Saturday, October 23, 2021

What is Meditation?

Stress Less, Live More

Photos by Bob McConville

The single most important thing I do to manage my stress is meditate. Meditation, more than anything else, has helped me slow down my runaway mind, relax my body, and manage my troubling thoughts and painful emotions.

I’ve been meditating at least three times a week for over thirty years. Since retiring from full-time college teaching and moving to Marco Island I have been meditating in one form or another about 10 times a week. Most people are surprised when they hear that besides meditating while sitting on the floor in a half-lotus position I also meditate while running on the beach, kayaking at sunrise, and floating in my pool. I also meditate in a group that meets every Thursday evening.

There are many different ways to meditate but the simplest, and my favorite, was developed by Dr. Herbert Benson, (1977) a noted Harvard physician. He (along with the Beatles) probably did more to bring meditation to America than any other influencer. 

 Benson identified what he considered to be the four components of meditation necessary to achieve relaxation or what he coined as the relaxation response. Benson’s four components are:

  • a quiet environment
  • a mental device
  • a passive attitude
  • a comfortable position. 

Benson’s meditation allows you to be very flexible in terms of how you structure these four components.

A Quiet Environment

Most of the students and clients I have worked with really needed that quiet environment with minimal distractions in order to stay focused. There are endless choices regarding how you can create that environment. Some people prefer to meditate outdoors, where they can experience the warmth of the sun, the sounds of birds, or the crashing of the surf. Others prefer the peace and solitude of a carpeted room with the shades drawn and the windows closed. When my sons were young, I used to meditate in the basement with the lights off and a single candle to focus on. 

Regardless of where you choose to meditate it is not a good idea to do so in an area with people entering and leaving, or other distractions. Turn off the television, music, and computer and silence your cell phone. Even better, put your phone in a different room so you are not tempted to look at it. 

A Mental Device

Benson referred to a focal point as a mental device. Since the relaxation response is a type of focused meditation, your focal point can be anything. Here are three common focal points:

  • object 
  • word/phrase
  • sound

As you can see, there is infinite variety when thinking about these three types of mental devices. Your choice of an object will vary according to where you meditate. If you meditate outdoors you can focus on the sky or clouds, a point on the horizon, the shoreline etc. If you meditate indoors you can focus on your breath breathing, a candle flame, mandala, or a point on the floor or the wall.

When teaching people to meditate I have them use their breath as their focal point. As I discussed in previous columns, becoming more mindful of your breathing is central to learning how to relax. Using your breath as your focal point during meditation reinforces that .

In the 1970 when the Beatles popularized Transcendental Meditation (TM) “personal mantras” were all the rage. People would spend a lot of money acquiring their personal mantra given to them by their teacher. You were instructed to keep this mantra secret and use it as your focal point. The truth is that you don’t need a personal guru to assign you a secret mantra. Just choose a personally-relaxing word that conjures up relaxing images. For years I used the word “Eleuthera” because it brought back relaxing images of a wonderful private beach my wife and I discovered while vacationing there. 

The only caveat regarding sounds is that if you choose to play music when you meditate it must not contain lyrics. When you add words to the music it takes your mind out of the present moment and shifts the focus off of yourself and the here and now, and onto the music. This will make it difficult to switch on a relaxation response. I’ve experimented with a variety of sounds and have found that natural environmental sounds work best. This is why I love to meditate on the beach and listen to the waves, wind, and the birds. I’ve also found that combining background sounds with an object works best for creating a mental device that really makes meditating easy.

A Passive Attitude

A passive attitude refers to an accepting mental state. The passivity has to do with not fighting distractions because they are inevitable and will occur. The phone will ring, other noises will occur, and your focus will be disrupted by competing thoughts. When this happens, simply acknowledge the distractions and refocus. Do not worry about your performance.

A Comfortable Position

A comfortable position is one you can maintain, without tension, for twenty to thirty minutes. You do not have to be a yoga master and sit in a full lotus position to meditate. You need only be comfortable and relaxed. Stretch beforehand, loosen or remove any tight clothing, and make sure you are not chilled. Sitting in a chair with a straight back and sitting on the floor with your legs crossed are good positions for meditation. Do not meditate while lying down. You will have a tendency to fall asleep.

In my next column I’ll give you simple instructions for doing Breath Meditation. In the meantime, remember to Stress Less and Live More. 

Reference: Benson, H. (1975). The relaxation response . New York: Avon. 


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