The Beginner's Guide to Meditation

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If you think meditation is something only Buddhist monks (or people with lives a lot less crazed than yours) can do, think again. Not only can anyone meditate, but there are myriad benefits to your health and well-being from a simple, daily meditation practice. For starters, meditation can:

- decrease blood pressure, as well as cortisol (a stress hormone) and cholesterol
- increase creativity
- reduce anxiety and -strengthen the immune system. A recent study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that meditators produced significantly more antibodies to a flu vaccine than did nonmeditators. The same research also showed that those who meditated were calmer and had a more positive emotional state.

Getting started
Most people who try meditation for the first time have a very specific goal: to reduce stress. And it's a terrific tool for that. The bonus is that the calm you experience seeps into other moments of your day. Before you know it, you find yourself with a greater, more-natural sense of balance, more compassion for yourself and others, and a more-robust sense of humor. Over time, you may notice that you see the "big picture" of your life more clearly and are able to make better decisions about it. Meditation also can help you connect with your spiritual side and possibly to a higher power if your belief system includes that.

Begin to meditate by learning one simple technique and practicing it every day. There is no right or wrong way to do it; whatever resonates for you is the method you'll want to return to. Here's one to try, adapted from Meditation for Dummies by Stephan Bodian (Wiley Publishing, 1999):

- Sit comfortably on a cushion or a chair. Don't slouch, but your back doesn't need to be ramrod-straight either. At first, you may want to try sitting against a wall to support your back. Use extra pillows under your knees or anywhere else to make you comfortable.

- Try lying down, if sitting to meditate is unappealing. Miriam Austin, author of Meditation for Wimps (Sterling Publishing, 2003), recommends lying on the floor with your calves and feet resting on a chair seat.

- Put on music, if that helps to calm you before beginning to meditate. Turn it off once you begin.

- Set a digital (nonticking) timer. Start with five minutes and work your way up to 10, then 15, and eventually 20. It will probably take weeks or months to lengthen the time you practice. Try not to put yourself on a schedule. Whatever your pace, it's fine.

-l Breathe normally through your nose, with your mouth closed. Your eyes can be open or closed. Focus on the breath moving in and out of your nostrils, or on the rise and fall of your belly.

- When you notice your mind wandering, bring it gently back to the breath. Be careful not to drift off; this will be tempting, especially if you're lying down. While shutting off your mind is not the goal of meditation, neither is judging the meditative process. No matter what feelings or thoughts you have, simply bring your focus back to the breath again. And again.

The obstacles
As with anything new, once you've tried meditation, you're bound to hit a snag or two. Here are six of the most common barriers to getting into a regular meditation practice and how to get through them:

My mind races.
Why it happens That's the way our minds naturally work.

How to work with it Try counting your breaths, or repeating a word or phrase (such as "peace" or "one") silently to yourself. "The practice of meditation is not about suppressing thought, but surpassing it. Observing your breath is one way to approach this," says Victor Davich, author of 8-Minute Meditation: Quiet Your Mind, Change Your Life (Perigee, July 2004). You may want to try a tape or CD of a guided meditation to quiet your mind and develop your focus).

I fall asleep.
Why it happens It's a natural response when you're relaxed.

How to work with it If you tend to fall asleep, try sitting up while meditating. "It's normal to feel sluggish when we let go of daily concerns," says Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass. "Remember to keep your spine straight, and try opening your eyes." Focus softly on a spot a few feet in front of you.

I can't sit still.
Why it happens Your body as well as your mind is restless.

How to work with it Try a walking meditation:

- Walk at your usual pace or slower, indoors or out.
- Synchronize the rhythm of your breathing with your steps.
- Gaze ahead calmly with your eyes lowered.
- Notice the contact of your feet with the ground.
- Focus on your breath and on walking.

My back (knees, rear end) hurts.
Why it happens You may need to adjust your body, or you may just be tired or restless. Remember that it's fine to meditate sitting in a chair or lying down (as long as you don't fall asleep).

How to work with it "Just sitting still is an enormous challenge for most of us," Bodian says. "If you're truly experiencing an urgent pain, move to a more stable position. But notice if it is just restlessness and if so, try to sit with it." You also may want to try a walking meditation.

I feel nothing special.
Why it happens Your preconceived notions about what meditation is may be getting in your way.

How to work with it Aim simply for an increased awareness of your breath. Try to avoid unrealistic expectations that something monumental is going to occur. Bodian says, "In some ways, meditation is like building muscle. The repetitions with weights are not exactly exciting, but you know the ultimate goal is valuable."

Salzberg adds: "Remember to have patience with yourself."

Your experience of meditation is very personal. For some people, it is simply becoming aware of the thoughts that have always raced through their minds. For others, meditating is a feeling of intense concentration, and for still others it is a deeply relaxed yet highly alert state. The truth is, each meditator probably gets a taste of each of these states -- and many others -- in the course of a session. The bottom line? No matter what you are feeling, you simply can't do it wrong.

I don't have time to meditate.
Why it happens You're busy and feeling overwhelmed.

How to work with it You can carve out the time. Really. Set your alarm clock to get up 15 minutes earlier in the morning or try meditating before bed instead of watching the late-night news, Bodian suggests. The most important thing is to meditate regularly -- even if it's just for 10 minutes a day. Davich agrees: "All you need is time and consistency. Quite simply, meditation can help you become more aware and more present. And that makes life more enjoyable."

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