Religion & Culture | The pros and cons of meditation
The practice of meditation is similar to playing the piano... we begin meditation by tuning the body. We can start by just shivering, trembling and shaking out all the fears inside. Allow each droplet of despair or negative energy to be exorcised.
- Sat Hon, OMD
In a world smothered by air and noise pollution; in a world blanketed by wars and rumours of wars; in a world driven by ambition, competition and haste, meditation has surfaced as a balm, a bridge to tranquility and contentment.
Meditation is an ancient practice that may have well emerged at the beginning of time. The need for quietude and introspection has never escaped us. Although the term conjures images of the eastern yogi in the famed lotus position, every culture has developed ways to escape from the exhaustive trappings of life.
Christian saints are renowned for dedicating hours to spiritual contemplation, no different than their eastern counterparts.
The meditative state is induced through sundry methods: Prayerful intonation, visualisation, chanting, the internal repetition of single word or mantra, concentrating on the area between the eyebrows (the third eye) or the crown of the head, concentrating on the flame of a candle, and regulating breathing patterns, just to name a few.
The benefits of this ancient practice are clinically proven.
We are well aware that mediation is the perfect de-stressor. It helps us to connect to our feelings and understand our unconscious impulses. Beyond the psychological benefits, meditation brings stillness and inner peace. The transcendental experience - the connection to a seldom explored part of self is revealed. As I have said many times: silence is golden.
In fact, divine revelations were experienced by prophets on mountain tops, caves and deserts, while in the meditative state.
And there are the physiological benefits worth mentioning. According to Sara Lazar, a researcher at Harvard University, meditation aids in reversing the aging process and heightens cognition. Another study at the University of Wisconsin found that meditation impacts the structural functioning of the brain, increases its plasticity that allows for greater environmental adaptability. Also of interest is the impact of meditation on HIV positive patients. A study from the University of California found that meditation slows the onslaught of the virus. (The article: Mindfulness Meditation Slows Progression Of HIV, Study Suggests, was featured in Science Daily, July 2008.)
However, meditation can prove challenging. Many discover that the untrained mind is unruly and difficult to rein in. The mind wanders, racing back and forth conjuring every conceivable scenario.
We're taught by spiritual teachers that we lose the battle if we wrestle with roving thoughts. We are counselled to allow thoughts to float by; that we should not energise them by attempting to force them away, but allow them to come and go as we redirect our attention to our mantra or prayer.
The keys to success in meditation centre on consistency and establishing a set time and place for practice. Getting used to a schedule and your surroundings facilitate the induction process.
Loose, comfortable clothing are also helpful. It is propitious to meditate just before sunrise. Spiritually, we learn from eastern sages that the energy level is more balanced and harmonious, allowing for greater intuition and perceptivity. The energy from the sun are said to hold creative and restorative, healing benefits.
But meditation is not without pitfalls.
Most meditative styles are sourced from the east, the most popular being the lotus pose. The 'lotus' requires some degree of flexibility as the practitioner is required to sit on the floor with legs interlocked. In cultures such as India, this position is adopted from an early age. These are bodily adaptations that allow the hip flexors to easily accommodate a range of positions.
In our attempt to mirror eastern traditions and appear authentic, westerners overly concern themselves with the physical aspect of meditation. We struggle with the lotus posture, bearing discomfort, while we compromise the internal benefits of the meditative exercise. It is best that we adopt the most natural of postures so that we are not distracted by the cries of the body.
Taoists have hailed Zhan Zhuang or standing meditation as natural, and the best method of strengthening our muscular- skeletal frame. And unlike seated meditation, the mind is less prone to stray. Initially, you may find that your arms are tiring quickly; but after several rounds of practice, standing meditations become effortless and non-taxing. The health preserving and sustaining benefits of Zhan Zhuang have been documented in hospitals and medical clinics across China.
"Standing meditation acts like a system-wide reboot for the whole body. It stimulates the nervous system, increases circulation, and raises energy levels, while providing deep relaxation for both mind and body.
"Aches, pains, old injuries, muscular tensions, and imbalances are highlighted and brought to the forefront by this method and then slowly dissolved over time and completely released."
Moving meditation as practised in Tai Chi Quan, is another natural form of exercise that deepens the meditative state while promoting balance and coordination. Further, the mind is less prone to stray. Seated meditation, as practised by mystical orders, such as Astara and the Rosicrucians are well-suited to westerners and should be adopted.
A note of caution: western practitioners should be wary of accepting and intoning mantras that are usually incomprehensible words given by eastern gurus. Words are energy-laden and catalysts for change. Mantras should be fully explained and the practitioner must feel comfortable when repeating them.
Notably, the emotionally and mentally unstable should refrain from any form of meditation aimed at promoting spiritual unfoldment or unlocking doors to the unconscious mind. Many spiritual schools have barred emotionally challenged aspirants from membership, and rightly so.
Meditation on abstract concepts such as love, compassion, and forgiveness can be rewarding. So too is meditating on the lives of saints and sacred writings. However, any form of meditation that involves deliberately altering breathing patterns, prolonged chanting and self-abnegation should only be performed under the supervision of a seasoned teacher. Many have been psychologically and emotionally derailed in the quest for wisdom. Sometimes the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
- Dr Glenville Ashby is certified meditation coach and the author of Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity. Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby