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(CUTLINES)The nonprofit center in Irvine, Calif., uses secular meditation techniques.ANA P. GUTIERREZ / Freedom News ServiceFaradee Rudy, center, executive director of the Center for Living Peace, explains techniques of meditation to new members. ANA P. GUTIERREZ / Freedom News ServicePeople sit on cushions on the floor for a meditation session at the Center for Living Peace.Rudy listens and meditates as one of the center's meditation instructors reads from the book “How to Be Compassionate.”By COURTNEY PERKESFreedom News ServiceDavid Dike slipped off his shoes, sat cross-legged on a purple cushion, and sank into the silence that chases away stress and anxiety.The architect has found that meditation can be the body's own medicine.Dike, 44, made the ancient rite look easy during a secular session at the Center for Living Peace in Irvine, Calif. But when he started meditating seven months ago, he had to overcome the physical discomfort of the posture and the mental turbulence of a wandering mind.“It wasn't this immediate calming sensation that you think is going to happen,” Dike said of his early experience. “Your psychological health drives a lot of your physical health. It's worth the effort.”While Dike finds that meditation leaves him feeling vibrant and energized, medical research suggests the contemplative practice is also lowering his blood pressure and cholesterol, while improving his immune system and increasing the size of his brain.Dr. Roger Walsh, a University of California-Irvine psychiatrist and philosopher, said scientists are confirming what sages have known for years: Meditation works.“There's growing evidence that our contemporary lifestyle and our digital immersion are exacting a price on our brains, and our psyches and ourselves,” Walsh said. “Meditation and other therapeutic lifestyle changes are really needed in a way they've never been needed before.”The benefits are as varied as the types of meditation, which can be found in spiritual practices of every major religion from Buddhism to Christianity. A recent study published in the journal Psychological Science found that meditation improved sustained concentration on a mental task. Researchers at Harvard Medical School scanned the brains of 16 people who had never tried meditation and then again after they completed an eight-week course. Scientists found increased gray matter in the areas that regulate learning, memory and regulation of emotion.In addition to physical changes, Walsh said meditation helps cultivate empathy and greater sensitivity.“One interesting study that just came out showed that advanced meditators were able to pick subtle emotions more quickly and effectively than the previous record holders, which were people trained in the CIA,” Walsh said.But the practice doesn't come naturally.“It's a bit of a skill,” he said. “It's a little like learning to play the piano at first — not a lot of fun. But gradually the benefits start.”Faradee Rudy, executive director of the nonprofit peace education center, taught a circle of first-time students how to begin a breath meditation. They sat on cushions, with their legs crossed on the floor, hands on the thighs and eyes open but softly focused downward. When one participant asked if he could meditate on a couch, Rudy said the body's position affects the mind.“If you're slouchy, your mind is kind of slouchy and lax,” she said.Rudy directed students to focus their attention on the inhale and exhale of their breath.“Your mind will wander,” she cautioned. “All of a sudden you'll realize you're no longer placing your attention on the breath.”She said to simply focus awareness back.“It's a deceptively simple technique training us to be present, to simply be,” she said. “Just like one would train a muscle by lifting a barbell, this cultivates a mind that can hold its attention.”After the lesson, the first-timers joined a larger group in a candle-lit room with double-paned glass windows and a soundproofed door. The room quickly stilled to serene silence as a group of about 20 people sat motionless.Zerlene Zapata, 29, found her spot on the floor in January after a family fight over the holidays. She hoped meditation would help her better cope with her emotions. At first, she would think of grocery lists and work projects.Clearing her mind has become easier with experience. Her brother observed that she seems wiser and calmer.“You truly are living in the moment,” Zapata said. “It's as if you're in a peaceful meadow just admiring the grass, the breeze, the sun. You're transporting yourself into pure contentment.”Others seek meditation purely for health reasons. Marilyn Moore, a meditation instructor at the peace center, said a friend had no interest in learning until she was diagnosed with breast cancer.“She came up to me and said, ‘My doctor said I have to meditate,' ” Moore said.Other devotees say they can't separate meditation from health.Mary Reinhart, 96, leads a non-sectarian meditation group in her retirement community, despite an auspicious start. She learned the practice in New York City in 1961 from Buddhist friends. When she stood up from a half-lotus position, where one foot rests on the opposite leg, she sprained her ankle.“I've been sitting in a chair every since,” Reinhart said.Reinhart typically meditates two hours a day.“I don't think I could live without meditation now,” she said. “It's simply a part of my life. I suppose the fact that I've lived this long and I'm still moving around may be partially attributed to meditation. It's good mentally, physically and spiritually.”(SIDEBAR)Meditation exerciseDr. Roger Walsh offers free meditation audio downloads at drrogerwalsh .com/audio. Here's a breath meditation exercise:For this exercise, set an alarm for about 15 minutes. Then take a comfortable seat, close your eyes, and turn your attention to the sensations of breathing in your abdomen.Focus your attention carefully on the sensations that arise and pass away each instant as the abdominal wall rises and falls.Try not to let your attention wander. If thoughts or feelings arise, just let them be there, and continue to focus your awareness on the sensations. While you attend to the sensations, start counting the breaths from one to 10. After you reach 10, go back to one again.If you lose count, or if your mind wanders from the sensations of the breath, even for an instant, then go back to one and start again. If you get distracted or lost in thoughts, just recognize what happened, then gently bring your mind back to the breath, and start counting from one again.Continue until the alarm sounds. Open your eyes and estimate how much of the time you were fully aware of the breath.Then take a moment to reflect on what you learned about your mind, its usual state, its concentration and focus, and your amount of control over attentional and cognitive processes.Source: “Current Psychotherapies” textbook

Meditation can improve mental and physical
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