Close your eyes and think of a spoon. Try to focus on that image for 30 seconds without thinking of anything else.
It’s almost impossible to do, isn’t it? While visualizing the spoon, any number of thoughts may have distracted you; a plan for later in the day, a nagging worry, unfinished chores, something you saw on the news. That’s the monkey mind – constantly chattering, swinging from one random thought to another.
A friend of mine named Ed explained the concept of monkey mind to me when I asked him about his experience with meditation. About 20 years ago, while trying to come to terms with the death of his mother, Ed learned how to meditate. He describes meditation as a simple way to relax and focus by training the monkey mind to take a break and calm down for a few minutes.
What’s to be gained by calming the monkey mind? A new study reveals cardiovascular benefits that even Ed may not be aware of.
Rising above heart disease
Previous studies have shown that a popular form of meditation known as transcendental meditation (TM) may help patients control blood pressure. A team of researchers recently mounted a study to test the effects of TM on subjects with coronary heart disease (CHD). The team included doctors from the Division of Cardiology at Cedars-Sinai Research Institute, the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, and the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention.
- Subjects: 103 men and women with “stable CHD” – average age: 67
- About half the group was randomly selected to attend two lectures about TM, followed by personal instruction and group meetings throughout the 16-week trial period
- The other subjects attended health education sessions to learn how stress, exercise and dietary choices affect CHD
- Results: Compared to the placebo group, TM subjects experienced significantly better blood pressure control, reduction of insulin resistance and improved heart rate variability
As reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the researchers noted that, “TM may modulate the physiological response to stress and improve CHD risk factors.”
Eyes wide shut
“Forget what you’ve heard about meditation.”
That’s Ed’s advice to anyone who’s interested in getting started with meditation. His point: If the word “meditation” conjures images of incense, finger cymbals and crystals – and if those things aren’t exactly your style – don’t be put off. Some people enjoy those trappings, but none of them are necessary.
Ed began exploring meditation by going to a local bookstore and browsing through books about different meditation methods, including TM, zazen (Zen meditation) and Hatha yoga. After taking some inexpensive lessons (which he describes as “useful, but not required”) and experimenting with different techniques he finally settled on a method that he describes as “pretty basic.”
In an e-mail, Ed wrote: “I keep it simple. I just take a few minutes each morning to sit, clear my mind and focus on my breathing.” He also uses a visualization technique – similar to thinking about a spoon, for instance – to help with the focus.
“It’s like learning to ride a bike,” he says. “Virtually anyone can do it once they get past that wobbly stage.”
Ed suggests going online to find information. “What I did in a bookstore can be easily done these days with a Google search. You’ll find tons of descriptions of various meditation techniques. Just browse around until you see something that feels like a good fit.”
You can find information about the TM technique used in the CHD study at tm.org.
“Effects of a Randomized Controlled Trial of Transcendental Meditation on Components of the Metabolic Syndrome in Subjects With Coronary Heart Disease” Archives of Internal Medicine, Vol. 166, No. 11, 6/12/06, archinte.ama-assn.org
“Meditation Benefits Patients with Heart Disease” Megan Rauscher, Reuters Health, 6/12/06, reutershealth.com