The Health Benefits of Meditation

In this article, I will share with you the health benefits associated with a daily meditation practice. I’ll also show you how you can incorporate a “sitting” practice into your own workout regimen.
By Michael Ezell

The STRESS of Daily Living

So, Why Meditate? In order to talk in-depth about meditation, we first need to talk about stress. In today’s world, we’re constantly having our attention pulled in different directions by family, work, this commitment, that engagement, the other dance recital or soccer game. And for those of us who’ve added the commitment to live a healthy and fit lifestyle to the mix, the demand only compounds. I mean, it’s not like modern culture is encouraging us to eat right and exercise. We have to Intentionally make wellness a part of our day-to-day lives. All these commitments  weigh upon us over time, often causing us STRESS. Some consider stress to be hands down the #1 killer of mankind today, and experts believe that many of our diseases have their roots firmly planted in it’s deep toxic soil.

What makes stress so dangerous is how our body naturally responds to it.Under intense emotional, physical or psychological pressure, our bodies release a corticosteroidhormone called cortisol. At high levels this hormone causes, high blood pressure and blood sugar, a lowered immune system, hair loss, weight gain, heart disease… shall I continue? The point is simple: Stress bad, very bad!

The good news is stress can be, if not totally removed from our lives, at least managed to the degree that your day can be defined by the good that you’ve experienced in it rather than the things that stressed you out. dealing with stress is a skill that must be learned however. We humans don’t do it naturally. Animals like the zebra don’t go around in the Serengeti with high blood pressure and receding hairlines, because… well for one, they don’t actually havehairlines, but more importantly because their brains only have two responses as it relates to stress: on and off. So, right after a pride of lions has finished running roughshod all over a zebra heard, the zebra can be seen placidly grazing and even playing and mating with each other. We, on the other hand, thanks to the neocortex, or new brain, (that outer layer that sits atop our reptilian brain), have gradations of stress depending on the situation. We can be a little stressed, moderately stressed, very stressed or “SOMEBODY GIVE ME A GUN!!” stressed. As a result, we can go through an entire twenty-four hour period or more in complete nail-biting mode, not because of a lion attack, but because Sarah told us to get lost, or Jimmy took credit for our work on the job.

Enter Meditation

So, what is meditation and how can it help to reduce stress? Simply put,meditation is the act of returning the attention again and again to a singular point of focus. This may seem overly simplistic, particularly when I suggest that it can virtually eliminate the negative stress response, but I assure you, both as a seven year practitioner and based on the empirical evidence, meditation is the real deal!

There have been literally thousands of scientific studies on the various forms of meditation over the past 40 years that have yielded some interesting findings. Meditation is not the same as deep rest or sleep or daydreaming. It has its own physiological marker and is characterized by high levels of mental alertness, coupled with very low levels of physiological arousal… which means your body is at complete rest, while simultaneously your mind is completely alert. It’s important to get out of your mind the idea that you have to “space out”, or go into a trance in order to meditate properly. However, the mind will naturally descend into alpha, theta and sometimes even delta brain states. Alpha is the mental state we’re in when, say reading a book or studying. Theta is the state our brains are in when we’re asleep and Delta is when we’re in that deep, dreamless sleep state.

We also use less oxygen when meditating, in fact, in a whole night’s sleep our oxygen levels never go down as much as they do within 2 minutes of meditation. This causes more blood to flow to our extremities. The point is that Meditation is a physiologically unique state when compared to sleep or waking states and thus carries with it it’s own unique benefits.

Traits Associated With Meditation

Let’s talk a little about meditation and the biomarkers of aging. Studies have found that the contrasting physiological markers of aging between meditators and non meditators are stark. For example, it’s been found that the “real age” (or the actual physiological age of the body) of a meditator is 5 to 12 years younger than that of a non meditator. Other studies have shown improved vision and hearing and lower levels of cancer and heart disease. Also Lowered blood pressure and elevated levels of melatonin characterize the regular practitioner. Essentially, with meditation, you just have less stress and a younger physiology, and really that alone is enough of a reason to begin a daily meditation practice.

