Meditation has been around as a spiritual practice for centuries but really burst into public awareness in the late 60's when the Beatles and The Beach Boys travelled to India to study what came to be called Transcendental Meditation, or TM, under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi--an event that certainly demystified the practice of meditation and made it available to just about anyone. Prior to that time the stereotype of meditation was a highly evolved and disciplined guy in robes and a long beard sitting on a mountain peak in an impossibly uncomfortable position with a beatific look on his face. Well, we have John, Paul, George and Ringo to thank for introducing this practice to the rest of us lesser mortals.
So what then is meditation and how is it beneficial in battling anxiety as well as for general overall health? Meditation is simply the practice of focusing our attention on one thing at a time, a "passively focused inner awareness." The focus itself is relatively unimportant and varies from one tradition or individual to the next. The focus can be a syllable, word, group of words or sounds, known as mantra meditation. Or it can be an image like a candle or nature scene, babbling water, chirping bird or the wind. It can be guided imagery such as visualizing ourselves walking along a tropical beach, listening to the waves, feeling the warm sun on our back, the soft sand between our toes. Are you there yet? Probably the easiest is simply focusing on our breathing, a slow breath in, a slow breath out.
You can do these meditations using your own thoughts and images or the internet is rich with every imaginable music, sound effect and spoken guided imagery. Years ago my wife and I took a course in TM ( we didn't get to meet The Beatles) in which we were each given our own personalized mantra to focus on, repeating it over and over. I no longer use it but listen to CDs of Gregorian chants, Native American flute or ocean waves. All work equally well, whatever is most conducive to getting yourself to that focused relaxed state.
Start out practicing for a couple of minutes at a time and gradually work up to 20 minutes twice a day if possible. And don't worry when your thoughts wander; this is the nature of the brain. YOU'RE NOT DOING IT WRONG! Just push the thought away and return to your meditation. With time and practice you'll find yourself going deeper into meditation, becoming more relaxed, less aware of physical surroundings and time passing. Some experienced meditators report the sensation of actually leaving their bodies.
Lastly, find a comfortable position that's right for you. Sitting in a chair with your knees comfortably apart and your hands in your lap or leaning against the headboard of your bed (don't lie down as you might fall asleep and sleep is not meditation). We've all seen brochures for health spas showing someone sitting on a stone surface in a beautiful nature setting with a blissful smile on their face. For most of us all we would focus on is the pain in our back and butt. Be sure you're comfortable.
Strange as it may seem, exercise is a form of meditation. Studies of brain activity have shown that repetitive physical activity such as swimming, biking, running or rollerblading actually engages the part of the brain that's active in daydreaming and creativity. Our focus becomes the rhythm of our feet hitting the pavement, the air rushing by as we cycle, the feel of our arms stroking through the water. And then of course is the release of endorphins, the feel-good chemicals in our brain.
And stroking a pet is calming and relaxing, creating an almost trance-like state. The stress hormone cortisol is lowered and dopamine and serotonin (feel-good hormones) production is increased. Blood pressure drops while petting an animal and even watching fish swim lowers stress and anxiety.
Research has also shown that meditation reduces the size and activity of the amygdala whose function is to activate the body's alarm and defense system. It also increases the size of brain parts associated with empathy and compassion. And people who meditate regularly are less prone to anxiety and panic attacks.
So meditation is simple to learn, requires little time and, while you'll probably never attain Nirvana or perfect enlightenment, you can derive great pleasure and benefit from it.