Meditation is all the rage nowadays. But is it just some sort of hocus pocus or time-wasting “New Age” fad?
Dr. Don Maurer doesn’t think so. He has taught mindfulness meditation at the UC Irvine Health Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine since 2010. A growing body of scientific research confirms the benefits of meditation for health and well-being. It has been shown to increase your immune system’s function, decrease pain, reduce cellular inflammation, and help to counter depression and anxiety, just to name a few benefits.
Still, Maurer says, the proof of meditation’s effect, for many, is experiential. You just have to try it.
He learned to meditate in medical school, and throughout his 30-year career as an emergency physician he found that he handled the stress much better when he practiced meditation and yoga than when he let his practice lapse.
When presented with some health problems of his own some years back, he trained in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, a program developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts.
Today, Maurer’s sole practice is teaching mind/body medicine. Live Well sat down with him to learn what meditation is all about.
What is meditation?
Meditation is a training process to learn to focus the attention.
Why should we meditate?
It’s one of the healthiest practices I know of, delivering physical, mental and psychological benefits.
Stress reduction is the most immediately realized benefit. Many people don’t recognize the amount of stress in their lives, or understand the role stress plays in contributing to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and other chronic illnesses that are associated with modifiable lifestyle factors.
Meditation also strengthens the muscle of attention and allows our awareness to develop so we’re better able to make choices about where our attention is.
What are the common misconceptions about meditation?
The most common is that meditation is about clearing the mind or stopping thought. You can’t really stop your thoughts.
Another is that it’s always relaxing. It’s designed to calm the mind. But because sometimes the mind is just restless, it can be challenging to sit down and focus the attention. Meditation is simple, but it’s not easy.
Isn’t meditation a religious practice?
Meditation has been practiced in many religions, most notably Buddhism, for centuries. But it is not religious or philosophical. There’s no need to believe in anything special. You don’t even need to believe in meditation — you just need to do it.
What’s the best way to get started meditating?
It can be done in lots of ways, but in the beginning, just sit in a comfortable, relaxed and alert posture.
Choose an object of focus, such as the breath. Note “breathing in” and “breathing out” as you follow your breath.
When your mind wanders, as it will, catch yourself, then bring your attention gently back to the breath.
Is it necessary to spend a lot of money to learn meditation?
Although it is helpful to have a teacher or take a course, it’s not necessary. You don’t have to spend any money. There are plenty of no-cost places to read about meditation, listen to talks and guided meditations, and use apps to help you get started and continue practicing.
What apps do you recommend?
Here are three apps that are free or provide free introductions to meditation:
- Insight Timer: This has a free timer for meditation sessions, discussion groups, information about basic meditation and guided meditations.
- 10% Happier: Subtitled Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, this provides a free introduction to meditation. If you want to spend money, there is a personalized two-week meditation course created by renowned meditation teachers and access to a range of resources.
- Headspace: This offers a free starter program of 10 meditations for 10 days, and subscription for a variety of meditation instructions.
The Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine offers classes, lectures and information about meditation and mindfulness.