How to Meditate

Okay, Okay I can hear you saying, “Enough of the technical speak. How exactly do you meditate?”  So, there are two types of meditation practice for you to choose from:
1. Meditation with form
2. Formless meditation

Meditating with form simply means that you choose an object to focus on during your session. You can use an object, such as a candle or maybe an appealing vase. But the “form” isn’t limited to a physical object. The form can be your breath or an emotion like love or compassion. you can focus your attention on your heart. Even thinking on a loved one is okay. The idea here is to find a point of focus be it physical or conceptual.
Formless meditation is actually the opposite of meditation with form. It’s the dissolution of attention, the cessation of thought. This is the more difficult type of meditation and should be practiced after you’ve gotten comfortable with focusing, because that open mental space that characterizes Formless meditation is in itself a form to focus upon and if you can’t focus onsomething, you’ll be unable to focus on nothing.

A Basic Practice

It’s important to wear comfortable clothing so that blood can freely flow and to avoid being distracted by discomfort. choose a quiet place in your home. Ideally you should designate this place as your place to practice. If you do, with time, you will automatically begin to enter into a meditative sate as soon as you go to that place. You may want to purchase a meditation mat and cushion (I got mine from dharmacrafts.com and after six years, it’s still in great condition). If not, a comfortable chair is just fine.
Sit erect in your chair so that your back isn’t touching the chair. Resting back on the chair will cause you to go to sleep because your back muscles will not be engaged. rest your hands, palms up or down, on your lap. Sit up straight. Your spine should be erect and head tilted slightly downward. Ensure that the tip of your tongue is on the roof of your mouth, just behind your buckteeth. You may either close your eyes, or leave them open, holding a “soft” gaze upon the floor a couple of feet in front of you. Now make yourself yawn at least three times. Yawning triggers a relax and focusing response in your brain, getting you in the state of meditation. It’s actually one of the best thing you can do for your brain (For more on this, I recommend the book, “How God Changes Your Brain” by Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Waldman).
Next, inhale slowly through the nose. As you do, notice how the air cools your nostrils as it passes through your nose and travels down the windpipe. Follow the journey your breath takes down to your stomach. Avoid allowing your chest to expand too much. Instead, you want your belly to rise as you breath in. Imagine that the air is filling your stomach and not your lungs. Mentally count this breath as “one”.
Next, gently release your breath into a full exhale, expelling all of the air. exhale until your diaphragm tightens a bit. count this as “two”. Continue the cycle up to ten breaths and then count back to one.
When you get distracted  (and you will), start over at one. This is meant to develop your concentration muscles. Once you’re able to count from one ten then back one for two cycles without having to stop, your ready to inquire into more advance forms of meditation.
There are numerous meditation courses that are available today, but if you want to teach yourself to go beyond the basics then I highly recommend purchasing a program called the Integral Life Practice Starter Kit, available at amazon.com.

My Technique

I now use a technique that is similar to TM (Transcendental Meditation). This is a very basic, yet extremely powerful method where you simply pick a mantra (a word that feels good to speak repeatedly), it could be Om (pronounced Aum) or “I Am”, or “Peace”,” Calm”, whatever. It just needs to signal your body/mind to relax. While seated, begin to repeat the word aloud for a minute or two. Next, begin to repeat the word more quietly than before. Continue to turn the volume down until you are completely silent, but are “thinking” the word only in repetition. Do this for about 20 minutes once or twice a day and see if you don’t begin to feel an effect within a week!

A Few Tips About Meditating

As a seven year practitioner, I’ve been meditating for about as long as I’ve been working out with Beachbody programs, so I learned a long time ago to incorporate them both into a single practice, both for efficiency and for efficacy. As soon as I complete my P90X+ or One on One routine, I immediately down my recovery drink and head for my meditation mat. Studies have found that working out and meditating together has a cross-developmental effect, which simply means that each practice is enhanced by the other (go to integrallife.com for more info on the cross-developmental effects of meditation and weight training).

Don’t feel as though you have to sit for an hour like some enlightened master. Studies show that the health benefits of a daily meditation practice can be realized in as little as 5 to ten minutes. I sit for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. The sitting time isn’t as important as committing to sitting daily. Sitting everyday for five minutes is much better than sitting once a week for 35 minutes. However, if you get off track, don’t feel guilty, just begin again. It’s not a contest, it’s a life long journey.

