As a contemplative practice, meditation is an ancient tradition with roots in nearly every major religion. In more recent times this time-tested practice has come under scientific scrutiny and evidence has emerged that meditation is more than just a pleasant way to pass a few minutes. Indeed quieting the mind can rewire brain circuits to produce health-promoting effects on the body as a whole.
Studies involving brain scanners have shown that the practitioner's brain moves through four phases. In the first part, distraction occurs. The second phase, the meditator is aware of a distraction. The third phase engages additional areas in the brain that "take back" one's attention by detaching it from any distracting stimulus. In the fourth and final phase, the meditator's attention remains directed toward an object such as the breathing.
The beauty is in its simplicity. Meditation can be done anywhere, and no fancy equipment is required. There are three basic forms of meditation, and as all roads lead to Rome - with Rome here standing in for a more stable and clear mind, emotional balance, a sense of caring mindfulness, as well as love and compassion, in other words home, which is where the heart is, so we can really say these roads lead to home - you can choose the method that suits your individual tastes. These methods are focused attention, mindfulness and compassion, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin, who include author and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard.
Aims to tame and anchor the mind in the present moment. Focusing on the breath or the one's heartbeat is often used, as is fixing the gaze on a candle flame. The practitioner must remain vigilant to distractions both internal (idle thoughts, physical discomfort) and external (sights and sounds that vie for attention) and fix the awareness on the point of interest, be it breath or flame.
Seeks to cultivate a less emotionally reactive awareness to emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment to prevent them from spiraling out of control and creating mental distress. The practitioner remains attentive, moment by moment, to any experience she has without focusing on anything specific.
Also called loving kindness, this practice fosters an altruistic perspective towards one's fellow human beings. It involves being aware of the needs of others and experiencing a sincere, compassionate desire to help. Another word for unconditional love, the highest goal of humanity.
So if you focus on your breathing, watch your thoughts, or engage in the selfless service of others, start meditating today. And remember, meditation isn't only done cross-legged in front of a flame. Expand your awareness and be cognizant of what you are thinking and feeling as well as what is going on around you. Then you take your practice with you wherever you go.
Caveat: Be aware that as with any useful practice, stumbling blocks do exist. Mental disturbances such as mania, psychosis, confusion and depression have been reported in those who meditate. If this happens, keep at it. It's like cleaning out your garage. You don't attempt the task without expecting to unearth some junk. It's not what you find in your mind but how you react that matters. And once you stop reacting, you've won.