Meditation is a mental discipline most commonly defined as a self-regulated altered state of consciousness or attention which is primarily directed to self inquiry. The practitioner seeks a deeper state of awareness and relaxation for a variety of purposes: spiritual growth, greater focus, heightened creativity, higher state of consciousness, peaceful frame of mind, and unfolding or expanding inner love, wisdom, power and light. It is also considered a valuable tool for stress relief, increased mental clarity, self-healing, pain reduction, intuition development, emotional cleansing, manifesting and chakra awareness, clearing and balancing.
All the components involved in meditation - relaxation, concentration, self-observing attitude, suspension of logical thought and the altered state of awareness - affect the psychological, physiological and spiritual aspects of the practitioner. Scientific studies have observed a variety of physical and biochemical changes that are associated with the practice of meditation - lowered heart rate, improved airflow to the lungs, reduced muscle tension, improved metabolism, lowered blood pressure, improved cholesterol levels, insomnia relief, younger biological age, youthfulness, reduced levels of free-radicals, and beneficial changes in brain chemistry. Increasingly, scientists and physicians are prescribing meditation as a part of treatment for a variety of medical conditions. The psychological benefits such as stress reduction, anger control, decreased anxiety, improved concentration, increased feelings of vitality and happiness, increased self-discipline, emotional stability, developed intuition, improved learning ability and memory, and calmness makes it an alternative treatment prescribed by therapists and other mental health professionals. Spiritually, meditation helps create peace of mind, discovery of the consciousness and power beyond the ego, discovery of a person's true being, heightened awareness of the inner self, self-actualization and ultimately spiritual awakening.
Most meditation practices can be classified into two basic approaches - Concentrative Meditation (focus is object oriented) and Mindfulness Meditation (focus is field oriented). There are some techniques that shift between these two approaches, however the two basic approaches are the most common. Concentrative meditation, used in many spiritual practices and religions, focuses the person's attention on an image, on the breath or on a sound or "mantra". By narrowing the focus in this manner, the mind becomes still allowing greater clarity and awareness to emerge. The easiest way or form to practice this type of meditation is to sit quietly and focus all attention on the breath. Meditation practitioners believe there is a direct connection between a person's breath and their state of mind. When a person is frightened, agitated, anxious, or distracted, the breathing will tend to be uneven, rapid and shallow. When the mind is calm, composed and focused, the breathing will tend to be regular, deep and slow allowing the mind to become more aware and tranquil. Using the focus (the breath, an image or a sound), helps the practitioner to remain in the here and now, avoiding cognitive thought. In mindfulness meditation, the practitioner is encouraged to maintain an open focus, freely shifting from one perception to another to clear the mind. The goal is to maintain a "no effort" attitude - no thought, sensation or image is to be considered an intrusion. The practitioner sits quietly allowing thoughts, images, worries or memories to flow in and out of the mind without reacting or becoming involved with them.
Transcendental Meditation, or TM, is the most widely practiced and most researched form of meditation in the world. Introduced in India in 1955 by Maharishi Mahesh Hogi, it is taught in a seven-step course and involves the use of a mantra practiced for 15-20 minutes twice a day. This form of mantra meditation is described as being effortless relying on the natural tendency of the mind to move in a direction of greatest satisfaction and with least concentration. There is an important distinction between the TM technique and other mantra techniques in that the mantra is not chanted, but is instead used as a vehicle upon which a person's attention can rest. During initial sessions of learning TM, the student is given a mantra (or sound) which is used as a thought in the meditation process. This allows the person's attention to be naturally directed from an active style of functioning to a quieter style of mental activity. The practitioner sits comfortably with eyes closed. It is simple to do and can be learned by anyone. It is described as an effortless way to dive within and experience "your own self". The benefits of TM are immediate and increase over time. The positive effects have been verified by hundreds of studies. It does not involve beliefs of any kind and even though a person may be skeptical, the technique will still be fully effective. It is not a religion nor does it involve any lifestyle changes, thus making it an especially popular form of meditation for the beginner. This particular form of meditation exercises the critical prefrontal cortex of the brain thus making the brain healthier, better integrated and thus better able to function as a whole. The restful alertness unique to TM promotes health through a reduction in sympathetic nervous system activity which dilates the blood vessels and reduces stress hormones. TM has been shown to produce states that are physiologically different from sleeping, waking and dreaming. It is described as a technology for consciousness. Over time the practice of TM, allowing the mind to experience its deeper level, will allow the practitioner to become aware that thought itself can be transcended and thus will experience the "transcendental being" or "source of thought" - the ultimate reality of life.
Meditation can be practiced in the traditional sense - a seated posture typically cross-legged such as the Lotus Position, or it can also be practiced while walking or during simple repetitive tasks. Qi Gong is a popular form of concentrative meditation that involves movement. Other forms of meditation involve standing and sitting on a chair or stool. Some involve hand-gestures or hand-positions. In most meditative practices, the eyes are closed and the spine should be kept straight. This encourages the circulation of what is called the "vital breath", "the life force" or "spiritual energy".
Meditation is a recommended practice for any individual seeking a higher level of wellness. By learning and practicing meditation regularly, a person creates an inner space and clarity that will enable them to control their mind regardless of circumstances. The goal is to experience a permanent inner peace or "nirvana". Taoists believe that when a person is sitting still, doing nothing such as experienced in meditation, the internal energy alchemy that occurs enables the mind of intent (water) to exert a controlling, calming and cooling influence over the mind of emotion (fire). Thus a deeper sense of well-being, control, and mindful peacefulness occur at the most silent and peaceful level of consciousness - the inner self.