Meditation has always fascinated me, but for a long time I couldn't actually bring myself to do it. My big stumbling block? Too many meditation practices seem to come packaged with overly ascetic religious teachings laced with life-denying attitudes. Lately, though, I've discovered a practice free from doctrine, and I can now vouch for its calming effects. Studies show that stilling the mind through relaxed concentration on the breath or some other object of meditation lowers blood pressure, pulse rate and stress hormones. Scientific studies indicate it can also lessen or reverse the symptoms of basically any ailment.
But meditation isn't a blank cheque for bliss, especially at first. As we calm our thoughts, it's possible that all the psychological and emotional stuff we normally repress through internal busyness can rise into awareness, sometimes precipitating a crisis. That means extra support from a therapist may be necessary.
To play it safe, some meditation teachers won't let anyone with a recent history of psychosis or acute mental illness sit on one of their cushions. Even if you're fairly psychologically stable, it's a good idea, say the experts, to start off meditating for only 15 to 20 minutes a day.
Diving into super-lengthy sessions can drive some people past sanity's precincts.
Instead, increase your daily dose as you develop your "mind muscles." Be willing to experiment with different techniques until you find the one that really clicks for you. Working with a teacher to ensure your technique is sound is a good idea at the outset, but never hesitate to leave if you feel your guide is into power trips, no matter the sweet spiritual words with which they're justified.
what the experts say
"Meditation is the deepest, most profoundly transformative technology we have as a species. It leads to a dying of the small self, and the deeper self gradually emerges into consciousness. On the way, anything constellated in the unconscious psyche comes into consciousness. Many of us carry traumas, wounds and violations in the forms of complexes in the unconscious. There's the possibility that (the meditator will) meet (and be overwhelmed) by all these negative complexes. If a person feels intuitively called to meditation, that can be trusted, but it doesn't mean they're not going to get into hot water."
BRENT MITTON, transpersonal psychotherapist, co-director, Transpersonal Therapy Centre, Toronto
"There is research evidence going back several decades that supports the value of meditation to treat a number of medical conditions. A recent study shows that people who go through a program such as the one I teach have demonstrable changes in their brain function and improvement in their immune function. People (who take my eight-week program) tell me their sleep improves, their anxiety is resolved and they are better able to cope with chronic pain. People aren't ready for meditation if they've had a recent severe psychiatric, psychotic or suicidal illness, any tendency to self-harm or break with reality. Meditation does change brain function in some way that's not fully understood yet, so we wouldn't want to risk destabilizing people when they are vulnerable."
LUCINDA SYKES, MD, teacher, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Toronto
"If you don't have the humility that you need and you feel that meditation should fix everything, that's a mental lapse. It's best to sit in a chair. The spine should be as straight as possible. As far as the Taoists are concerned, having your feet on the ground is part of grounding (which is essential for health.) You ground the heaven energy that comes into your crown and send the earth energy to heaven. People who can't stay grounded pick their feet up. They don't want to stay in that position - it's more difficult for them. Once you are really grounded, you can meditate in any position - it doesn't matter."
BARBARA KERSLAKE, Universal Tao instructor, Toronto
"Meditation teaches us how to integrate calmness and clarity into our daily life. Meditation is a mind that concentrates on a virtuous object, and here virtuous' means anything that makes our mind calm, clear and peaceful. If we meditate correctly we can minimize the chance of releasing too much tension too quickly. It shouldn't feel tight and heavy. It should feel light, refreshing and very natural. If you don't feel that way, you need to seek out a well-qualified teacher. (We affirm) I'm going to engage in this practice not only for my own benefit, but also for all those I affect. '"
KELSANG YONTEN , education program coordinator, Chandrakirti Buddhist Centre, Toronto
"(Through meditation) one becomes more mindful of oneself and other people. People start paying attention to their diet and to dependencies, whether it's smoking, drinking or burning the candle at both ends. I've heard of people who've gone to centres where the teaching was too intense or disciplinarian and felt psychologically or spiritually abused. That hasn't happened at Christian meditation. People might have experiences that they need help interpreting. In Christian meditation, we encourage people to meditate with a group once a week. The wisdom of the group helps people discern what is going on or what they need to do."
CLEMENT SAUVE , long-term practitioner of Christian meditation