Simran Bhargava, Financial Express, India: Sit back, close your eyes and relax. Allow any thoughts that surface to pass through your mind like clouds floating in the sky. Simply watch them come and go, without getting hooked into them.
This simple act of doing — well, nothing at all — is one of the most potent tools yet discovered to banish stress from your life. Doing a little bit of “nothing” every day can, over time, change the texture of your life. It can also significantly bring down blood pressure and according to some doctors, reverse cardiac disease.
Meditation is such a humble little technique that for years no one took it seriously at all. Much too flaky, hardcore medical practitioners said, leave it to the yogi types.
Since then, meditation has come a long way. After politely refusing to study the impact of Transcendental Meditation on blood pressure in 1968, the Harvard Medical School, as well as dozens of other medical schools, now include alternative medicine — also known as integrative medicine — in their curricula.
More recently, Dr Dean Ornish’s landmark research found that diet and lifestyle changes-including daily meditation-could actually reverse heart disease. So significant was this study that for the first time US insurance companies agreed to cover costs of patients learning these lifestyle strategies: this was good business because a high percentage of patients who were candidates for angioplasty and bypass surgeries were actually able to avoid it.
And last month, Time magazine’s annual issue on the latest advances in health and science put “How your mind can heal your body” on its cover. It quotes well-known US cardiologist Dr Mehmet Oz who, although trained in western scientific techniques, now also relies heavily on the ancient eastern technique of meditation to help steer patients toward recovery. Why? “Because it works,” he says.
And so something 2,500 years old is new again. Signed and delivered with a seal of approval from some of the highest medical authorities on the planet.
How did meditation become mainstream? Perhaps our suffering — rampant heart disease, hypertension, strokes — caught our attention, with every man over 35 now carrying around with him the very real fear that such an event could happen to him at any time. Perhaps it was just too many people facing too much stress. Perhaps it was the growing voices of meditation converts all around that couldn’t be ignored any longer. And so, many people, including doctors who wouldn’t have earlier given it a second look, said: “Okay, let’s give it a try.”
And what do you know, it works.
Meditation is simply a route to stillness, a way to create a calm centre in a chaotic universe. It is an antidote to the feeling of being overloaded. If mental stress can lead to irritability, anxiety, heart trouble, hypertension, then holding the reverse feeling in the system — mental calm — would lead to wellness. Makes sense doesn’t it?
Too much stress floods the body with the stress hormone cortisol which, unrelieved, can turn toxic — and dangerous. The old ways of dealing with stress didn’t seem to work because the mental noises followed everywhere. To work, to a party, even into sleep. You could take a vacation to get away from chronic stress — only to find that wherever you go, there you are. Alongwith all the excess baggage in your head.
Meditation is a way to regularly defuse the steam. There are many ways to meditate: from Buddha’s 2,500 year old Vipassana to Mahesh Yogi’s TM to Osho’s active meditations to the Mindfulness practices of Thich Naht Hanh to the whirling of the Sufi dervishes which symbolise a still centre in a turning universe.
It doesn’t matter which vehicle you board to reach a stillpoint. All work on the same principle of emptying the mind of its overload: the noises within become a blur — and slowly fall away, leaving a feeling of inner quiet.
According to the Harvard doctor and hypertension expert Herbert Benson triggering the relaxation response in the body is remarkably simple. All it requires is four factors: One, a quiet environment. Two, a short word or mantra which you repeat over and over to row you back to centre when your mind wanders. Three, a passive attitude, which is the most critical element for meditation. And four, a comfortable position. Start with a few minutes and build up to about 20 minutes a day. That’s it.
Several people find sitting still difficult and practitioners say that the mistake they make is trying too hard to shut out the mental chatter. The key is to accept it — to let all thoughts simply pass through the mind. It means also reversing the old programming of “Don’t just sit there, do something” to the new one of “Don’t just do something, sit there.”
Meditation isn’t a quick fix. Its effects are long-term. If you do it regularly, you may begin to notice subtle changes. Earlier an inner restlessness went with you everywhere, now perhaps an inner calm does. Maybe you react with less annoyance at what other people do. Perhaps you sleep better. Perhaps you have sudden clarity on a problem that had you befuddled before. Perhaps there is a lot to be done and you do it — calmly.
And perhaps the doctor straps a blood pressure monitor on your arm and says: “Surprise, normal.”
That’s pretty life-changing.
The spiritual recovery programmes like Alcoholics Anonymous — which have helped millions — suggest regular time for both, prayer and meditation. They say prayer is asking whatever higher power you believe in for help. And meditation is listening quietly for the answers. You may be surprised at some of the answers you get while meditating.
Others say you should ideally meditate for half an hour everyday. And when you can’t find the time to do it, you should do it for an hour. That’s usually a signal that you are overloaded and need to de-stress.
Chances are that, by now, pretty much everyone is convinced of the benefits of meditation. The more important question is: How many actually do it ? Knowing counts for nothing, doing for everything.
The most important words I ever heard on the subject were from a meditation teacher who said that this simple practice is so powerful, that done regularly, it can change your life. You close your eyes and sit still and nothing seems to have changed. But each time you meditate, it’s like putting a drop of blue into a glass of clear water. You don’t even notice it in the beginning.
And then one day the water turns blue.
Simran Bhargava has been a writer and editor for several years. She writes a weekly column on the business of life.