Meditation is a discipline or practice of contemplation or
awareness found in most of the world's major religions. It is not a
treatment in the usual medical sense. Meditation is, however, frequently
recommended by mainstream medical practitioners as well as alternative
therapists because of its demonstrated healing effects on the central
nervous system, heart rate, and level of muscular tension. It is also
reputed to have benefits for the entire person: physical, mental, emotional,
The purposes of meditation have been variously defined as
increased awareness, greater ability to live in the moment, freedom from the
ego, spiritual growth, or union with God or the universe. It is important to
understand that although better health is a frequent side effect of
meditation, it is not the goal or focus of meditation practice. The paradox
of meditation as an approach to treatment of diseases and disorders is that
it asks the patient to put aside immediate concerns with health or wellness.
Meditation is suitable for most people who are not
vulnerable to psychotic episodes. Some teachers of meditation warn against
extended periods of breathing exercises unless the person has a teacher or
spiritual guide, on the grounds that some people may experience
hallucinations or dissociative episodes. The other major precaution concerns
the patient's expectations. Most persons beginning a meditation practice
will not find it easy; they are often disturbed by the distractions of their
mental processes or the physical discomfort of sitting still for a period of
The form of meditation with which most Westerners are
familiar involves sitting quietly in a chair or on the floor for a period of
time with eyes closed in order to concentrate or focus the mind. There are,
however, a variety of approaches to meditation practice.
Concentrating the mind
The goal of all forms of meditation is single-mindedness --
to let go of all distractions and focus on one object of attention or
devotion. There are several techniques that meditators use to help them
achieve this level of concentration. Most people will find that some
techniques work better for them than others. Teachers of meditation advise
beginners to use the approach that they find most congenial.
Breathing exercises are often recommended to beginners
because breathing is a natural function that does not have to be consciously
"learned." Meditation on the breath does not require changing one's
breathing in any way, but only paying attention to it -- to the feel of the
air as it enters or leaves the nostrils without following it into the lungs.
This narrowness of focus helps to develop the meditator's ability to
concentrate. When the person becomes aware that his or her attention has
wandered, he or she simply returns to focusing on the breath again.
A variation of this approach is focusing on body sensations.
This technique is sometimes called body scanning. The meditator simply
focuses attention on the sensations in each part of his or her body in turn.
Sometimes body scanning is combined with a breathing exercise; the meditator
imagines breathing into and out of each part of the body as he or she
attends to its sensations.
A mantra is a name of God or other sacred phrase that the
meditator repeats over and over in order to focus the mind. The repetition
of a mantra is the basic technique of transcendental meditation, or TM. TM
was introduced to the West in the 1960s by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and
helped to make meditation acceptable to mainstream medical doctors. People
initiated into TM are given individual mantras by their teachers.
There is some disagreement as to the importance of the
mantra's content. Some persons think that any word or phrase is as effective
as any other in focusing the mind. Others, however, maintain that the mantra
must have some connection to the sacred in order to fully release the human
mind from its own preoccupations. Examples of religious mantras include the
Jesus prayer of Christian tradition, the holy Name of God in Judaism, or the
Om mantra of Tibetan Buddhism.
Devotional meditation has an interpersonal quality in that
the meditator focuses on a being who represents the divine or some quality
of holiness for him or her. This approach also allows the meditator to
integrate feelings of love or gratitude with his or her mental focus.
Devotional meditation can take the form of chanting hymns
that use the names of God, or visualizing the person or being that
represents God to the meditator. Meditation in the Christian tradition
sometimes includes visualizing Jesus or certain events in his life.
Visualization is a useful approach to meditation for people who are
sensitive to visual stimuli.
Visualization meditation has also been used in the treatment
of cancer and AIDS and other disease processes. In visualization therapy,
the patient visualizes the inner workings of his or her body, with healthy
cells fighting off the cancer or AIDS virus or rebalancing what is out of
alignment with health. Another visualization technique asks the patient to
imagine the affected parts of his or her body being surrounded by healing
light or filled with energy. The patient can combine visualizations with
breathing exercises by imagining that the breath is sending healing energy
to the body. Patients with any illness can use devotional visualization as a
way of integrating religious beliefs with visualization therapy.
Meditation is a holistic practice that regards the body's
positioning or activity as an important dimension of concentration. If the
meditator is sitting, he or she is usually instructed to sit upright and
wear loose or comfortable clothing in order to be alert as well as relaxed.
