Meditation is a discipline or practice of contemplation or awareness found inmost of the world's major religions and not a medical treatment in the usualsense. Meditation is, however, frequently recommended by mainstream medicalpractitioners as well as alternative therapists because of its demonstrated healing effects on the central nervous system, heart rate, and level of muscular tension.

Meditation is reputed to have benefits for the entire person: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Persons who practice meditation on a regular basis may experience lowered blood pressure, more restful sleep, and relief fromsuch physical effects of stress as ulcers, headaches, chronic muscle pain, and skin rashes. Therapeutic visualization has also been shown to extend the survival time and quality of life of terminally ill patients.

The purposes of meditation have been variously defined as increased awareness, greater ability to live in the moment, freedom from the ego, spiritual growth, or union with God or the universe. It is important to understand that although better health is a frequent side effect of meditation, it is not the goal or focus of meditation practice. The paradox of meditation as an approachto treatment of diseases and disorders is that it asks the patient to put aside immediate concerns with health or wellness.

Meditation is suitable for most people who are not vulnerable to psychotic episodes. Some people may experience hallucinations or dissociative episodes. The other major precaution concerns the patient's expectations. Most persons beginning a meditation practice will not find it easy; they are often disturbed by the distractions of their mental processes or the physical discomfort ofsitting still for a period of time.

The form of meditation with which most Westerners are familiar involves sitting quietly in a chair or on the floor with eyes closed in order to concentrate or focus the mind. There are, however, a variety of approaches to meditation practice. But the goal of all forms of meditation is single-mindedness --tolet go of all distractions and focus on one object of attention or devotion.There are several techniques that meditators use to achieve this level of concentration. Some techniques work better for individuals than others. Beginners should use the approach that they find the most comfortable.

Breathing exercises are often recommended to beginners. Meditation on the breath does not require changing one's breathing in any way, but only paying attention to it. This narrowness of focus helps to develop the ability to concentration. When the person becomes aware that his or her attention has wandered, he or she simply returns to focusing on the breath again. A variation of this approach is focusing on body sensations, sometimes called body scanning. The meditator simply focuses attention on the sensations in each part of his or her body in turn. Sometimes body scanning is combined with a breathing exercise; the meditator imagines breathing into and out of each part of the bodyas he or she attends to its sensations.

Meditation is a holistic practice that regards the body's positioning or activity as an important dimension of concentration. If the meditator is sitting,he or she is usually instructed to sit upright and wear loose or comfortableclothing in order to be alert as well as relaxed. Some forms of meditation,however, use body motion or postures as an intentional technique of concentration.

In this form of meditation, the person slows down the pace of walking in order to focus on each movement of his or her legs or feet. Walking meditation isoften done inside in a large room or without a particular destination. Sufiwalking (or dancing) is a form of moving meditation that developed in medieval Islam. The person walks in a rhythmic fashion, usually chanting, in order to focus the mind on a specific quality of God.

A mantra is a name of God or other sacred phrase that the meditator repeats over and over in order to focus the mind. Mantra repetition is the basic technique of transcendental meditation, or TM. TM was introduced to the West in the 1960s by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and helped to make meditation acceptableto mainstream medical doctors. There is some disagreement as to the importance of the mantra's content. Some think that any word or phrase is as effective as any other in focusing the mind. Others, however, maintain that the mantra must have some connection to the sacred. Examples of religious mantras include the Jesus prayer of Christian tradition, the holy Name of God in Judaism,or the Om mantra of Tibetan Buddhism.

Devotional meditation has an interpersonal quality in that the meditator focuses on a being who represents the divine or some quality of holiness to him or her. This approach also allows the meditator to integrate feelings of loveor gratitude. It can take the form of chanting hymns that use the names of God, or visualizing the person or being that represents God to the meditator. Meditation in the Christian tradition sometimes includes visualizing Jesus orcertain events in his life. Visualization is a useful approach to meditationfor people who are sensitive to visual stimuli. Visualization meditation hasalso been used in the treatment of cancer, AIDS and other disease processes.In visualization therapy, the patient visualizes the inner workings of the body, with healthy cells fighting off the cancer or AIDS virus or rebalancing what is out of alignment with health. The patient can combine visualizations with breathing exercises by imagining that the breath is sending healing energy to the body. Patients with any illness can use devotional visualization asa way of integrating religious beliefs with visualization therapy.

People can learn to meditate in a variety of ways, including self-help booksand from experienced teachers. The following guidelines are recommended for beginners in meditation:

  • Regularity of practice. A minimum of 10-20 minutes daily is recommended for beginners, at the same time each day if at allpossible.
  • Quiet and privacy. Meditators should select a room or other location where they will not be disturbed by other people or the telephone.Setting aside a specific place as well as time for regular practice is ideal.
  • Posture. The meditator should sit upright in a chair or on the floor with eyes closed. Good posture helps to maintain the flow of energy duringbreathing exercises.
  • Proper breathing. Meditators should breathe deeply from the diaphragm rather than from the upper chest.

The major risk associated with meditation is the emergence of hallucinations,energy states or spiritual phenomena that are startling or worrisome to mostWesterners. In most cases these experiences are byproducts of the attitudinal or behavioral changes that result from regular meditation practice. They donot indicate that the meditator is psychotic. One advantage of practicing under the guidance of a teacher is his or her experience in dealing with thesephenomena.

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