It’s important not to beat yourself up over losing focus during meditation. In meditation circles these mental distractions are called “the monkey mind” because your thoughts are constantly popping in and out and back into your head, distracting you from your point of focus. When you allow yourself to become frustrated during your sitting practice, you’re actually sabotaging your efforts. What I do as soon as I become aware that I’m ruminating on unwanted, distracting thoughts (and after six years it still happens all the time) is imagine those thoughts as leaves floating on the surface of a stream. I watch them come and then allow them to gently go, then I return my attention back to my heart, or my breath or an emotion, whatever my point of focus is that day.

When outer distractions occur, like your kid coming in your room looking for something, or your spouse starting the vacuum cleaner just outside your door, or the yard guy whacking weeds outside your window (can you tell that I’ve been there?), you don’t have to let it shut down your session. Remember that you can notice a distraction withoutbeing distracted. just patiently wait for the distraction to end and even get excited when they occur because they are wonderful opportunities for you to exercise patience and focus.

The immediate effects of meditation, (e.g. feelings of peace and relaxation) are all well and good, but the “golden” effects of a daily sitting practice are realized over the span of time. The most important benefit that I’ve acquired over time was an elevated level of tolerance to things that , five years ago would have sent me reeling. My threshold for BS has dramatically increased. I liken it to a wall of protection. A levee even. Years ago, my wall was pretty low, so that when stress came along like a raging river it would breach my levees, causing me to flip out. Now, my levees are much higher so that I’m emotionally protected against even a Katrina-sized stressor.

I was pretty excited, when encouraged by a couple of coaches to write this article, because my meditation practice is very important to me. It is, like P90X, a practice that I can point to and be able to say without controversy that it changed my life for the better. And I’m confident that it can do the same for you!
~Michael Ezell

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Prayer (Reloaded)

So I was working in the Operating Room, fully gowned and gloved, when I suddenly felt this strong urge, a pulling within me to sing. Now I’m well acquainted with this pulling sensation… I feel it occasionally, though usually it is an energetic tug beckoning me to sit in the silence and to allow Spirit to have it’s way with me upon my cushion. But this call to sing–this was something I hadn’t felt since my days as a fundamentalist minister.

Still, I trusted it, because, though I had been limited in my understanding of “God” long ago as a minister, Spirit still loved me enough to commune with me in my ignorance.

So I began to sing…

“Blessed always,

Blessed always

for the arms of God surrounds us

Let our joy be so triumphant

that we rest in God and

Say amen…”

I repeated the stanza about three times and just then three things happened:

The world around me melted into blackness as my eyes sealed themselves shut.

Tears began to trickle down my cheeks, dripping onto my sterile gown which would now be considered contaminated and unusable for surgery.

And the third thing which occurred?

The presence of the One, that Sacred Spirit which is known by many names, shot out of me like a spring under pressure, filling the room.  After an undetermined amount of time, my nurse came into the room to ask me if I needed anything. While I could hear her question very well, I couldn’t bare to answer her. I knew that if I had uttered a mumbling word, all decorum would’ve been lost.  To her credit, the she sensed that something larger than either of us was occurring at that moment… within me–so she quietly stepped out of the operating suit.

It has been said that to sing is to pray twice, yet it begs the question, what exactly is prayer anyway? and what place does it have in the life of nonreligious, yet deeply spiritual people?

Traditional Forms of Prayer

According to the dictionary, prayer is  ” a spoken or unspoken address to God, a deity, or a saint.” something that is wanted or hoped for very much. Synonyms for prayer, as defined by the dictionary are: entreaty, appeal, plea, request, desire, hope, wish, supplication, imploration, petition.*

Keep in mind that the above definition of prayer is western in it’s orientation and as such doesn’t by any means encapsulate what prayer is for humanity at large.  The problem that most of us with a more postmodern approach to spirituality have with traditionally western forms of prayer is that, though they have been purported  to be  powerful spiritual tools,  they’ve proven in many cases to actually be quite dis-empowering… and in this age perhaps  even a little dangerous.

Brought up in the Pentecostal Christian tradition,  for me prayer was audible, emotional and loud! The more emotional energy one could conjure, the more beneficial one’s prayer would be! As you can imagine, this philosophy made for some truly interesting prayer meetings.  I observed the sad results from these meetings however;  that people would leave still feeling unhappy and beat down by the cares of  life. There prayers would be full of deep sobbing.. of pleading. Some even seemed to be fighting in their prayers, trying to convince God of their sincerity by praying with blood, sweat and tears.

