Need an oasis of calm in the stressful whirl of beeps, alarms and whines in your life? Try a little meditation, modern style. And you can do it without converting to a new religion, firing up incense sticks or sitting in a daze for hours. In fact, doing anything that focuses your mind and senses can be called meditation. With practice, this ancient art can help sharpen your thinking, reduce stress and improve your overall health and vitality.
Most meditation techniques work their magic by training you to focus on one object or activity. When your mind wanders — which it does, constantly — you gently bring it back. Traditionally, meditators have sat for hours, simply focusing their minds on their breath, a sound or even a thought for contemplation. Luckily, contemporary western gurus have come up with techniques that involve activity and interesting points of focus. “Sitting meditation for many of us in the West is extremely difficult because our minds are so active,” says Jonathan Foust, director of curriculum and a senior teacher at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Massachusetts. He compares our minds to an unruly puppy: we might want it to sit and stay, but its nature is to run off and only patient repetition can teach it to obey “Doing an activity during meditation is like throwing a bone to a puppy It gives the mind something to do.”
Training your thoughts to sit like an obedient puppy may seem a tad pointless, but there are countless spiritual and mental rewards, along with proven health benefits. Frequent meditators say they appreciate life more and find they can better cope with any obstacle or crisis. But decades of medical studies also show that meditation can help us stay well and fight disease. Dr. J. William LaValley of the Medical Wellness Centre of the Maritimes in Chester, N.S., says meditation is proven to lower the heart rate, decrease levels of hormones associated with stress, strengthen the immune system, increase flexibility, improve concentration and memory and make people feel more rested. Although anyone can benefit from meditation, it can also help people living with illness cope better and survive longer, which is why Dr. LaValley prescribes it to his cancer, chronic pain and arthritis patients. A Toronto study of 22 cancer patients found those who practised meditation, along with other relaxation and therapeutic tec hniques, lived longer than those who didn’t.
To enjoy the rewards of meditative bliss, you’ve got to meditate regularly and properly — many gurus recommend taking a course to learn the art. But whether you’re trying it at home or meditating under expert guidance, you’ll get the most benefit if you don’t expect miracles overnight. “I think people should be gentle with themselves; they’re not going to get there right away,” says Barbara Merkur, a meditation and focusing expert in Toronto. So, go slow, enjoy yourself and feel free to “om” if the spirit moves you.
You’d like to meditate, but sitting still in a dark room will either drive you stir-crazy or make you fall asleep. So, get active instead. These meditation exercises keep you focused using household objects and everyday activities. They can take 10 minutes or two hours, depending on how long you’re able to concentrate. Ultimately, you’ll learn to relax, focus your mind, open your senses and be fully present to your experience without judging it. Sample them all to find your surest ticket to tranquillity.
“Mauvelous” or “burnt sienna”?
Get in touch with how you really feel on any given day with this meditation exercise. Find a secluded spot. Get a big box of crayons and a piece of paper — something heavy and textured is best. Without thinking, take three different-colour crayons that catch your eye, anything from “mauvelous” to “burnt sienna.” Pick up the lightest-colour crayon and start to shade using the entire side of the crayon for a soft effect. “Just go over the surface of the paper, setting your base, doing it without intention,” says Toronto meditation expert Barbara Merkur. Then move to the medium crayon and start shading with it, going over top of the first colour wherever you like. Your drawing might be coming together now. Don’t think about it or judge it; just go with it. Finish your drawing with shading from the darkest crayon. If any images present themselves, define them further, if you like. When you’re done, sit for a moment and notice your breath and what you’re feeling. Really look at the picture and choose a title. The picture and title should give insight into what you’re feeling that day and what’s going on in your life.