Open hearts, open minds seek awareness and relaxation through meditation

Amanda N. Wegner, Wisconsin State Journal

It’s simple, inexpensive, doesn’t require any special clothing or props, and can be done just about anywhere, anytime.

And with a little practice, you could come away feeling refreshed, invigorated, calm or simply having a clearer mind.

It’s meditation and if you haven’t tried it, words can’t explain what you’re missing.

“It’s an intangible thing and so hard to explain,” says Shannon Howe of Milwaukee, who frequently meditates and stopped by Madison’s Shambhala Meditation Center for some mental respite while in town a few weeks ago. “But each time I meditate, I come away refreshed, with a better understanding of myself and the world, and this amazing feeling of accomplishment of freeing my thinking and my mind.”

Improving mind, body and soul

Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at UW-Madison and director of the university’s Lab for Affective Neuroscience, pioneered some of the world’s first research on meditation and its affect on the brain. With meditation, says Davidson, a person can train his or her mind to improve attention and regulate emotions; it can also improve a person’s level of happiness and well-being.

Davidson explains that these benefits come from neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to be exercised and enhanced, creating new neural pathways.

“The brain can be transformed through practice and experience,” he says.

Davidson and his team are currently conducting more meditation research, specifically investigating how meditation facilitates healing and impacts a person’s ability to cope with pain. Considering the anecdotal reports out there, the research looks promising.

Katherine Bonus, who runs UW Health’s mindfulness meditation programs through the Center for Integrative Medicine, has seen scores of people with chronic conditions and diseases come through the program; they leave armed with new tools and a new outlook for managing their body, health and life.

“There have been so many times when I’ve witnessed change in a person. The power of meditation will forever, in some way, continue to amaze me,” says Bonus, who founded the program in 1993.

Meditation for life

Though it’s predominantly rooted in Buddhist tradition, there are many varieties of meditation in the world. Some involve sitting quietly for hours at a time, while others encourage movement. Some are tied to religion or physical practices such as yoga and martial arts; others are based in psychology. There are also numerous techniques. But regardless of the practice or origin, says Bonus, it all boils down to a singular concept: training the mind.

“We are not doing rituals or burning incense,” Bonus says of the UW Health program, which meets once a week for eight weeks and requires participants to meditate on their own for 45 minutes a day, six days a week. “We don’t ask you to sit in a cross-legged position for hours. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn training of the mind.”

Mike Brandl, educational program coordinator for the Akanishta Buddhist Center and a regular practitioner, agrees. “We do read passages or talk about Buddhist principles and the teacher may ask us to focus on something in particular, like compassion, but the main part is the meditation. It is more contemplative and we come to our own conclusions. It is truly a training of the mind, instead of letting thoughts just breeze through,” says Brandl.

While the science is inconclusive to date, Davidson suspects that to achieve the full, sustaining benefits of meditation, regular practice is necessary.

“In general, the more you practice, the more significant the improvement,” says Davidson, who uses a kind of Buddhist meditation in his research.

But even short amounts of meditation, he adds, offer benefits.

Achieving brain bliss

While each variation of meditation takes a slightly different approach to training the mind, many use the breath as the focus. In a practice that is predominantly intangible, it gives the person who is meditating something to “latch onto.” “The first time I went to meditation, the teacher talked about finding the object of meditation and holding that in the mind,” says Brandl. “That was very confusing, because it is all mental … but the easiest thing to focus on is the breath.”

By focusing on the breath – the simple act of breathing in and out – the mind is redirected from other thoughts, allowing for clarity and relaxation.

If a distraction or a rogue thought does creep into the mind, all is not lost; instead, label that as “thinking” and return the focus on the breath.

This is just a primer on meditation. To fully appreciate its value, take a class or attend a practice.

And most importantly, do not expect meditation to be perfect.

“That’s where problems with meditation develop – with expectations,” says Brandl. “But in a way, that’s exactly what you are training your mind not to do – not hold expectations.”

Coming to a meditation practice or class with some amount of skepticism is “absolutely fine,” Bonus adds. “What’s important is that you do what is asked of you and give it your full effort. In this culture, we tend to think of things as not beneficial if we don’t like them. That’s not always true.

“It’s not a quick fix, but it’s also not brand new,” continues Bonus. “Coming in, you get very real about life. It’s a powerful practice.”

Copyright © 2006 Wisconsin State Journal