Life comes in different packages to different people. Some are lucky to go through their days without major problems. But for many of us, challenges abound — and so does stress. However, if we face our daily struggles with a degree of equanimity and common sense, we can live a happy life.
Easier said than done, right? Well, that is where meditation comes in.
"Meditation is a conscious effort to change how the mind works," said the Lord Buddha, an original proponent of this discipline. The main purpose is to keep your mind steady, strong, relaxed and peaceful. Then you can think better, act properly, lessen reactivity to unpleasant situations, increase productivity and improve creativity. Our ancient sages and saints spent a lot of time in meditation.
Volumes have been written on the subject, but it's best not to make it too complicated. Start with these four P's:
1. Place: Find a place where you won't be disturbed.
2. Posture: Sit in a comfortable posture with legs crossed. If you prefer, you can sit in a chair or lie down on the floor or a bed.
3. Practice: Close your eyes, focusing attention on your breathing. Try summoning the image of a deity or somebody you love and respect.
4. Problems: Be prepared to confront and conquer problems like body discomfort, intruding thoughts and extraneous disturbances. Try to note them and let them pass, rather than allowing them to become your focus.
Initially, it was difficult for me to focus on one image. After the first minute, the mind started wandering. With persistent effort it has gotten better. Every morning I sit in my prayer room, close my eyes, concentrate on the image of my late parents and pay attention to my breathing. I start the session by chanting "Om" and mentally repeat the mantra. Once I finish my five minutes, I feel relaxed and ready to face the world.
Medical research has documented many tangible benefits of meditation. The Nobel Prize winner for medicine in 2009, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, demonstrated that stress reactions shorten the length of telomeres and decrease telomerase activity in our chromosomes, thus accelerating cellular aging. Meditation seems to reverse these processes.
Śri Swami Rama, one of the first yogis studied by scientists at the Menninger Clinic in Houston back in the 1960s, demonstrated his ability to voluntarily control his heartbeat, blood pressure and body temperature, all of which are normally considered to be involuntary. Imagine having complete control of your mind and, through that, your entire body!
A study at the Ohio State University found that "a month of relaxation exercises boosted natural killer cells in the elderly, giving them a greater immunity to tumors and viruses." People who practice meditation have significantly lower blood pressure, according to studies from Harvard Medical School. The body becomes less responsive to stress hormones. This is the essence of biofeedback as a treatment for hypertension.
In addition, inflammation, the basis for many diseases in the body including heart disease, arthritis and asthma, seems to be alleviated by this technique. As famed cardiologist Dean Ornish has said many times, "Heart disease starts in the mind."
Remember, meditation is a spiritual journey, requiring months or years of practice to become good at it. So if you are a beginner, allow yourself just five minutes of silence twice a day and gradually increase it to fifteen minutes. I promise you the rewards will be great.
M. P. Ravindra Nathan is a Hernando County cardiologist and author of "Stories From My Heart: A Cardiologist's Reflections on the Gift of Life."