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Meditation can be used to help treat a variety of conditions.

Meditaion requires great concentration.
Meditaion requires great concentration.

For many Americans, the word meditation evokes mysterious Zen masters in temples shrouded in mist, or else New Age devotees practicing yoga at Sedona. Both of these stereotypes are invalid. In recent years, meditation - a blanket term used to describe a variety of relaxation techniques that focus and calm the mind - has become mainstream, and millions of Americans incorporate the practice into their daily lives.

Though the benefits of meditation have been obvious to practitioners in Eastern cultures for centuries, it is only recently that the scientists and doctors of Western medicine have shown interest in this ancient practice. What they have found is perhaps surprising for Westerners who have dismissed meditation and other Eastern practices as "strange" or fraudulent.

Meditation and Religion

Though meditation is often associated with the Buddhist or Hindu religions, meditation isn't necessarily a religious practice. There are many different meditative techniques, but each technique's end goal is for the meditating individual to focus attention and to clear the mind of distracting thoughts, worries and desires.

In the Buddhist tradition, meditation is an important part of reaching enlightenment, while in the Hindu tradition, meditation often accompanies the physical practice of yoga as an important part of spiritual development.

Meditation has played an important role in Western religions as well. In the Christian religion, the devout are urged to meditate upon God's Word as revealed in the Bible, and in Judaism, meditation is considered an important part of understanding the Torah. Meditation also plays an important role in Islam, as well as many other religions around the world.

Benefits of Meditation

Meditation has benefits outside of religious piety. Practitioners of meditation claim that it can lead to greater states of relaxation and mental peace. Perhaps most intriguing, however, are the potential health benefits associated with meditation. As more people are turning toward complementary and alternative medicine, meditation is gaining more interest in the medical community.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), meditation is used as a complementary treatment for a variety of conditions, including anxiety, pain, depression, self-esteem issues, mood disorders, stress, insomnia, as well as symptoms of some illnesses such as cancer and AIDS.

For centuries, people have claimed that meditation can provide real health benefits, and recent studies agree. In one Boston study published in the online journal PLoS (Public Library of Science) One, researchers determined that meditation can help turn off genes that are associated with the negative effects of stress. The researchers also postulated that the relaxing effects of meditation could help alleviate the symptoms of diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and infertility.

It is not entirely clear why or how meditation possesses such powerful health benefits. However, researchers are looking at the effect meditation has on the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems of the body.

The sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear when the body is under stress. It produces various stress responses in the body, from increased heart rate to sweating palms. This is sometimes called the "fight-or-flight response." The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, counteracts the effects of the sympathetic. It reduces heart rate, calms the nerves, and dilates blood vessels to encourage blood flow.

Researchers believe that meditation may work by strengthening the parasympathetic nervous system while at the same time calming the sympathetic, helping the body respond more calmly in stressful situations.

How to Meditate

Meditation has been used in various cultures around the world for millennia. As such, there are quite literally hundreds of different meditation methods and practices.

Each technique has its own advantages and disadvantages depending on what the meditator is seeking. Some meditation focuses on breathing, while others utilize chants. Some meditation techniques can even be done while walking. That being said, there are several elements that most meditative techniques share.

  • A quiet place. Though advanced meditation students are able to quiet and focus their mind regardless of distractions, most people require a quiet and peaceful location. This doesn't have to be a Buddhist temple or a meditation center (though both of these can be ideal). It can be a quiet bedroom, a wooded grove or even a parked car.
  • Posture. Postures vary from technique to technique. These might be sitting in a chair, sitting cross-legged, kneeling, standing, lying down or even walking. The specific type of meditative practice will dictate the posture required.
  • Open mind. Open-mindedness has two meanings in meditation. The first is the traditional sense of having an open-mind - that is, keeping the mind open to possibility and difference, and to the potential benefits of the meditative process. The second is more literal: To keep the mind open to distractions and thoughts that may drift into it during the meditative practice. By keeping the mind open in this way, distractions that float into the mind can also float out.
  • Focus. Focusing one's attention is the key component to any meditative practice. Different meditation techniques use various tools to help concentrate and focus the mind. Some techniques teach focusing on the breath and the act of breathing. Others use chants or mantras - specific words or phrases repeated over and over during the practice. Still others focus on specific objects, music or sounds.

Ultimately, the type of meditation isn't as important as the individual's comfort level with it and ability to maintain the practice. And even if one doesn't use meditation for health reasons, there is another benefit: A recent study published in PLoS One suggests that meditation can actually cultivate love and compassion in practicing individuals.

According to a study at the University of Wisconsin, individuals who practice meditation underwent physical changes in the areas of the brain believed to be associated with empathy, sympathy and compassion.

And that's something everybody can use.

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