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Wellness and Personal Development

Meditation for Stress Reduction

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

When you hear the word meditation, you may think of saffron-robed monks or bearded yogis bent into contorted positions. If this your prevailing image, think again. Meditation is nothing more than putting your mind at ease by controlling the focus of your attention. Meditating is a skill that can be learned by anyone, no matter their religious or spiritual point of view.

Properly considered, meditation is a form of attention and awareness training that involves far more than a simple emphasis on breathing. Literally any activity that improves concentration and awareness can be used as a focus of meditation. As such, meditation could be easily classified as a psychological, kinetic, or haptic intervention just as easily as a breath-related intervention. We've placed it in this "breath related" category simply to honor the fact that many forms of meditation often begin with a focus on breathing.

Although meditation has been used for centuries in Asia, until recently, much of Western civilization viewed meditation as a suspect and "fringe" activity. Contemporary scientific research on the effectiveness of this technique has lead to more widespread acceptance by Western individuals, however. People from all walks of life who are concerned about stress and good health now make meditation an important part of their lives.

American culture reinforces staying busy. Many of us feel guilty if we are not working, being productive, or running from one event to another. Meditation requires pausing for (at least) a brief time each day. When meditating, you focus your attention solely on what happens when you are sitting still. For a little while each day, you live in the present rather than the past or the future.

Meditation can also help reduce anger and hostility feelings by teaching people to suspend automatic judgments. We often fail to cope well with stress because we form automatic appraisals of situations that cause us to react in unnecessarily emotional ways to those situations. Sometimes we are not aware of making such judgments, but find ourselves simply angry, sad, or fearful without knowing why. We view things that make us feel good as "good" and other things as "bad" because they make us feel bad.

In order to develop a non-judgmental attitude, meditation requires learning to notice whatever comes before us without forming judgments. Mediation requires acknowledging judgments and then letting them go. If you do not act on judgments, they will tend to fade. In contrast, if you wrestle with judgments, or need things to be a certain way (rather than the way they are), those things will remain a troubling center of your attention. A good illustration of this is what happens when we say, "Don't think about an elephant!" What's the first thing you do? You think about an elephant! The sooner you direct your awareness elsewhere, the sooner the thoughts of the elephant will fade.

You can practice a simple form of meditation by following these breath-related steps:

  • Wear comfortable loose-fitting clothing and sit in a chair on the floor in a comfortable position. Cross your legs in a comfortable way.
  • Mentally scan your body for tension. If you notice any tension, imagine it draining away and being replaced by relaxation.
  • Begin to breathe slowly through your nostrils, from your abdomen. You may want to imagine a balloon inflating and deflating just beneath your belly button as you breathe. Count silently each time you inhale. On the first inhale, count one; then exhale slowly. Then on the next inhale, count two and so on until you have reached ten. If you become distracted, simply return to counting. After you have finished counting to ten, add a word like one or calm or amen as you exhale.
  • Keep the focus on your breathing, attending to each in-breath and each out-breath for their full duration, as if you were riding the waves of your own breathing. Whenever you become aware that your mind has wandered away from your breathing, notice what it was that took you away and then gently bring your attention back to your belly and the feeling of the breath coming in and out.
  • Become aware of your thoughts and feelings at these moments, but observe them without judging them or yourself. At the same time be aware of any changes in the way you are seeing things and feeling about yourself.
  • Continue the exercise for about 15 minutes. Sit or lie quietly for a few minutes before you return to other activities.

There are many forms of meditation. One of the oldest forms is called Vipassana or Mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation involves learning to focus your attention on whatever you are doing at a given moment, in the present (i.e., while you are doing it), so as to achieve greater concentration and sensory clarity. When learning mindfulness, it is easiest to choose a simple activity such as eating a piece of fruit. Here is a mindfulness inspired activity you can try which helps you develop your concentration and sensory clarity powers:

  • Choose a fruit that you particularly enjoy. Many people use an orange cut into wedges for this exercise; others prefer a mango or even raisins.
  • Take a few deep breaths and relax your body.
  • Scan your body and release tensions.
  • Let go of the past and the future, and bring your attention to the present moment.
  • Let your attitude be open and receptive.
  • Take a moment to appreciate where the fruit came from.
  • Look carefully at its color and shape. See, as if for the first time, how it is formed. Feel its texture. Notice the aroma.
  • Eat one section of the fruit at a time, very slowly, as if you had never tasted it before.
  • How do you chew? On one side of your mouth, the other, or both? How many times do you chew before you swallow? Slow down if you start to hurry.
  • Whenever you notice any distraction from the moment-to-moment experience of eating, stop, take a deep breath, and then continue.
  • Allow feelings of enjoyment to arise as you experience the pleasure of eating mindfully.
  • Repeat the mindful eating exercise during at least one quiet meal time each day.

Mindfulness meditation is a complex subject that we cannot do justice to within the confines of this stress management document. If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness meditation, a good summary can be found in the writings of meditation teacher Shinzen Young. Click here to listen to an audio interview with Young, who also leads online meditation classes through his website.