One of the best ways to begin
figuring out what else we are is through the process of meditation.
There are as many different forms
of meditation as there are people to practice them, but all revolve
around one basic goal: stopping, at least temporarily, the flood
of thought, commentary, and self-talk that flows through our
Meditation has been studied extensively
for years and offers all kinds of direct, tangible benefits —
lowered heart rate and blood pressure, increased self-esteem
and confidence, and expanded interpersonal effectiveness, among
But the reason we think so much
of it in the context of recovery is that it works so well in
both filling up the time formerly set aside for addictive behaviors
and in reversing the stress and depression that can trigger relapse.
Don’t know how?
Don’t worry about it. Meditation
is one of the simplest things in the world to teach or learn.
If you’d like formal meditation
training, you can contact any of a number of organized groups
to arrange it. Prices, as in most things, can vary from a little
to a lot, but unlike most things, when it comes to meditation
you don’t necessarily get what you pay for.
You get what you create — every
day, once or twice a day.
The ‘Relaxation Response.’
A basic, no-frills approach
to meditation that seems to include all the essentials is passed
along by Dr. Herbert Benson in his book, The Relaxation Response.
According to Benson, all approaches to meditation aim at the
same basic goal — quieting the relentless chatter of the mind
simply by seeing it for what it so often is: noise.
Benson himself was introduced
to the practice at Harvard Medical School in the early 1970s,
studying the physical and psychological changes associated with
one approach to meditation, Transcendental Meditation (TM).
The basic TM process that Benson
originally studied involves the silent repetition of a word (often
a Hindu name for God) called a mantra, accompanied by deep relaxation
of the body. The technique worked — very well, in most cases.
But Benson didn’t stop there.
As he kept looking over his data, at the lowered metabolic rate
and decreased anxiety levels of meditators, he wondered if the
results reflected specific properties of TM or represented a
phenomenon that’s true about meditation in general. To find out,
he repeated his experiments with a group he taught to meditate
using the word “one” as a mantra, rather than a Sanskrit
word specified by the TM instructor.
The results were clear-cut. “One”
seemed to work as well as the meditator’s mantras, at least in
eliciting a deep state of body/mind relaxation. Benson immediately
dubbed the state the “Relaxation Response.”
Benson believes that deep relaxation
is an inborn human capacity that’s gradually fallen into disuse
and disrepair over the centuries. That’s happened because to
survive in a hostile world, we’ve had to adapt a hair-trigger
approach to sorting out potential difficulties in our minds by
constantly creating different “what-if” scenarios that
typically boil down to two basic choices: fighting or fleeing.
Nothing wrong with that, according
to Benson, except that gradually we’ve lost the ability to relax
fully and we need to relearn it.
How do you teach yourself?
Easily enough, as it turns out.
Begin by finding a quiet place. Ideally, it should be comfortable
(since you’re going to be sitting in one basic position for about
20 minutes) and distraction-free, since interruptions can both
break your concentration and make 20 minutes seem like a long
After a while, though, comfortable
and quiet aren’t even prerequisites. Experienced meditators meditate
wherever they are — whether on a crowded commuter train or in
their office between appointments. Still, for starters, it’s
best to find a reasonably quiet and comfortable place.
But not too comfortable.
Try an armless straight back chair, but see that you’re able
to keep your spine straight and your muscles relaxed.
Stopping the Mind, Step by
Step. Begin by closing
your eyes. Take a breath, relax, and start to feel the tension
flow out of your body. If you have a tough time with this (and
many do), systematically tense and relax the main muscle groups
of your body.
Starting with your feet, flex
your toes and relax. Then tense and relax your ankles. Do the
same in your calves and knees and thighs and hips and pelvis
and abdomen and chest and back, upper arms, forearms, and fingers.
Feel the tension in your body dissolving as you bring it up to
After you’ve become relaxed,
begin to pay attention to your breathing. Nothing fancy here,
just notice the rhythmic in-and-out flow of breath, and silently
say the word “one” (or “Aum” or “calm”
or any other one- or two-syllable word that seems to fit) to
yourself as you exhale.
This is where you’ll begin to
notice the incredible tangle of disconnected thoughts that ordinarily
command so much of our attention — all the things we didn’t
say or could have done, all the events we felt good/bad/indifferent
about, all the slights and omissions dispensed and received,
all the trivia that endlessly runs through our minds, that in
fact forms a major part of who most of us consider ourselves
When stray thoughts intrude (and
they will), just notice them and, without getting angry at yourself
for “not doing it right,” simply go back to repeating
the word you’ve chosen as a mantra.
Sound boring? It can seem that
way, sometimes, usually when the mind needs quieting the most.
But it can also be inspiring, restful, relaxing, and even fun.
Variations on the theme can include
closed-eye visualizations, in which you form mental images to
role-play your way through a problem, for example, or focus attention
on a specific goal. But the basic premise remains the same: Stop
the endless flow of self-talk in our minds and all sorts of possibilities
That’s all that meditation is
Because in spite of the mystical
overtones often associated with the practice, it’s only a technique
to help focus awareness. If you’re wondering what good that is,
just think back to some of the best moments in your life. You’ll
notice that a relaxed, focused awareness is probably the only
thing all your best moments had in common. Your mind got out
of the way, and your soul (or your self-whatever you want to
call it) took over.
What are you waiting for? Meditation
is just like needlepoint, bowling, gourmet cooking, or anything
else we’ve ever heard of.
The only way to get good at it
is through practice — preferably twice a day, every day.
You can settle for less. The
only problem is that’s what you get when that’s what you do.