Some forms of meditation, however, use body motion or postures as an
intentional technique of concentration.
In this form of meditation, the person slows down the pace
of walking in order to focus on each movement of his or her legs or feet.
Walking meditation is often done inside in a large room or without a
particular destination, in order to keep the focus on the body movements
themselves rather than on the goal of getting to a specific place or
covering distance. Sometimes meditators repeat the words "lifting,"
"moving," and "placing" as they lift each foot, move the leg forward, and
place the foot on the ground.
The asanas or postures that a person assumes in the course
of yoga practice can be used as a form of meditation. Breathing exercises
are also an important part of yoga instruction. In addition, the changes in
the body's position affect the meditator's energy flow in different ways.
Many people find that regular yoga practice makes them more aware of their
body's processes, needs, and signals, and thus better able to recognize
minor symptoms before they become major health problems.
Sufi walking (or dancing) is a form of moving meditation
that developed in medieval Islam. The person walks in a rhythmic fashion,
usually chanting, in order to focus the mind on a specific quality of God.
For example, a Sufi walker who wishes to focus on strength and courage would
walk with forceful steps, arms swinging, and chant an Arabic phrase that
means "O king of kings."
Teaching or instruction
People can learn to meditate in a variety of ways. There are
many fine self-help books written from a variety of religious and
philosophical perspectives that explain the basic techniques of meditation.
Most people, however, can benefit from an experienced teacher or spiritual
guide. A spiritual director who knows the apprentice meditator can guide him
or her to the forms of meditation that are most likely to be beneficial, and
offer advice about possible pitfalls or unexpected experiences.
Basics of meditation practice
The following guidelines are recommended for beginners in
Regularity of practice. A minimum of 10-20 minutes daily
is recommended for beginners, at the same time each day if at all
Quiet and privacy. Meditators should select a room or
other location where they will not be disturbed by other people or the
telephone. Setting aside a specific place as well as time for regular
practice is ideal.
Posture. The meditator should sit upright in a chair or
on the floor with eyes closed. Good posture helps to maintain the flow
of energy during breathing exercises.
Proper breathing. Meditators should breathe deeply from the
diaphragm rather than from the upper chest.
Teachers of meditation advise people to return to their
normal activities gently and gradually following their meditation practice,
rather than making abrupt or hurried transitions.
The major risk associated with meditation is the emergence
of energy states or spiritual phenomena that are startling or worrisome to
most Westerners. In most cases these experiences are byproducts of the
attitudinal or behavioral changes that result from regular meditation
practice. They do not indicate that the meditator is psychotic. One
advantage of practicing meditation under the guidance of a spiritual
director or teacher is his or her experience in dealing with these
As has been previously mentioned, meditation is the opposite
of result-oriented treatments. Persons who practice meditation on a regular
basis, however, usually experience the specific benefits of lowered blood
pressure, more restful sleep, and relief from such physical effects of
stress as ulcers, headaches, chronic muscle pain, and skin rashes.
Therapeutic visualization has been shown to extend the survival time and
quality of life of terminally ill patients.
For More Information
Adair, Margo, and Lynn Johnson. "Applied Meditations for
Healing." In Psychoimmunity & the Healing Process: A Holistic
Approach to Immunity & AIDS, edited by Jason Serinus. Berkeley, CA:
Celestial Arts, 1986.
Borysenko, Joan. Minding the Body, Mending the Mind.
Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1987.
Dass, Ram. Journey of Awakening: A Meditator's
Guidebook. New York: Bantam Books, 1978.
de Mello, Anthony. Sadhana, A Way to God: Christian
Exercises in Eastern Form. Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1978.
Goldstein, Joseph, and Jack Kornfield. Seeking the
Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation. Boston and London:
Inglis, Brian, and Ruth West. The Alternative Health
Guide. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the
Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. New
York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1990.
A Visual Encyclopedia of Unconventional Medicine,
edited by Ann Hill. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1979.
Kamenetz, Rodger. "Unorthodox Jews Rummage Through the
Orthodox Tradition." The New York Times Magazine (December 7, 1997):
Source Citation: "Meditation." Rebecca J. Frey, RN.
The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Donna Olendorf, Christine Jeryan, and
Karen Boyden, Editors. 5 vols. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Research, 1999.H