This year, consider resolving to engage in a holistically healthier lifestyle: cut out excess sugar and salt and incorporate more fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet, drink primarily water, take a multivitamin, walk often and exercise regularly.
Practicing meditation carries a wealth of benefits. Practitioners sleep well, feel energized, have strong immune systems and sharpen their ability to focus. Practicing meditation causes an increase in positive outlook, empathy, self-esteem and ability to regulate emotions, while also causing a decrease in aggression, blood pressure and stress. Meditation is proved both to lessen physical pain and depression, and it improves the relationships of couples who meditate together. When children practice meditation in school, their performance and behavior improve.
The term ‘meditation’ is used as a catch-all to refer to various relaxation, deep breathing, centering and Mindfulness exercises (including yoga, tai chi and prayer) that set a person’s focus on the present moment and foster fresh discovery without emotional or cognitive analysis. Meditation can be considered mental hygiene, akin to showering regularly to keep our bodies clean.
Since Jon Kabat-Zinn developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in the 80s and proved it alleviated chronic pain in patients, meditation has had its place in therapy. Megan Pearson, a speech-language pathologist who works for ProCare Therapy in Des Arc, has used guided meditation when coaching children who stutter. Stephanie Taylor, a mental health professional at DaySpring Behavioral Health Services in Russellville, uses mindfulness in sessions with trauma victims. She also practices it herself, saying it helps her deal with the secondary trauma she experiences from her clients.
Meditation’s role in weight loss is particularly noteworthy. Arkansas was recently found to have the highest obesity rate in America, prompting Governor Hutchinson to initiate his Healthy Active Arkansas plan just a few months ago. Weight gain is abetted by factors such as poor sleep habits and high stress, both of which can be addressed by practicing meditation. Arkansas has also ranked high for prescription drug abuse, particularly of painkillers and antidepressants. Practicing mindfulness meditation helps diminish pain and lessen depression, acting as both a painkiller and an antidepressant, free and of no risk. Meditating lowers blood pressure and anxiety, so individuals could lessen their dependency on anti-anxiety and blood pressure regulatory medications, some of the most common medications in America.
It’s easy to do, too—you don’t have to twist up like a pretzel, light a stick of incense and chant om to meditate, nor do you need to attend a class (though many counseling services and yoga studios, such as Arkansas Yoga Center in Fayetteville, offer meditation classes). Simply make yourself comfortable in a chair for five to 20 minutes and focus on your breathing or explore your mental and emotional state without judgment as you relax. You may find guided meditation easier than free meditation; apps through your smartphone can help. Free apps including Stop, Breathe & Think and Take a Break are excellent; Take a Break provides guided meditation for either a seven minute work break or 13 minutes of stress relief with a choice of gentle background noises, while Stop, Breathe & Think is interactive, allowing the user to select several emotions from a menu and then tailoring the meditative focus the user needs. The Mindfulness app (available for $2.99) provides a list of different guided meditations from which to choose, including silent meditation with chimes, and sends randomized notices throughout the day to encourage mindfulness; for example, “Pay attention to your body posture” and “May I be peaceful and happy.” They can be configured to times and locations, such as during work hours or when entering a certain busy shopping center.
After meditating, you will feel refreshed and focused. Mindfulness, deep breathing and other meditation exercises are based on Buddhist tenets and attempt to silence the mind’s impulse to constantly process and analyze sensations, feelings and actions. Meditation fits well with other religions, as well; in Christianity, the Apostle Paul exhorts the faithful to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2) and to focus on good thoughts (Philippians 4:8). I’ve found that prayer serves nearly the same purpose as meditation, allowing me to free my mind of distractions and stressors, focus on the larger picture and appreciate my blessings. Those who oppose meditation for its generally Buddhist origins may simply turn to their own religion for the specific type of meditation their faith espouses.
Meditation is a holistic approach to improving one’s health, and it’s a bargain compared to the expense of medication. Governor Hutchinson should add to his initiative a form of meditation, especially yoga, which is both physically and mentally beneficial, and you should make it your New Year’s Resolution to meditate this year—it will only take a few sessions to begin realizing the benefits in your life.
Photograph of children meditating at school during a “Mindful Minute” provided by the Crim Fitness Foundation
Original artwork by Adria English