For many people, the word "meditation" brings to mind images of monks sitting pretzel-legged, chanting "om." At the very least, it's typically assumed to be some sort of specialized religious activity. But it's not necessarily so.
Most basically, meditation involves calming and focusing the mind. Many forms also involve some kind of breath control. Most, but not all, involve sitting. And there are several ways to meditate that involve no religious or spiritual purpose or affiliation at all. Techniques that have been studied in clinical trials and are recommended by some doctors for improving mental and physical health include the following:
- Relaxation response. This involves sitting in a relaxed posture with the eyes closed and focusing on your breath for 10 or 20 minutes. It is recommended to do it twice daily. This is a technique that was developed by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School; he has published books on it, and there is information on it available on the Web.
- Mindfulness meditation. This involves being aware of your bodily sensations, the things you feel, and the sounds you hear, and paying attention to what you're doing. It may sound simple, but have you ever eaten a meal without thinking about anything but the food and the act of eating? There are several approaches to this technique; the one most tested for its health benefits is often referred to as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, and can be learned over a course of a few weeks through tapes or programs. Its leading proponent is Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which has a Center for Mindfulness. Other advocates of similar kinds of mindfulness meditation include Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist who has published several books and allows a non-religious approach to meditation.
- Transcendental Meditation®. This is a program offered by an organization founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; it is required that you learn the technique from an instructor. It involves 15 to 20 minutes twice a day, seated, but it also involves mental repetition of a mantra, a "word" such as "ainga" or "shiring" that has been selected for you by your instructor.
There are also meditation techniques that are related to specific religions. Different branches of Buddhism (notably Theravada, Tibetan and Zen) have a variety of well-established techniques, as do sects of Hinduism, but there are also meditative practices used in some groups in western religions such as Islam and Christianity. There is considerable variety in the different approaches.
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