Imagine a world without stress, where human beings float through situations completely oblivious to the ramifications of the choices they make. Fear and anxiety would disappear, but so would productivity and accomplishment. When one thinks of stress, the most common example is what is more specifically called distress. This form of stress connotes a negative emotion that produces fear and anxiety in the person it affects. However, there is a positive form of stress that may arise from healthy competition or an inner drive for accomplishment called eustress. Stress on its own is not physically helpful or harmful to the human body. The mind-body reaction to stressful situations is what causes physical and mental damage. Stress is an unavoidable fact of life, but stress does not need to define the human experience. Once on the fringes of medical science in the West, modern meditative practices are becoming more mainstream as people look for ways beyond traditional medicine to help them cope with physical and mental ailments caused by stress and anxiety.
Meditation is rooted in Buddhism, but in one form or another, its practices extend to every major world religion, and can be found within non-theistic settings as well. According to Patricia Monaghan and Eleanor G. Viereck in the book Meditation: The Complete Guide, “meditation can mean simple relaxation, or a deep blissful surrender to the divine. It can mean rigorously following a prescribed path, or exploring a path unique to the self”. The concept of mindfulness is particularly significant within the context of meditation. There are many definitions for the word mindfulness, but it is above all a practice. Mindfulness meditation embodies two aspects: a process and an outcome. Mindfulness can refer to the act of becoming aware of ones thoughts and emotions, allowing them to rise and pass away without judgment. Mindfulness can also refer to the outcome of meditation: a state of being in which the meditator lives his or her life with more awareness in the present moment.
The Western approach to stress management has most often included both psychological and pharmaceutical interventions. In recent years, however, Western medical sources have begun researching the psychological and physiological effects of meditation on the brain and body, with some very surprising results. In a peer-reviewed journal article entitled “Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training,” Fedal Zeldan documents the results of a study of sixty-three UNC-Charlotte students. During the study, a test group and a control group were formed. The test group was taught mindfulness meditation practices while the control group spent their research time having a book read to them. At the end of the study, it was observed that brief meditation training reduced fatigue and anxiety, and increased mindfulness. It was also observed that the mindfulness training improved visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning. Additionally, a write up from the US Department of Health and Human Services suggests that practicing meditation may have a positive effect on the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of the brain that causes the heart and breathing rates to slow down, the blood vessels to dilate to increase blood flow, and the digestive juices to increase. According to DHHS, meditation also reduces the body’s sympathetic nervous system reaction, which is responsible for gearing up the “fight or flight” response. These scientifically based results help validate in the Western world what those in the East have known for thousands of years: meditation works!
Beyond understanding the science behind meditation, it is also important to understand the methods of meditation as practiced today. As mentioned earlier, mindfulness meditation in rooted in Buddhist tradition, with the practice dating back to the Buddha himself. In the most basic terms, the outcome of mindfulness meditation can be a greater awareness of the present moment, and a connection with one’s spiritual nature or the larger world beyond the self. Every major religion in the world, including the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity make use of some form of meditative practice. Within the context of Judaism, for instance, is the practice of Hitbodedut, or conversations with God, in which quiet introspection is the goal. Another example would be the practice of Sufi dancing. Known as “whirling dervishes”, Sufi dancing is an Islamic form of meditation that is practiced through twirling. Finally, contemplative prayer, much like Hitbodedut, is an example of a Christian meditative practice. Meditation need not only be a religious practice. There are also many non-theistic forms of meditation. These include such practices as walking meditations, in which the practitioner takes each step slowly and deliberately, remaining mindful of the feelings and sensations of the body as well as the thoughts and emotions in the mind. Gardening is also a form of non-theistic meditation, where mindfulness of action while communing with nature give rise to a connection between the practitioner and the plants he or she cultivates.
Meditation can be for anyone who wishes to take the time and make the effort to understand themselves and their place in this world better. One need not be religious to reap the benefits of a regular meditative practice. While many people may associate meditation with the Buddhist religious tradition, there are many examples of meditative practices in every major world religion, and at the same time, there are also many forms of non-theistic meditation practices. While mindfulness and meditation are only now coming into Western awareness, there are undeniable psychological and physiological benefits to regular meditative practice. Stress is a normal part of human existence, but it does not need to control one’s life. A regular meditative practice can allay the effects of stress on the body and the mind. With all that is faced by most citizens in the global West, perhaps now is as good of a time as any to attempt a meditative practice and understand what our Eastern brothers and sisters have known for generations. There is nothing to lose now but the stress of everyday life!