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The power of meditation

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By Luann Fortune, Ph.D.

Many think that meditation is simply closing your eyes, clearing your thoughts, and breathing for about five minutes. Many do not know about the plethora of options when it comes to meditation.

Maybe being home more during the pandemic has offered you the opportunity to welcome meditation into your life. Or maybe you are looking into meditation to help you deal with new anxiety that has arisen. Either way, meditation is free, easy to start, and has many benefits.

“Mindfulness and meditation—tools for wellness and self-care—can provide calm and restoration,” says Luann Fortune, Ph.D., a Mind-Body Medicine faculty member at Saybrook University. “Research shows that related practices contribute to improved immunity and mental well-being, as well as better quality of life. Evidence also has shown such practices can connect us as a community to support health and healing.”

Dr. Fortune has been instrumental in the start and continuation of Saybrook’s Mindful Moments, a program offered since March 2020. She has presented many different types of meditation, including progressive muscle relaxation, guided meditation, guided imagery, abhyanga (self-massage), and loving kindness meditation.

To help others find peace during this stressful and chaotic year, Dr. Fortune offers further tips and explorations on how to practice meditation—and what kind might be best for you.

What is meditation?

According to The New York Times, meditation is a way to train the mind.

The origins of meditation can be traced back to as early as 5000 BCE, to ancient Egypt and China and tied to the religious practices of Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. Spread along the Silk Road, it moved throughout Asia. Before the 20th century, meditation spread from Asia into the west. In the past few decades, doctors and scientists started studying meditation for its medical and other health benefits.

Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard Medical School professor, found that people who meditated used 17% less oxygen, had lower heart rates, and produced increased brain waves found to help with sleep. Years later, he said the following about his research: “All I’ve done is to put a biological explanation on techniques that people have been utilizing for thousands of years.”

Who can practice meditation?

Meditation is available to all, requiring only a few minutes of quiet, an openness to try, and a willingness to let go. The mind is powerful—meditation is called a practice because its practitioners always have room to grow and try again. When you begin meditation, it is important to refrain from judgment of yourself and your process.

Before you meditate, find a quiet spot. You can either sit down in a chair or on the floor. You can even lay down if that is more comfortable to you. As you begin your practice, be patient. If your mind wanders, take a moment to pause and reflect and bring your attention back to center. And remember, the more you do it, the easier meditation becomes. With some commitment, you will be able to focus more deeply each time you practice meditation.

How do I start incorporating it into my daily routine?

Meditation draws from a vast array of traditions, histories, and methods. Selecting the “best” method depends on personal preference and background. Most practices are cultivated to bring emotional calm and mental clarity and involve setting aside time each day, from a few minutes to an hour for intentional practice.

Here are a few of the more common forms with an example of each.


 

Guided Meditation is the collection of techniques and practices that focus one’s thoughts on a particular object or invite suspension of thoughts, so it is often associated with our mental life. In guided meditation, a leader provides verbal prompts or instructions to direct the individual or group through the practice.

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Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) was developed to help people suffering from tension and stress and can provide many benefits. The practice, which can be considered muscle-body based, focuses on relaxing specific muscles in a directed protocol, tightening specific muscle groups and then releasing. Research shows that PMR can help reduce anxiety and reverse stress as well as help release tight muscles. In a recent study by Liu and colleagues (2020), PMR was found to improve anxiety levels and sleep in COVID-19 patients.

Guided Imagery, also called guided visualization, involves directing thoughts and sensations to engage positive mental images and sensory recall, meaning conjuring smells, tastes, sounds, and textures as well as visual images. Because it is multi-sensorial, it draws on our creative selves. Strong research supports many benefits, from invoking calm, improving performance, and healing trauma. Guided imagery can be conducted in individual or group settings. Multiple quality audio recordings are available that provide guided imagery, which makes it a suitable form for use in clinical settings where access may be restricted.

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Abhyanga (Self-Massage) is one active form of mindfulness practice that draws on the ancient (ayurvedic) practice of self-massage. It is meant to be practiced daily to stimulate the immune system and promote circulation and body-mind awareness. It can also bring calm and vitality. It is especially helpful during times of sheltering and isolation.

Loving Kindness Meditation, a gentle guided meditation, is widely used to support emotional and mind-body wellness as well as prevent compassion fatigue and build mindful leadership. Based on supporting research, it has gained prominence in clinical settings, particularly to prevent burnout for health care workers. It involves sending out thoughts and intentions for unconditional love toward oneself, outward to others, and to bring peace and healing. It is sometimes considered a “heart-based” form, drawing on feelings and thoughts of pure love.

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Learn what meditation practice is best for you

The examples provided are appropriate for mindfulness experts as well as those who are new to meditation and mindfulness practices. You can explore more practices as well by listening to Saybrook’s Mindful Moments. Faculty from the Mind-Body Medicine program provide these live guided sessions during the week and are open to the public. They are recorded and available at Saybrook’s website or through Spotify.

Taking a few minutes from the stress of daily responsibilities through a structured mindfulness practice can support wellness and a stronger immune system and help restore balance in these challenging times.


 

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