant" hemisphere - the left side in most people - deals with logical functions, such as rational thought, calculation, speech, and writing. The "non-dominant" hemisphere - generally the right side - is more intuitive and concerned with creativity, imagination, and emotional responses. Most of the time, the cortex is engaged with social interaction and daily tasks. Consequently, the left side has to work harder than the right side.
Normal states of consciousness - sleeping, dreaming, being awake - can be detected in the wave patterns produced by the brain. The state of meditation differs from all three. An electroencephalograph (EEG) can be used to take readings from all over the brain, through the scalp, to monitor mental states. The brain waves associated with quiet, receptive states are called alpha waves, and the EEGs reproduced below show that meditation produces alpha waves of a far higher intensity than those that occur during sleep. In alpha states, the body gradually relaxes as the parasympathetic nervous system (which reverses the flight-or-fight response) predominates.
During meditation, high intensity alpha waves are produced. The hemispheres are fairly synchronized, suggesting an integration of left and right brain.
During sleep, alpha wave frequency in both hemispheres is of a lower intensity than during meditation, showing that the level of relaxation is less profound.
EVIDENCE & RESEARCH
Hundreds of academic papers have been written on TM alone. The American journal Psychosomatic Medicine published a study in 1987 comparing 2,000 meditators practicing TM with non-meditators. The TM group made fewer than half the number of health care provider visits and spent 50 percent less time in the hospital, though skeptics point out that social factors may have had more to do with this result than meditation.
In the late 1960s, Dr. Keith Wallace of the University of California in Los Angeles found that the brain became more alert and the body more relaxed during TM. Dr. Benson's research into the relaxation response is widely documented, and his studies suggest that practitioners of advanced meditation have extraordinary physiological control.
Other systems of meditation have also been studied and while each approach has a distinctly different impact on the body and mind, patients generally report greater clarity of thought, calmness, and efficiency in managing time and energy. In the US, Dr. Dean Ornish showed in 1992 that heart disease could be reversed with a lifestyle program that included meditation. Results of many other clinical studies include more orderly brain functioning, seen in a synchronization of brain waves between the left and right hemispheres, improved circulation in the fingers and toes, increased cerebral blood flow, and lower levels of stress hormones. Research has also shown reductions in anxiety, mild depression, insomnia, tension headaches, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, and premenstrual syndrome.
A study reported in 1992 in the American Journal of Psychiatry showed that a Buddhist practice of meditation known as Vipassana could reduce anxiety, panic, and agoraphobia.
CONVENTIONAL MEDICAL OPINION
A growing number of conventional medical practitioners believe that just as physical exercise and a healthy diet are now acknowledged to be important factors in the prevention and treatment of disease, so conventional medicine will place more emphasis on relaxation and meditation in the future. Some health care providers already recommend meditation to their patients as an effective relaxation technique that can help stress-related illnesses.
CONSULTING A PRACTITIONER
It is possible to teach yourself to meditate from books, tapes, or videos, but you will probably find it easier to consult a teacher who will show you how to achieve a meditative state, as well as supervise your progress. Sessions may take place on a one-to-one basis or in groups. Practitioners use a variety of techniques; if you do not feel comfortable with one method. Try another.
A word or phrase is repeated continually, either silently or aloud. It may related to your personal beliefs or it can simply be a positive statement.
Rosary beads may be used during meditation to count repetitions of a prayer.
TIBETAN PRAYER WHEEL
Each rotation of the cylinder stands for one recitation of a mantra.
For Hindus, this is the most sacred mantra. It is widely used in yoga meditation.
Fresh flowers can have a calming effect on the mind. If flowers are not available, a pleasant scented stick or loose incense may be substituted.
A portrait or image of a loved family member, spiritual leader, a deity (Goddess or God image or statue), or someone you identify with, may help you to focus.
The flame of a candle is a symbol of the inner light of pure spirituality, which is sought in meditation.
Whichever approach you choose, there are a few basic requirements for practicing meditation successfully:
- A quiet environment where you can meditate without being disturbed.
- A comfortable position - usually sitting so as to prevent you from becoming drowsy or falling asleep.
- A focus for the mind to help it withdraw from external reality. The object of meditation is a state of "passive awareness," in which the mind is gently directed back to the focus of attention whenever it wanders, which it naturally does.
- Slow breathing and an awareness of the breath entering and leaving the body also help to promote deep relaxation.
SITTING POSITION FOR MEDITATION
Assuming a cross-legged position with hands loosely folded allows the meditator to remain calm but alert. Eyes are open or closed depending on the method of meditation.
The focus of attention is your breathing. You count one, or think of a peaceful word, with each outbreath.
You enter a state of "diffuse openness" - aware of, but detached from, everything you are experiencing.
T'ai chi, walking, swimming, and other activities involving rhythmic movement can focus the mind.
Your practitioner may use language and ideas from a certain faith, such as Buddhism; it is not necessary for you to belong to this or any other faith, and techniques can be adapted to suit the individual. Many practitioners, including teachers of TM, will ask you to repeat a mantra in your head while you meditate. As the session progresses, you may start to feel sleepy, but as you continue to meditate, this will pass and you will become more alert.
You will be advised to meditate on a daily basis for around 15 to 20 minutes, preferably at the same time each day. First thing in the morning is an ideal time.
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
Q: How long does a session last?
A: This depends on the method used; initially 15 to 20 minutes.
Q: How many sessions will I need?
A: Again, this depends on the method used. Meditation may seem difficult at first.
Q: Will it be uncomfortable?
A: Some people find it hard to sit still for long; they may prefer active meditation.
Q: Will there be any aftereffects?
A: Feelings of anxiety may sometimes arise. Depression and withdrawal have been reported by long-term meditators in rare cases. The teacher should help you avoid these.
Check with your health care provider before starting meditation if you have a history of psychiatric problems.
It helps to receive instructions when you learn to meditate, but with discipline and motivation it is possible to teach yourself.
1 Find somewhere quiet and warm where you will not be interrupted as you meditate. Make sure you are wearing comfortable clothes.
2 Begin by sitting for a short time, and gradually build up to longer periods. With practice, it should be possible to sit for 15-20 minutes at least once, and preferably twice a day, before a meal. If you must keep track of time, open your eyes occasionally to check a strategically placed clock, rather than setting an alarm that could give you a rude awakening. Eventually you will develop a sense of when to finish meditating.
3 A cross-legged pose is not obligatory and you may prefer to sit on an upright chair, with your back straight, and your feet firmly on the ground or a support. Rest your hands on your lap or knees. Imagine a straight line connecting your navel with the tip of your nose, or a string pulling up from the top of your head. Close your eyes and relax.
4 Breathe slowly and rhythmically. Inhale through your nose and feel the breath move down to your abdomen. Notice which parts of your body are most tense and, as you exhale, imagine the muscles loosening.
5 Focus on the object of your meditation: The rhythm of your breathing; an image, such as a candle flame or a religious symbol; or a word or phrase repeated silently as you exhale.
6 Allow your attention to be passive. When your mind wanders, simply acknowledge what is happening, then return to the focus of meditation.
7 Try to stay as still as possible. If you develop an itch, resist the urge to scratch. Return to the focus of your meditation. the sensation will usually become less intense and disappear.
8 When you are ready, take a full minute before you open your eyes. Then take a another minute to become fully aware of your surroundings. Stretch and stand up slowly. If you are interrupted, find the time later to meditate briefly again, and to enter normal consciousness slowly.
MoonDragon's Health Therapy: Meditation Information & Techniques
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