Over forty years ago, a very unlikely person brought meditation to the attention of many people here in the West. Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist who graduated from Harvard Medical school, wrote the hugely popular book, The Relaxation Response, which introduced the US to all of the science behind why mediation was not only for spirituality—it holds the key for mind and body health as well.
Dr. Benson’s passion is to connect people to the power they have to control their own wellness though mind and body awareness. Through research and scientific exploration, he found a way to simplify the seemingly mystic nature of meditation and make them accessible to anyone, anytime.
The simplified version of meditation he presented is perfect for the busy person who has trouble slowing down enough to sit and eat—let alone sit and meditate.
This is good news, because meditation can offer strong, measurable improvements on health.
When thoughts run the show
In a recent post from Harvard Health Publications, Dr. Elizabeth Hodge explains how meditation can help anyone who is dealing with anxiety and stress. In her work as a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Disorders, she uses mindfulness meditation to help people dealing with anxiety. She described how difficult it is for many people who deal with distracting thoughts to distinguish between a productive, problem-solving idea and a nagging worry.
The idea that someone would have trouble making sense between the two thoughts—one leading to anxiety and one leading to peace—makes complete sense. For the worrier, oftentimes thoughts are very logical. Bad things happen every day. Our past teaches us that some people just can’t be trusted, so we make judgements about the future from the mistakes or mishaps in the past.
What’s wrong with this thought pattern is that our minds tend to highlight the most damaging, embarrassing, and painful things for us while glossing over everything else. When we let that “fear trigger” take control, we end up focusing on that pain—even reliving it.
What’s worse, sometimes logical fears can lead to illogical behaviors, constant anxiety, and intense bodily stress responses. Fast heartbeat, sweaty palms, and “raw nerves” are what we can physical experience when we’re emotionally unbalanced with negativity.
What’s the point of meditation?
Meditation helps us live with intention. With meditation, you will train your mind. An untrained mind moves down all of the anxious “rabbit holes”, but a trained mind can recognize the thought and realize that it doesn’t have to be controlled by the thought.
Meditation is the practice of letting go and relaxing.
It’s the opposite of clammy and cold, anxious and tense.
Meditation teaches you warmth and rest.
Meditation can help you separate negative thoughts from who you are as person. It allows you to accept the thought, without judgement, and let it float away.
Herbert Benson taught us is that truly anyone can practice meditative techniques to get to the “relaxation response” of a healthier heart beat, relaxed muscles, and more efficient breathing. Here’s a similar take on what he suggests that is particularly helpful to those new to meditation.
Don’t meditate on a full stomach. During digestion, the blood is going to be channeled to your intestines and that’s not the ideal time to reap the physiological benefits of meditation.
Choose a time when you have 20 minutes or so of uninterrupted time. You can start with 10 and gradually work your way up.
Sit in a comfortable chair.
Start at your feet and work up to your head, scanning your body for tense muscles and letting that tension go.
Pick something to focus on. This could be a word, but focusing on breathing is very calming and works just as well, if not better.
Begin by breathing slowly in through the nose and out through the mouth.
You’re meditating right now, but thoughts will pop in your head.
What you do now is just imagine them like a slow moving train or cloud that is just passing through. You don’t need to do anything about this thought—don’t judge it, just let it move on.
Keep focusing on your breath. Feel your arms, legs, and feet become warmer as your blood circulates more efficiently while you’re relaxed.
Notice how this relaxation feels.
Stop when you’re ready, but don’t use a timer—no sense in surprising the relaxation out of yourself.
Learning to meditate on your own is just the beginning. Once you learn these basic techniques, you don’t necessarily need the quiet environment. Some find successful relaxation is reached with just the meditative focus and the calmer breathing.
Try it for yourself, and find out how much better you can feel by learning theses simple meditation techniques.
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