Meditation moves into the mainstream
by Shachi D. Shantinath, Ph.D.
Originally published in www.HealthandAge.com, 2000.
Although meditation has been historically used in a religious context, it now has a respected place within behavioral medicine and health psychology. Institutions such as the Harvard Medical School and the University of Massachusetts have produced research that supports the use of meditation within the context of health care. At the Sloan Kettering Memorial Cancer Center in New York City, one of the U.S.’s leading cancer research and treatment centers, meditation has been integrated into the range of treatments used to help people cope with cancer.
It is important to bear in mind that meditation is not a cure for illnesses, but rather an important adjunct in the treatment of various conditions. It has a range of applications from helping people reduce stress in their daily lives to boosting their ability to cope with extraordinarily difficult situations.
In addition to research findings, individual stories of how people find meditation useful give us a concrete idea as to how people actually use it to cope with difficult situations. One of the most compelling stories I have ever come across was told to me by “Heinz,” a 72 year old business man in Zurich.
Some years ago he found himself overloaded with the task of caring for his wife, who was diagnosed with a mental illness. “I did not know how I could go on. I was looking for opportunities for rest.” He says that his daily practice of meditation, which he stumbled upon through a chance finding in a book, gave him a way to increase his patience and ability to deal with the situation. He attributes his ability to cope with the ups and downs of his marriage to having meditated over a span of over twenty years.
Approaches to meditation are diverse and there is no one right or wrong way to meditate. One frequently used approach within Behavioral Medicine and Health Psychology is called “Mindfulness” meditation, pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Through his research, he has demonstrated the effectiveness of Mindfulness meditation in helping people cope with problems such as anxiety, chronic pain, cancer and hypertension.
Mindfulness involves becoming fully aware of the present moment, and focusing only on the moment to moment progression of time, without any self-evaluation. In a broader sense, Mindfulness means becoming aware of everything we are doing, be it breathing, walking or eating.
One complaint I hear from people is that they do not have time in their lives to implement a regular relaxation program. Persons pressed for time- such as those involved in caring for young children, or a family member who might be ill- tell me that they cannot find the time to attend a class or devote twenty to thirty minutes a day to relaxation training. For such people, Mindfulness is an ideal way to carve out small moments of relaxation, even in the midst of a busy schedule, since it can involve any activity one is doing.
How to practice Mindfulness meditation
In a sense, the practice of Mindfulness meditation simply means becoming aware of the many things that we do automatically. And since breathing is something we do all of the time, it serves as an effective anchor for Mindfulness.
“Heinz” described the process well when explained how he focuses on his breath as he meditates. “Practice begins with an awareness of my breath as it enters my nose. Then I focus on the sensation of my abdomen expanding as I breathe in. Lastly, my awareness shifts to the air as I breathe it out.” In this way, he focuses on the cyclic nature of breathing, for periods of approximately twenty minutes per day.
If twenty minutes sounds like a lot of time, then try beginning with just five. Short periods of meditation at regular intervals may be more practical for some people. What is important is the regular practice, which is better than trying to meditate in occasional large blocks of time.
Eating and Mindfulness
Since eating is something that we all do, mindful eating can serve as an easy entry point for those who are curious about how to meditate. All that is needed is a comfortable and quiet place. Take small amounts of food in your mouth and chew it slowly as you pay attention to the taste and texture. Closing your eyes can help to reduce distractions and intensify your perception of the flavors. Deep and relaxed breathing at the same time enhances the process.
In his book Eat More Weigh Less, (Harper, 1997) Dean Ornish, M.D. suggests mindfulness eating as part of an overall plan of weight management. A key idea with regard to weight management or weight loss is not to deprive ourselves of foods we often term “bad”, but rather to develop ways of enjoying them in smaller amounts. Considering the number of times we eat automatically, be it while talking or watching television or other such activities, a deepened awareness of what we are eating or drinking can be part of broader weight management strategies.
Consider chocolate. For many people it carries with it both positive and negative associations. On the one hand it is something they enjoy, but on the other hand many people tell me they feel guilty about eating it. In the classes I teach on Mindfulness, participants practice meditation through various methods such as listening to music and focusing on their walking or breathing. But everyone’s favorite exercise is the chocolate meditation, where people learn to eat slowly and with full attention. They are asked to concentrate on a piece of chocolate fully as it slowly dissolves – a process that can take up to five minutes.
People often remark that they did not know they could get such a great deal of pleasure from such a small amount of chocolate. And since they learn to eat a tiny amount with full concentration, they typically end up eating less of it, the result being that they can enjoy it without guilt.
Problems while trying to meditate
Because our minds are prone to wandering or making evaluative comments to ourselves (such as “You probably look silly doing this”) focusing on one’s breath can be a source of frustration for many people. For this reason, the structure of a class can be helpful to beginners. However, classes may not be a practical option for everyone. In such instances, books can be helpful. One book that I particularly like for its straightforward approach to Mindfulness is “Mindfulness in Plain English” by H. Gunaratana (Wisdom Publications, 1993). Just as the title suggests, the author explains the process in a way that de-mystifies it and makes it accessible to many readers.
Life presents us with unexpected difficulties which we cannot always control. However, as we can see from Heinz’s story, we can control how we respond to situations. To that end, Mindfulness meditation is a practical way of coping that does not require a great outlay of resources on our part. It is free and can be done at any time and in any place. And the benefits can be tremendous.
Copyright, S.D. Shantinath, Ph.D. All rights reserved.