by guest blogger Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrative medicine pioneer
As a holistic physician, I find that meditation and meditative exercises like yoga and tai chi are some of the most powerful tools we have for optimal health. When practiced regularly, these time-honored exercises promote healing on every level: physical, mental, emotional, and psycho-spiritual. They reduce stress and expand our heart, increasing our innate love and compassion for others and ourselves. This love and compassion are actually our greatest healers--something I've experienced consistently in my personal meditation practice and in clinical work with patients over the past few decades.
New Research, Ancient Practices
Researchers are just beginning to uncover the complex relationships between mind and body, confirming connections that spiritual disciplines have emphasized for millennia. For example, studies show that feelings of gratitude generate concrete health benefits, including lowered stress hormones. Regular meditation reduces inflammation, improves immunity, and strengthens areas of the brain related to empathy and emotional processing, among other benefits. By contrast, studies show that pessimism and negativity fuel inflammation and chronic disease, assaulting DNA, hastening the aging process, and increasing risks of cancer.
Innately, we know these findings to be true. How do you feel physically when you experience negative emotions, compared to when you have feelings of love and compassion? The differences are obvious. Nevertheless, we are all slaves to our minds to some degree or another. We are habituated to cycles of anxiety and neurotic thought patterns, dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. One meditation metaphor describes the mind as "a blind rider on a wild horse." We have no control over what thought will take over, driving us into unknown territory.
The journey into mind-body healing begins by allowing us to take a step back and observe our thought patterns, so that we're no longer a "blind rider." These ancient practices offer us tools that also can tame the wild horse, so to speak: With regular practice, meditation helps break the cycles of anxiety and stress, replacing them with mental patterns that heal us instead. This is accomplished not by suppressing or rejecting negative feelings, but by relaxing and allowing these thoughts and emotions to simply come and go, without giving them weight or attaching any specific meaning to them. Another metaphor compares thoughts and emotions to clouds passing above us, arising and dissipating. Behind the passing clouds is the open sky. The sky represents our mind's true nature of clarity and tranquility that is always present, regardless of whatever clouds may obscure it.
From Doing to Simply Being
Meditation is a truly unique activity because it allows us to shift from doing to simply being. It cultivates a state of deep relaxation in which we get to let go of our efforts to "become a good meditator." Many people think that having an "empty mind" is the definition of "good meditation," but this is in error. Thoughts are not the problem. The problem is how we react to them, getting carried away and dwelling in the past or projecting our hopes and fears into the future. Instead, just relax into a space where you don't identify with your thoughts and emotions, you simply let them go on their way like passing clouds. With practice, the space between your thoughts becomes wider, calmer, and clearer. Within this spaciousness, a deeper, more authentic state of consciousness can arise and expand, expressed as genuine love, compassion, and greater clarity of awareness.
Meditation has a naturally calming effect on mental chatter. Like a pond after a rock is thrown in, the ripples fade over time, leaving a reflective surface.
How to Begin
I would like to share with you some simple yet powerful techniques to begin your meditation journey. Committing to even just 10 minutes a day can offer noticeable benefits in your health and overall quality of life.
There are thousands of styles of meditation, but one of the most profound also happens to be one of the simplest. This is the ancient Buddhist meditation practice of shamatha, which means "calm abiding" in Sanskrit. Shamatha is intended to help access the mind's natural state of tranquility and clarity. In shamatha, we focus our gaze, breath, and concentration on a specific object--a small stone, for instance--letting thoughts arise and dissipate and gently turning our attention back to the breath and the rock.
Find a quiet place either indoors or outdoors where you will not be disturbed. Let family members (and pets!) know to give you this time of peace. Use a cushion that's comfortable for your body to sit on cross-legged, or you can use a chair. Place the small stone (or other object) a few feet in front of you. Keep your spine straight and your chin slightly tucked in. Sense your contact with the chair or pillow and the connection of your feet to the ground. Take a few deep breaths and then just focus on your breath as it moves in and out naturally. Focus your eyes and attention on the stone in front of you. As you breathe, breathe in from the stone and out to the stone in a continuous circle, relaxing and allowing any tension to dissipate with your exhalation.
Very simple, and yet you will see how easily you get lost in a thought. It's OK--be gentle with yourself as you maintain the perspective of the observer. When you notice you've lost concentration, gently bring your attention back to your breath and the cycle of breathing to and from the stone. Developing this "muscle" of focus using your eyes and your breathing helps your mind and your whole being relax. This is sometimes referred to as "effortful effortlessness." There is the "effort" of maintaining focus on the meditation when your mind wanders and the "effortlessness" of allowing all that is arising to come and go with no effort.
Resting in this tranquil, quiet space, we make room for our true inner nature of openness, love, peace, and clarity to arise and expand. The layers of obstructions, in the form of attachments, hopes, and fears, slowly peel away, and our inner light becomes brighter and clearer. This is where healing can take a quantum leap. But it does take practice, so be gentle with yourself.
Dedicating Your Meditation
There is one more aspect to meditation practice. In Buddhism it's called "dedicating the merit." After each meditation session, we say, "May the merit generated by this practice benefit all beings." We intend that the benefits of meditation be not only for ourselves.
This helps us stay connected to our hearts in today's world, where we are often overwhelmed by the barrage of suffering we see, hear, and read about on a daily basis. The tendency is to close down, to distract ourselves, or to enhance our habit of self-focus. Regular meditation with the dedication afterwards is a way to keep our hearts open to humanity and to ourselves without getting overwhelmed. In my experience, this is profoundly healing on a personal level, and I encourage you to make this a part of your practice.
Regular meditation opens a door to our deepest selves. It nurtures a subtle yet powerful attunement to our true nature and the world around us, something we all long for today.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrates Western medicine with his extensive knowledge of traditional Chinese, Tibetan, Ayurvedic, homeopathic, and complementary medical systems. With more than 25 years of clinical experience and research, Dr. Eliaz has a unique holistic approach to the relationship between health and disease, immune enhancement, detoxification, and cancer prevention and treatment. For more information about his work, visit dreliaz.org.
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