What is meditation?
Meditation is a state of deep physical relaxation combined with acute mental alertness. "It's like taking a nap, but you don't fall asleep, you fall awake," says Lorin Roche, Ph.D. author of Meditation Made Easy (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998).
There are many ways to achieve this state. Almost every religion incorporates meditative practices such as silent, repetitive praying or chanting. Other purely physiological techniques involve sitting and focusing on something that will hold your attention for five to 30 minutes: a progressive relaxation of your body's muscles, a word, calming music or an image. Observing your breath, which naturally tends to become slower and deeper as you relax, is a key part of many techniques.
The benefits of daily practice last far beyond the mere minutes you've spent in focus. "Meditation is an instrumental path," says Saki F. Santorelli, Ed.D, director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester and author of Heal Thy Self (Bell Tower, 1999). "Through practicing it, you recognize the possibility of relating to yourself and others in new ways."
You might not think of yourself as a relaxed person. But once you taste that sweet sensation of head-to-toe peace during meditation, you discover how great it feels to not be so tense in your neck and shoulders. Additionally, you learn to tap into the exercise of taking a few slow, calming breaths when faced with a challenge, whether it be a potentially explosive situation at work, a crying child, a dreaded event or even physical pain.