By Susan Gladin
May 8, 2012
All you have to do is sit down and shut up, and that’s the hard part. Staying still for 15-20 minutes is easier compared to the effort involved in getting there in the first place. “There” might be a special place with candles and incense, or it can be anywhere you happen to be. Sitting up in bed works for me sometimes so I can catch myself in the morning before my brain has a chance to tell me how busy I need to be.
That brain is the voice that needs to be quiet, but it won’t, and that is perhaps the first lesson in any form of meditation. There are tools for quieting the mind … a sacred phrase, techniques for the breath, particular postures and finger movements. They all help, but the mind won’t be quiet.
The best approach is a bit of playfulness, I think. Imagine yourself beside a river, and your thoughts are boats that pass by. You see them, but you don’t have to board them. Just wave and let them float on by, and then bring your attention back to your breath, your phrase, or your posture. That’s it.
The physical benefits of a meditation practice are enormous and available to everyone, regardless of creed or no-creed. In fact, a central theme of the book “How God Changes Your Brain” is that a concept of God is not required for meditation to make you healthier and happier. The book will tell you more about your brain than you probably want to know, but the underlying message is one we all need … that a short, daily meditation practice can and will improve and maintain the functions of our brain and body.
The particular practice used for some of the research in the book comes from northern India in the 16th century and is called the Kirtan Kriya. The authors taught the practice to a construction worker with memory problems. Gus’ brain function was evaluated, and then he was taught the 12-minute daily practice of saying “Saa-Taa-Naa-Maa” and touching his thumb to the tip of each finger as he said the words.
Gus wasn’t even told the meaning of the words, he just said them. Saa means birth or infinity, Taa means life, Naa means death or completion, Maa means rebirth. I like knowing the meaning of the words, but the meaning doesn’t matter. The practice does. In eight short weeks Gus’ memory was remarkably and demonstrably improved, and thousands of others have shown progress as well.
Go to http://alzheimersprevention.org/kirtan_kriya.htm to learn more about this practice. But you might just as well go to a practitioner within your own faith tradition, because every tradition has, at its core, a prayer or meditation practice that will be just as helpful. Catholics have the Rosary. Other Christians have Cantering Prayer (find Cynthia Bourgeault or Father Keating’s excellent books). Muslims have Sufi practice, and the Jewish faith has the Kabbalah or “Minyan,” a practice detailed in a book of that name by Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro.
In the book “Anti-Cancer,” physician David Servan-Schreiber details his own path through healing meditation. As a Ph.D. brain researcher, he studied and reports on the many positive physiological changes that occur with regular practice—changes that lead to less disease and longer life. Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, a medical oncologist, internist, and hematologist likewise demonstrates the healing benefit of meditative practices.
As a minister, I am not bothered that meditation practice does not require belief in God in order to heal and transform us. I know that what I call god is wholeness beyond any ability to name it … just as our Hebrew Scriptures declare.
A meditation practice by any name connects us to this ineffable wholeness, and has healing power for mind, body, and spirit. All we have to do is show up, which is the part I find most difficult. Cynthia Bourgeault says, “Just put your body there.” To borrow a modern slogan: “Just do it.” Set a timer for 12, 15, or 20 minutes, and sit down. The rest is simply what happens, and it isn’t up to us.
Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister, and currently on medical leave from her position as executive director of the Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill.