Meditation Makes You Happy

Meditation helps take the stress out of life. Now a study reveals it makes you unbelievably happy, too.

This corner of the room's all but bare. A wooden chair sits alone, facing a blank wall; there are no shelves, no clocks. You sit down, feeling the floor beneath your bare feet, and place your hands on your knees, palms up.

Already you can feel the grinding anxieties of the working day begin to unfasten; you can hear the rain outside, but it's softer now, it doesn't bother you.

You close your eyes and think of a spot six inches above the crown of your head. This is the "upper room" of your consciousness, the place that is always safe and peaceful. Sometimes it's a cool space, sometimes it crystallises into a point of pure white light. In
your mind's eyes, the point of light expands. It becomes a bright star.

Meditation has long been cited as a great cure for stress, a great way to tune out the world, source your inner child and get with the rhythms of the universe - but it's all a bit woolly, isn't it' Well, not as woolly as you might think. A recent study - conducted by a raft of top US psychologists and neuroscientists and, wait for it, the Dalai Lama - suggests that meditation triggers a neurological response that doesn't merely makes us a bit more mellow; it actually makes us happy.

Your mind still focused on that bright star, you picture it opening up, releasing a cascade of pure, white energy. It cascades over you like water. You feel it tingling in your scalp, falling across your shoulders, brushing your hands and flowing out through the soles of your feet.

Since time immemorial, great claims have been made for the health benefits of meditation. It is a useful tool in pain management. Consider that the deep breathing taught to women to help them cope with childbirth is in fact a basic form of breath meditation, and that important progress has been made in applying meditative techniques to the self- management of arthritis. Sufferers of the condition attending a meditation course at Stanford University, California, have reported a 15 to 20% reduction in pain.

In conditions associated with stress - such as psoriasis, PMS, migraine - meditation appears to be very helpful. Meditation may also be beneficial to cancer patients.

Dr Ainslie Meares, an Australian psychiatrist who specialises in the psychological issues arising from terminal and chronic diseases, introduced meditation techniques to her patients and found that "nearly all...(experienced) a significant reduction of anxiety and depression, together with much less discomfort and pain".

Even more remarkably, she felt there "was reason to expect a 10% chance of quite remarkable slowing of the rate of the growth of the tumour and a 50% chance of
greatly improved quality of life".

Now imagine that flow of brilliant white light flowing back up through your feet, up through your legs and flooding your torso. It reaches the crown of your head, where it flows out, surrounding you in an aura of dazzling light.

You might not get it the first few times; the thing about meditation is to keep at it. With practice, your mind will learn to let go, to release conscious thought and still your internal voice. You'll learn to centre and be content and quiet with yourself. In so doing, you'll reap huge benefits in terms of energy, calmness and a general all-over feeling of wellness. You'll also find yourself feeling a good deal happier.

There is a scientific basis for the benefits of meditation. We have two sides to our brains - the right is the logical, rational side; the left, the creative, lateral thinking side. They also affect our moods.

Using MRI images of brain activity, one of the study's contributors, Dr Richard Davidson - a neuroscientist from the University of Winsconsin - found that, when we're under stress, it's the right prefrontal cortex that goes into overdrive. When we're happy, upbeat, full of get up and go, it's the left prefrontal cortex that's buzzing.

This analysis allowed Dr Davidson to establish an "index" of a person's typical mood range - their emotional set-point, if you like. It appears to be very accurate, with heightened activity on the right side indicating a tendency to depression and anxiety,
and busy lefts indicating upbeat, positive personalities. Most of us are in the middle somewhere.

Those with a heavy distribution to the right are likely to be depressive while those who tend to the left have blissfully few blue moods and make rapid recovery from emotional setbacks. Lucky old them.

Interestingly, our capacity for happiness is not affected by external events. Great success or appalling tragedy do not make much long-term impact on your original emotional set-point. But, this is where it gets a little bit amazing , because a meditation
may be able to.

Dr Davidson tried out the right/left ratio on an elderly Tibetan Lama, someone who'd spent more hours of his life in peaceful contemplation than most people spend sleeping. It turned out he had the highest incidence of left-brain activity of all the people Dr. Davidson had ever tested. In other words, he was a happy fella.

By now you should be feeling pretty radiant. Bring your hands up, palms facing each other but not quite touching, and feel the energy flow through them. If you have pain or discomfort anywhere, place your hands on the affected area; this will help to alleviate your symptoms.

To many people's minds, meditation and religion are inextricably linked. St Theresa of Avila, the founder of the Carmelite Order, is often depicted in a state of religious ecstasy brought on by intense contemplation - meditation, in other words. It is a central practise of Zen Buddhism and Sufism.

But meditation is primarily a secular art; where medieval mystics focused on the manifestations of God, you can take a non-religious route, and visualise light, or water, or colours. Some people light a candle and use the flame as the focus for their meditations. Ideally, you should have a place set aside specially; keep the décor to a minimum and
choose somewhere quiet and not overlooked. Meditating in the middle of a frantic railway station is, of course, possible but it takes a bit of practice.

One of the main aims of the Dalai Lama - neuroscientist collaboration was to discover whether the psychological benefits of meditation, as experienced by the Tibetan elder, could be translated into the non-religious experience. The indications suggest it may be possible.

Further research, involving stressed-out-their-minds biotech workers and a few hours a week "mindfulness" training, suggested that a person's natural setpoint could be shifted leftward, given training and practice.

The biotech workers found that, within a few weeks, their mood had improved and they felt more engaged in their work. They were also better able to cope with setbacks. Another, unexpected benefit was that their immune systems appeared to have improved. The mindfulness training was a basic form of meditation, and was practised regularly, amounting to three hours per week.

Now rest your hands on your knees as before and take a few moments to come out of your meditation. Become aware of external noises once more - the noise of trees in the wind, distant traffic, a plane crossing the sky - and slowly open your eyes.

The Downpour technique can be adapted to suit yourself; don't worry if your visualisations are a bit wonky to begin with, it all takes time and repetition. It is a basic technique and can be used any time - first thing, before you have your morning coffee, or
last thing at night to help you sleep.

To begin with, you may feel like you are achieving nothing but, if you stick with it, the rewards will come.

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This page was updated on Friday, August 29, 2003 2:56 PM