The philosopher William James asserted, “We live lives inferior to ourselves.” I believe he’s entirely correct. It’s our premature death rate that underlines the correctness of James’ bold statement. Others have observed that we have the capacity to live to 100, with good years, unless we mess it up.
You see, our death certificates are incorrect. People aren’t dying of heart disease, cancer or diabetes, but rather of bad choices and unhealthy behaviors we choose, that are precursors to our lifestyle diseases and premature deaths. It’s our choice. That’s where meditation comes in.
This week my wife and I have been fortunate to enjoy the legendary wellness retreat, Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico, rated as the “world’s best destination spa.” I’ve been invited to give talks on health and wellness amidst this fabled mind/body/spiritual retreat from life’s stresses and distractions.
In the middle of one of my presentations, on longevity, I misspoke and used the term meditation for medication. I stopped, the large group in attendance heard it, and this column was born.
The founder of the Benson Henry Mind/Body Institute at Harvard Medical School’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, cardiologist Herbert Benson, MD, noted that any condition—any—that’s driven by stress, can be alleviated though meditation. Not medication.
Study after study of brain scans using MRI’s and genomics–not simply questionnaires–have shown that meditation leads to an increase in activity areas that control cardiac rate and metabolism. This leads to improvement in learning, empathy, general mood, focus, memory, perception, the experience of pain, and of course, relaxation—all controlled through the increase of neurotransmitters that are developed not with medication but with meditation. It’s the soothing mental focus on your breathing, a word or a phrase, an image, a color, place, or simply ignoring your thoughts altogether, that serve as the biological motor for health and healing throughout your body.
There are many forms of meditation and mindfulness. None are particularly difficult to learn. From “mindfulness” or “Vispassana,’ that involves “being present,” (probably the most widespread form of meditation we know), to Transcendental Meditation popularized in the ‘70s, Kundalini, to guided visualizations Qi gong and Zazen … all forms nourish the spirit and benefit the body.
Here are 5 simple meditative, generic steps borrowed from several traditions, to help you unplug from Big Pharma and plug into Big Health.
1. Imbalanced breathing.
Breathe rhythmically, slowly, evenly and deeply into a count of, let’s say 4 and then exhale to a count of 8. Do this for several minutes letting go of tension, perhaps with your eyes closed and if you like, with some relaxing “spa” type music in the background.
2. Detach from your surroundings.
Detach from your day-to-day tasks, and restfully and quietly observe your mind in the present, free of judgment and any self- or other-criticism.
3. Be tranquil and serene.
Ahhh, the third step of imagination, tranquility and serenity. See yourself in your most comfortable, relaxing and supported place. Enjoy it for a while. Visualize the details, colors, smells, feelings, and savor the peacefulness.
4. See things as you want them to be.
Perhaps you may want to add this step though it’s not necessary. If you have a goal, a challenge, coming up, see it in all of its fullness, as you want it to be. In other words focus on it as if it has already taken place with a favorable outcome …not thinking, “going to be all right,” but rather, “it’s over and it WAS all right.”
5. Focus on quietude and bliss.
Focus on the quietude and bliss that you’ve experienced, breathing in calm and exhaling tension. Open your eyes and now, don’t you feel more still, quiet unruffled, and perhaps even that state of Ahimsa (gentleness towards yourself and others)?
Medication requires a prescription pad and a visit to your doctor. It’s definitely needed at times, however meditation simply requires a quiet place and often has similar, if not more favorable, results.