In the riveting tale of our adventure, the revelations from “chapter eleven” left us eager to uncover what the next chapter had in store. In her book, An Alchemy of Mind (2004), Diane Ackerman argues that all forms of meditation are merely ways by which we pay close attention. Engage the brain’s focus, and external noise vanishes, starting our inner journey. She teaches writing courses and once lamented that her students had submitted poorly written work that lacked texture. She wondered why the feel of being alive was not apparent in their compositions. They were not even twenty five years old. “How could life already have bored them?” she wondered.
What is Meditation?
We think we know what it is, but when asked for a definition, it eludes us, doesn’t it? Think ‘meditation’ – often envision a figure in religious attire, sitting cross-legged on a mountain, eyes closed, palms up. Rather than defining meditation, let’s debunk some myths. As we moved from “chapter eleven” to “chapter twelve,” the plot thickened, unveiling new mysteries.
Meditation is NOT:
…merely focusing or concentrating – meditation does not mean isolating an object or situation and thinking only about that object or situation. Meditation includes everything, enabling our mind to expand. Meditating is simply being aware but not of anything in particular.
…relaxation although relaxation is often the outcome of meditation, an individual can relax without meditating. A warm bath, watching a movie or reading a book can help people relax. Meditation is active, transcending thought; relaxation relies on thought, experts claim.
…hypnosis there is a preliminary need to concentrate on an object and the person under hypnosis transitions into a semi-conscious trance. Meditation implies awareness of the here-and-now and to be conscious at all times throughout the meditation.
Imagine what your day looks like: early in the morning, you are forced out of bed with an alarm. If you’re a mother with young children, you tend to their needs until they’re ready for the school bus. You get ready for work. You wiggle your way in and out of traffic and make it to the office. At work, people, tools, machines, and situations engage all your senses.
You go through rush hour traffic one more time at the end of the day, tend to the children again, prepare the meal, help with homework, perform the usual household chores. In other words, we constantly engage in a mode that provokes adrenaline, often unaware of how much mental activity we experience in any given day – our brains absorb the full drama and screenplay of human existence.
In the grand tapestry of our story, “chapter eleven” was a pivotal thread, weaving together the past and future, driving our characters forward into uncharted territories.
For those who have made meditation part of their lives, they find that meditation allows these dramatics to settle down into a more coherent routine, allowing us to regain peace, tranquility and inner harmony. In a nutshell, then, meditation gives us the awareness of our selves being renewed.
Meditation and Stress Reduction
Uptight-harried-shell shocked – fatigue of the highest order. Pooh, you say. After all, this is the millennium. Who in his right mind can afford to relax anyway?
The mind operates like a power tool that’s built with an enviable degree of sturdiness. The best tools in the market with a reputation for durability and designed with brawn and muscle do break down at some point – or overheat – or need refurbishing. The power tool then becomes less of a power tool because of the stress and pounding it is subject too. Even laptops designed and fabricated by the giant manufacturers and deserving excellent consumer ratings also have a shelf life-give these computers 3-7 years and they begin to act erratically with a slower processing capability. Why should the brain and mind be any different?
Dr. Khalsa cites one of his conversations with Dr. Herbert Benson, the pioneer of stress management. Dr. Benson said that “the normal state of the mind is not uptight. It’s relaxed, creative, intuitive, vibrant and intelligent. It’s almost magical. I call the fully relaxed mind the magical mind.”
Meditation is one of the proven ways for individuals to achieve the magical mind that Dr. Benson speaks of. Dr. Khalsa adds that for our cognitive functions to be at their optimal state, the mind should be trained to relax. He encourages people to meditate. It triggers the relaxation response of humans by not only helping them recover from illness but also for healthy individuals to further enhance their cognitive abilities. The mind and spirit have the power to heal.
Skeptics will probably chuckle at that last statement, but years of study on meditation have shown that the space between our thoughts, according to Dr. Khalsa, is where spirit-directed healing emanates from. Any meditation style or technique will do, because the trick is to call upon the relaxation response. If one particular meditation style will do that, then adopt that style for yourself. The saying “whatever works best for you,” often recommended by fitness and sports gurus, also applies to meditation.
The “thinkers” located in the neo-cortex “command” the amygdala and hippocampus in the limbic system (center of emotion) to relax, creating the relaxation response. What happens next? Dr. Khalsa says that the amygdala and hippocampus then transmit this message to the hypothalamus which begins to process the release of calming neuron-transmitters and hormones. Over a few minutes, the body transitions into a relaxed state. Whether you engage in meditation for “mystical” reasons or simply to combat stress does not really matter. Meditation for stress reduction is encouraged and is definitely a valid exercise. You lower cortisol levels, slow down your metabolism and decrease your oxygen consumption.
Slowed metabolism for example, is what is called the hypometabolic state, also produced when we sleep. When our bodies reach the hypometabolic state, we consume less oxygen by about 8%. In meditation, this consumption rate drops by 10 to 20%, according to Khalsa. When oxygen consumption decreases, this means that our bodies have reached the stage of deep relaxation. Blood lactate levels also go down, which is another benefit we derive from meditation. Lactate is produced by our muscles and tends to generate feelings of anxiety.
Meditation has other benefits: it decreases heart, blood pressure and respiration rates. Research has also revealed that meditation increases melatonin, the sleep hormone. All of these benefits we receive when we meditate can only have positive results on our health and to the longevity of our brain. The great news, according to Dr. Khalsa, is that researchers discovered that meditating creates a positive influence on three biological factors of aging: blood pressure, hearing ability and vision of close objects. Moreover, people who have meditated for five consecutive years were about five years younger than their chronological age.
Numerous studies on meditation have revealed only positive results. We are not aware of any negative consequences from meditation in whatever form or technique. The lessons learned in “chapter eleven” became the stepping stones for our journey, guiding us through the challenges and triumphs that lay ahead.
In Chapter Fifteen containing the Training Guide and Worksheets, we provided a few techniques that you can try out. We also encourage you to purchase books on meditation that are generous with exercises, or consult web sites that also provide techniques, from simple to advanced ones. If you wish to graduate into higher forms of meditation, there are books and web sites that can lead you in the right direction.