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EARNING TO MEDITATE can be as tough as falling asleep in a cramped airline seat with a whining toddler two rows back.
Meditation means shutting out all noise and thoughts. No daydreaming, no worrying, no awareness of aches or pains. Just a quiet mind.
It's a tall order.
Beginners often feel anxious, even as they try to relax, said Ren Fields, a meditation leader in Fredericksburg.
"We have so much noise in our lives," said Fields, who runs the Healing Arts Yoga & Massage Center "When there's complete stillness, it makes people edgy because they aren't used to it."
Increasingly, doctors recommend meditation to ease stress and muscle tension. Meditation can lower blood pressure, reduce pain and cut production of the stress hormone cortisol, according to numerous studies, including some done by Harvard Medical School researchers.
Fields can attest to its power. She said she's had dental work done without anesthesia; meditation helped block the pain.
Long thought of as a counterculture practice, meditation is decidedly more mainstream now. Fields said she's given talks about it to workers at Mary Washington Hospital. Fredericksburg physicians have recommended it for headache relief. And researchers at notable institutions such as Harvard and the University of Wisconsin-Madison study its benefits.
"The idea of meditation is to quiet the mind," said Miriam Austin, author of "Meditation for Wimps." "And it's about the hardest thing to do."
Some, but not all, meditative methods are steeped in religious beliefs. Some emphasize paying attention to your breathing; others focus on repeating a mantra.
What binds them is their call for mental silence, an extraordinary feat in an instant-message, 24/7 culture.
Like slimming down or bulking up, developing a meditation practice takes discipline, patience, and finding an approach that fits. You can't go wrong trying, Austin said.
"It's a practice," she said. "You don't have to be perfect. If I meditate for 20 minutes, my mind doesn't get perfectly quiet. But by the end, it's pretty quiet. That's the payoff, and that's why people keep doing it."'I'm going to sit here and not think'
Camilla Ham, a University of Mary Washington student, has been hooked on meditation since she was a kid. She grew up watching her parents meditate.
"My mom used to give me candy in the morning if I would meditate," Ham said. "Eventually, I got to the point where I wasn't getting candy anymore, but I was still meditating."
Her practice, and her involvement with the Science of Spirituality's Sawan Kirpal Meditation Center in Bowling Green, made her an oddity at Caroline High School, she said.
"I was considered weird," Ham said. "Not by everyone, but it was so amazing to get to college and have people go, 'Wow, meditation is cool.'"
Two years ago, she helped start an informal meditation club on campus. Meetings are open to anyone. The group started out small but has grown, she said, as students realize meditation can relieve stress and get them in a calm mind-set to study.
"Last year, we got a couple of e-mails from dormitories that wanted us to come during exam week and do a stress-related meditation," Ham said.
Ham said she's finished her coursework and will graduate with a bachelor's degree in the spring--with honors. She attributes much of her success to meditating.
"When you come out of meditation, you feel really peaceful and really happy, and that stays with you," Ham said.
Ham's style of meditation involves repeating a mantra and gazing with her eyes closed.
She's happy to discuss the intricacies of her method, called Jyoti. But she said beginners might want to try out some practical advice first. Like writing to-do lists.
"Whenever I sit down to meditate, I almost always think of something I forgot to do," Ham said. "It's so hard to say, 'I'm going to sit here and not think.'" So sometimes it helps me to make a list before I meditate."
Things written down won't be forgotten, and that helps Ham concentrate on meditating.
Ham also suggests trying, throughout the day, to avoid multi-tasking.
"When we sit down to meditate, it's so hard, because we're so used to doing more than one thing at a time," Ham said. "If you focus on doing one thing solely and wholly, that helps."
Beginner meditators, whether on campus or elsewhere, can find plenty of resources in the Fredericksburg area.
Fields leads meditation sessions a couple of Friday nights a month at her Healing Arts Center. In Caroline County, there's the Sawan Kirpal Meditation Center, where Ham went as she grew up.
On Thursday evenings, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fredericksburg hosts a mindfulness meditation group. Surely other groups exist elsewhere.Get comfortable
Classes aren't necessary to get started, though. Experienced meditators recommend learning from a teacher, but they say it's possible to glean enough advice from reading and conversations to get going.
Much of the advice is more practical than profound.
Put in earplugs if it's noisy outside, author Austin recommends. Wrap yourself in a blanket if you're chilled, Fields advises.
Fields also advises creating a calm environment--one with dim lights, soft white noise and a comfortable temperature.
Austin, the author, also stresses the importance of comfort, and of relaxing the body before trying to relax the mind. Her advice to beginners: lie down.
"The problem most people have is they want to meditate, so they sit down in some sort of cross-legged pose, and their knees are killing them, and their backs are killing them, and their minds are never going to quiet," Austin said. "And God forbid anybody try lotus [position]. They'll probably tear the ligaments in their knees."
Lying down with feet and calves elevated can be a great position to relax in, she said. If that doesn't work, she suggests beginners sit up and press their foreheads down on something hard--like a chair or big dictionary. Pressure on the spot between the eyebrows is soothing, she said.
Austin said she relied on meditation--and its common companion, yoga--to ease stress when she was a stockbroker in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
"It's the only way I really could survive it, especially as I moved up the ladder," Austin said.
Meditation eased tension and kept her well during 14-hour workdays, she said.
"When all the brokers around me were sick, I wouldn't get sick as quickly or for as long as they did," Austin said.
For a time, Austin lived in New York City, and that's when she realized how valuable earplugs can be. Blocking out external sounds such as police sirens and jackhammers can be tough.
Tougher still, Fields said, is quieting internal noise.'Find what works best'
The stress response--what one feels after, say, a fender-bender--is automatic, Fields said. But relaxing in a way that creates physiological change takes work.
"The relaxation response has to be intentionally induced," Fields said. "So if you never meditate, you never know what that is."
Some meditative traditions promote the repetition of a word--silently--with every inhalation and exhalation.
The idea is to train the mind to have a singular focus, on just one thought.
Christians might think "Jesus" as they inhale, and "Christ" as they exhale, Austin said. Jewish meditators might repeat the word "Shalom." Others might think "peace."
Fields instructs beginners to count instead, saying "and" with every inhaled breath, and a number with every exhalation.
"You have to find what works best for you," Ham said.
Some meditative styles emphasize paying attention to the rising and falling of every breath. Austin thinks that's a tough method to start with.
"That's something I would definitely advise people to study with a teacher," Austin said.
Ham, Austin and Fields all say beginners shouldn't put too much pressure on themselves, whichever meditative path they follow.
Getting distracted is part of the process, not a sign of failure. The key is to bring the wandering mind back to a still place.
Start off small, Austin advises. Just five minutes of practice each day.
"Five is going to seem like 30 minutes when you're a beginner," Austin said.
A little instruction can go a long way, Fields said.
"After this," Fields said at the start of a meditation session last week, "you'll be able to meditate for the rest of your life."
For more information:
Sawan Kirpal Meditation Center in Bowling Green: 804/633-9987 or on the Web, http://beale3.bealenet.com/~jmcfall/sawan.htm
Healing Arts Yoga & Massage Center: 540/371-4555 or on the Web, healingartsyoga.com
To reach JANET MARSHALL: 540/374-5527 firstname.lastname@example.org