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Sound Mind: Surviving the Modern World

Meditation for the Cynic

By Elaine Herscher



Regular meditators are clued-in to an essential paradox of modern life: The more we do and accomplish, the more we have to do to feel minimally happy.



At the dawn of the third millennium, meditation is more popular than ever before. How is this possible?

Meditation is for people with nothing to do — sprout eating, gelatinous paragons of mellowness and the marginally employed, right?

Well, not exactly.

"More people are meditating than ever before,'' says Stephan Bodian, San Francisco (CA) psychotherapist and author of Meditation for Dummies, a guidebook for the tranquillity-challenged.

Based on attendance at Zen centers across the country, Bodian and other meditators estimate that some five million Americans meditate regularly.

And the practice has boomed since the mid-1980s. According to Don Morreale, author of A Complete Guide to Buddhist America, in 1985 there were 346 Buddhist meditation centers in the nation; now there are 1,062.

What drives these people into the lotus position?

As Bodian describes it, meditation is simply the practice of concentrating your attention on an object, word or phrase. This allows you to narrow your focus, limit the stimuli bombarding your nervous system and thus calm your mind.

"Doing meditation will increase your efficiency,'' Bodian says. "It will increase your quality of life. You'll be able to do more with a lot less effort, stress and tension.''

Regular meditators are clued-in to an essential paradox of modern life: The more we do and accomplish, the more we have to do to feel minimally happy.

"We're having to move faster and faster to stay in place. It takes constant effort to be satisfied,'' Bodian says. "We work harder to get that money to go on vacation, so we can relax, so we can keep on going.''

Airing the doubts

But, you might say, I'm not the type. I'm an urban warrior. I've learned how to pirouette through life balancing everything just so.

Don’t worry. Just taking a few moments to breathe won’t make you soft. After all, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys is a devotee as are pop-star Tina Turner and action-hero Steven Seagal.

Lucky for you, meditation works for the less famous among us too. Most of Milwaukee (WI) psychotherapist Mary Waller’s clients are down-to-earth factory workers and homemakers. These are the very people inclined to sneer at meditation as so much California navel-gazing — until they find out they've been doing it for weeks.

"I've had uptight business people in my office, people absolutely wound up all the time … and their idea of relaxation is a punishing game of handball,'' Waller says.

She gets those people to lie down on the floor and teaches them some beginning breathing techniques. After practicing at home for a few weeks, Waller's clients begin to ask her what they're doing.

She explains that meditation is a centuries-old practice of meditative breathing that has been used by people of various faiths.

"By that time, they don't care where it's from," she says. "They just know it works."

Lotus in the laboratory

Beyond peace of mind, research has shown that meditation has wide-ranging physiological effects. Subjects in one George Washington University Medical Center study found that using guided imagery in a meditative state resulted in a boost to their immune systems.

Meditation can even get the mind to convince the body that it is well. Doctors at University School of Medicine in Yokahama City, Japan found that 84 percent of subjects exposed to poison ivy had no allergic reaction when they were told under hypnosis that the plant was benign.

Yes, but I’d rather be watching bowling on TV

This is all very nice, you say, but meditating is about as much fun as watching paint dry.

"It's boring in the beginning, but it becomes more interesting as you go along,'' Bodian says. "We find things boring because we're not really tuning into things. We're used to being highly stimulated, which makes us less sensitive to subtle changes. [This] in turn, leads us to enjoy life less, which means we need constant stimulation to enjoy anything.''

It’s not hard to get started. The techniques are simple and meditation is eminently portable. You don't need a Zen center, just a quiet spot and a cushion.

Bodian provides the following tips to help get you started:

  1. Find a quiet place and sit comfortably with your back relatively straight.
  2. Take a few breaths, close your eyes, relax.
  3. Choose a word or phrase that has special personal or spiritual meaning for you.
  4. As you breathe through your nose, repeat your word or phrase quietly to yourself.

That’s meditation. Keep it going for five minutes or more, then slowly get up and go about your day. It takes a few months to feel a difference, but you will, Bodian says, even if you only devote a short time to it each day.

15 or 20 minutes daily could make you focused enough to leap tall piles of faxes in a single bound, yet mellow enough to stop and smell the double latte.




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