If you still think of meditation as practiced only by hippies and peace-loving Zen types, you likely are not alone. But if I may say so, you are also mistaken! Meditation is becoming more mainstream, and with the fast pace of our everyday lives, many people in the Atlanta area and all over the world are embracing its many calming and centering attributes.
Break Down Your Mental Blocks
People often get involved in meditation to quiet their thoughts, whether they are negative or just generally overwhelming. Achieving clarity on a specific subject, enhancing creativity, improving concentration and connecting better to one's inner self are often cited as reasons people embrace meditation.
Despite the opportunity to reap those rewards, some people are still hesitant about beginning a meditation practice. Leslie Clayton, founder and director of Body Awareness Studio, says, "I often hear people say, 'I can't meditate,' or 'Meditation is too hard for me,' or 'It's impossible for me to just sit and not think.' I find it funny when I hear that." It's funny, she says, because "not thinking" isn't exactly what meditation is about. "To me, meditation is about mind and body awareness," Clayton says, rather than just an empty mind. "You'll find it in many different forms. One of my favorite forms is movement meditation like Pilates, yoga, dance and Qigong."
Once you understand that a quiet mind doesn't have to mean a quiet body, the next obstacle to tackle is the time commitment. It can be scary to add even 20 minutes per day to our already stuffed schedules, so Kim Saunders of Lift Yoga Therapy says, "You can start with even one minute! There is a great video on YouTube called One-Moment Meditation. I recommend it to anyone starting out because it's so simple and shows that meditation doesn't have to be complicated or long." That minute of meditation may be all you need to jumpstart your practice. Saunders points out, "Once you do one minute, then you may want to sit for five minutes." Soon, your mind will be quiet longer than you ever thought possible.
Pick a Path
There is no one way to meditate, but many forms of the practice involve sitting quietly and comfortably while clearing the mind and releasing random thoughts that enter your consciousness while you are engaged. Bee Intakanok of The Georgia Meditation Circle, an affiliate of The Georgia Meditation Center, suggests that a sustained commitment to meditating helps foster the desired rewards. She meditates for over an hour daily. "Just as in anything that you want to be good at, you must practice, and it is the same with meditation. To achieve results, you must put in the time to cultivate your mind: at least 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night."
One of the most popular forms of meditation is Transcendental Meditation (TM), which is usually practiced twice a day for 15 to 20 minutes. In TM, a mantra, which can be a certain word, sound or a specific phrase, is repeated out loud or mentally while meditating. The focus on this mantra allows the state of restful alertness. In the practice of Mindfulness Meditation, the emphasis is on being fully present and placing non-judgmental focus on sensations and thoughts as they occur.
If you aren't the quiet sitting type, Clayton recommends moving meditations at events held by The Wave Atlanta, Ecstatic Dance and Natural Rhythms™, all of which help you combine meditation with movement. These practices, she says, let the body take over for the mind and naturally release tension and stress.
Reap the Rewards
"Honestly there are so many benefits to meditation, but in general, meditation makes you a happier person," Intakanok says. "You are not so clouded with greed, anger and delusion. You become more compassionate to all beings, and you naturally conduct yourself in a moral way. You become your master teacher when you seek refuge within yourself."
And while compssion and morality are certainly wonderful, there are even more tangible results to be gained from beginning a meditation practice. First, it offers significant immune-boosting properties. The act of meditating multiplies left-brain activity, the side of the brain controlling the immune system. Those who meditate have increased antibodies, or cells that help the immune system fight off viruses and bacteria-related illnesses.
In addition to providing these benefits, the left side of the brain also processes positive emotions such as joy and pleasure. Boosting its activity through meditation can aid in appreciating the more simple things in life and opening our hearts and minds to new experiences. "When one starts to meditate daily, wisdom develops within. It is an automatic benefit from cultivation of the mind," says Intakanok. "As a result, you are better able to make decisions and deal with challenges in your life because you see things more clearly, instead of just having a narrow view. Meditation has a way of broadening your perspective and understanding in all facets of your life. Meditation allows you to train your mind. You become the observer and not the actor."
People struggling with depression and fatigue, such as patients with multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia, can benefit as well. In patient studies where participants added meditation, their depression symptoms lessened while their overall quality of life improved.
As for the other positives meditation brings to the physical body, you can count heart health as a major benefit. An April 2013 report published by the American Heart Association stated Transcendental Meditation (TM) lowers blood pressure. Another study found participants who meditated throughout the study had a decrease in the thickness of their arterial walls, providing a lowered risk of stroke or heart attack.
Group settings for meditation are thriving here in Atlanta and nationwide. "Becoming involved with a meditation group can be very beneficial," says Veletta Gebert, a member and organizer of the Insight Atlanta and Sandy Springs Insight groups. "There are many in the Atlanta area offering regular meetings that involve a time to meditate and a discussion period to ask questions and get feedback from other meditators. Groups like Insight Atlanta and Sandy Springs Insight also have someone on site to give instruction if needed." Lift Yoga Therapy also offers meditation workshops, which Saunders says are helpful for many. "The group experience makes it easier to follow and stay focused. If you are new to meditation, a qualified instructor can help you start by giving you different techniques."
Additional places to find instructors and get the group experience include Atlanta Mindfulness Institute, Body Awareness Studio, Georgia Meditation Circle, Insight Atlanta, Self Realization Fellowship of Atlanta and the Shambhala Meditation Center of Atlanta. Plus, the Southeast Vipassana Center will hold meditation workshops for kids and teens next month, and Dharma Jewel Monastery's ongoing classes and retreats offer something for everyone.
But if you're not really a group type and more of a self-starter, Gebert suggests consulting experts via the Internet for inspiration and techniques. "It is difficult to teach yourself to meditate without any help, but in today's technological age, there are many websites to support that effort," she explains. "Dharma Seed and Audio Dharma both have hundreds of helpful talks on meditation. They range from introductions and guided meditations, to those that are more involved and advanced. They are led by experienced and trained teachers."
"Introductions to Mindfulness" by Gil Fronsdal is one of Gebert's favorites. This six-part series begins with the breath and moves on through the body, emotions, thoughts, mind and daily life. There are also shorter talks introducing meditation and mindfulness that may be helpful for someone who is not committed to giving their time to the longer talks. "Since it is so much easier to learn to meditate with some outside instruction, these give the insight and instruction without having to go to a retreat or talk with a teacher."
With varying ways to bring meditation into one's daily life, finding the quiet strength it can offer is now more accessible than ever. If you've ever considered embracing this age-old practice, there is no time like the present. The many benefits of meditation are waiting to embrace you with open arms.
Leslie Clayton, Body Awareness Studio – www.bodyawarenessstudio.com
Veletta Gebert, Insight Atlanta – www.insightatlanta.org
Bee Intakanok, The Georgia Meditation Circle – www.meditationcircle.org
Kim Saunders, Lift Yoga Therapy – www.liftyogatherapy.com