The idea of begging and beseeching some reluctant deity for blessings from on high, is immediately disempowering because asking God for things implies that we don’t  already have everything which we need, that WE are in a deficit and that something in the form of some external deity is the only solution to our apparent lack. Such thinking not only displaces us from our divine posts within the Universe, as cocreators with Spirit, manifesting, along with God  those things which are beneficial for ourselves and for the world, but Petitionary prayer also displaces God Itself from It’s place as The Universal Substance from which everything comes into being, to some celestial pimp choosing whom to reward and whom to deny.

The recitation of pre-made petitions in order to move God is a form of prayer practiced in Catholicism and other more orthodox forms of Protestantism, Judaism and Islam-and the goals are the same: to convince God with much travail to do something for you.

The very idea of a God who would require us to ask of Him, rather than connect with It reduces the Infinite to not much more than an egoic genie who so craves the attention  of Mankind that It would sit aloft, with arms folded, waiting for us to ask of it before It would aid us in the hour of our need.

Rethinking Prayer                      

Yet I believe there is a better way. First we have to reload our entire Spiritual Operating System in order to have a more practical, more empirically validated understanding of the goals of prayer… namely “state training”

When I began singing in that operating room, I wasn’t asking god for anything, because I understand that I have already, EVERYTHING  that I require in order to live the life of my dreams. I didn’t come to the Infinite from a place of need, but from a spirit of love, pure and simple. The result was that my state of consciousness began to expand until I could perceive my connection with everyone and everything around me, Including God. 

The more you train yourself to experience these blessed moments of expansion, the more these moments cease to be relegated to short periods of time in your life. Instead they become a normal part of your consciousness. This is what development looks like, so that what used to be experienced as states of consciousness, with practice, inevitably becomes stages of development in your everyday life. You can experience bliss in every moment!

These states which I’m referring to can be accessed in a myriad of ways:

Contemplative Prayer

Centuries ago, Trappist Christian monks developed a form of prayer which seemed to have demonstrable results. They found that by sitting in silence, much like way of  many eastern religious traditions, one could literally merge with God; Feel the connection with the infinite so that one moved from facing God to experiencing It.  The monks observed how this new form of prayer seemed to create a greater sense of peace within both the heart and consequently the life of the practitioner. Prayer then became about merging with one’s divinity as apposed to petitioning a distant God for blessings. This form of Christian mysticism has been lost over the centuries, but are in recent years enjoying a renaissance as those who’ve grown out of Christianity still desire to express their spirituality from a more western orientation.

This is the common thread which binds both eastern and western faiths! Though both eastern and western traditions use different terms and verbiage to describe the Divine and the nature of Man’s relationship with It,  these terms point to the same experiences of the divine.

Affirmative Prayer

Affirmative prayer also differs from petitionary prayer (which is the form of prayer which most westerners practice) in that It approaches the Divine from a position of power rather than of lack. A place of Truth and not a lie. Affirmative prayer utilizes a formula which affirms the Truth in any given situation, so for example, say we were praying for the healing of a loved one, we would:

  • Connect with God by acknowledging It’s omnipresence in the Universe
  • Recognize it’s presence and unity within us
  • Know, meditate upon and speak the truth concerning our loved one’s healing.
  • Offer thanks in advance of the manifestation of healing
  • Release the entire situation to the Universal Law which governs all circumstances.

My Spiritual Practice

While I  no longer  consider myself  Christian, there are things about the faith which still holds great value for me… namely the idea of communing with the Divine in a way which recognizes that God, while not anthropomorphic, does have human qualities and personality and as such can be communicated with in human terms!

Although the bulk of my spiritual practice involves forms of Buddhist and Hindu meditation, I also practice a more integral form of prayer which honors all the perspectives which the major religions utilize to address God.

In Judaism, God is not spoken to, rather spoken about in the 3rd person. In Christianity, God is spoken to in 2nd person. And in eastern traditions, The Infinite is experienced as the Self in the 1st person.

Thus, in my prayer time, I touch in on all three perspectives of God starting from the furthest point, 3rd person, to the closest point, the 1st person, experiencing the Divine as me! It is a beautiful and vibrant way of communing with the Divine and one that I believe can breath new life and relevance into your spiritual practice!

Michael

*Prayer definition from bing.com