Meditation the Complete Guide with Patricia Monaghan

Last Editorial Review: 10/23/2003

WebMD Live Events Transcript

Stressed? Well relax with Patricia Monaghan author of Meditation The Complete Guide.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD's Live Program Health Focus. Today's discussion will be with Patricia Monaghan author of Meditation, The Complete Guide. WebMD members are encouraged to ask their questions and bring up any concerns they may have. This program will begin at 2pm Pacific / 5pm Eastern.

If you would like to ask the author of Meditation, The Complete Guide, Patricia Monaghan a question please type in /ask then skip a space type in your question and hit the return key.

Monaghan: I'm here! Ready.

Moderator: Hello and Welcome to today's Health Focus Program. I would like to begin by welcoming Paticia Monaghan, author of Meditation The Complete Guide to the program. Thank you for joining us here today. Can you begin today's discussion by telling everyone a little bit about your background and area of expertise.

Monaghan: Thanks, Mary, for this opportunity to discuss meditation with your members. I'm a member of the faculty of DePaul University, where I teach science and literature. In addition, I've been a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers) for almost 30 years; Quaker worship is in silent meeting, which is very like many classically meditative traditions. I also do many other forms of meditation: qigong, sitting zazen, and many creative meditations such as journaling and sketching. For several years I taught monthly meditation classes through a local women's center, and there I found that many people were interested in meditation but couldn't figure out how to start. Some bought a book that said it was on meditation, but was really on one form of meditation; if that was a form that was difficult for the person, they became a "meditation drop-out" and felt like they'd failed. I suggested to a longtime friend and former yoga teacher, Eleanor (Teri) Viereck, that we write an encyclopedia of the various forms of meditation, covering many traditions. It took several years as you can imagine, but the results are in finally available! over

Moderator: Can we begin today's discussion on Meditation by having you explain basically what it is. Then we will have followup questions.

Monaghan: Great idea. I'll start by saying that our definition of meditation is expansive and inclusive. There are some who will argue that only Zen is meditation, or only mind-emptying meditations--but my co-author and I started with a non-limiting vision of meditation, what might be called "functional meditation." Which means that, if it has the results that people are looking for from meditation, we included it. Most people who look for a meditative discipline are looking for one of several results: they are looking for greater peace and serenity in their lives; they are looking for help with some medical condition (stress, chronic pain); or, in a few cases, they are looking for performance enhancement. Much of today's interest in meditation has grown from recent studies that show that meditation does have a significant biophysical effect on the body/mind; meditation is now suggested as an appropriate treatment for chronic pain, for insomnia, and for high blood pressure. But even if someone is attracted to meditation because they prefer it over medication, usually there is some interest in becoming more centered and peaceful as well. Thus we define meditation as activities (or lack of activities!) that center the person in the moment, that free the mind from the continual rant of the inner dialogue, and that promote (although often rather slowly) a more peaceful and serene approach to life. Next.

Moderator: I've heard that meditation is a good type of treatment for chronic pain and cancer treatment, as you mentioned, but how does it help??? Or should I say how does it work??

Monaghan: In terms of chronic pain, an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association did offer a study which showed that chronic pain sufferers reported that their pain was diminished with meditation. There have been other studies--Bernie Siegel's work, for instance--which suggests that meditation is useful in cancer treatment, especially the visualization forms of meditation, but as far as I know there have been no articles in the JAMA on that subject (such articles are usually seen as an indication that the procedure or treatment is approved by the medical establishment). I should reinforce that I'm a meditator, not a medical doctor, but I'm also a researcher on meditation and try to stay current in what's been published. But to be more direct in speaking to your question, it's not at all clear what mechanisms are at work in relieving pain through meditation. In the usual western mechanistic paradigm, we'd have to find a specific chemical released--seretonin or something--that would relieve pain. In a less mechanistic vision of the interactions of body and mind, there may not be a direct causal relationship that can be traced. On the subject of cancer, more and more studies are showing that meditation is a good "adjunct therapy" together with with traditional treatments. I have known many cancer warriors who have used meditation as ways of dealing with the pain that can accompany these treatments. And I'd like to tell one anecdote that illustrates the way in which the heightened awareness that can accompany meditation can have powerful effects on our health. Two years ago, in the qigong class I took every week (and where I sometimes got to substitute for the teacher), a woman walked in off the street. She's heard of qigong (which is related to t'ai chi, which is more commonly known here) and thought she'd give it a try. The movements are fairly gentle, but when she left the class she had a horrible pain in her side. She was forced to stop several times on the way home to try to recover. Finally it got so bad she drove to the hospital emergency room. She was discovered to have an intestinal tumor that was just on the verge of metastasis. She is convinced that the awareness exercises of qigong allowed her to become sensitive to her body's messages and-- she says--saved her life. next

Moderator: What are some of the different forms of meditation and can you talk about each one and share the differences.

Monaghan: There are many different forms of meditation--about 50 in our book. Let me start by breaking them down according to their history. Many of the forms of meditation that are well-known in the U.S. today are derived from Asian traditions--Zen sitting from Buddhism, t'ai chi from Taoism, yoga from the nexus of Hinduism and Buddhism. But there are western traditions as well, such as that of the Quakers in silent worship, neo-pagan candle meditation, Christian contemplative prayer and others. There are forms of meditation based in Islam, such as Sufi dancing. And what we call "creative meditations," which are based in artistic pursuits. Another way of dividing them is between various forms of meditation which are somewhat sedentary, and those which are active. Sitting and paying attention to your breathing is a form of meditation that appears in many ways, from Sufi breathing to yogic breathing to some forms of Zen. But this more quiet form is not the only kind of meditation that is possible. Some people meditate--focus their minds, relieve their stress, find peace--through action, whether that be a patterned movement like t'ai chi or something less structured, like gardening or needlecrafts. My own practice includes some of each--Zen meditation each morning, some reading meditation every day, and many activities such as qigong and gardening. next.

Moderator: Are there certain types of personalities that benefit from meditation versus others?

Monaghan: An interesting, and not very easy to answer question, because meditation is not just an activity but a way of life. Maybe it's a good idea to define beginning meditators from more advanced ones. For beginning meditators, it's good to start with something that does not run too much counter to your general approach to life. Thus very active people can find it extremely difficult to do a sitting meditation, whereas they may benefit greatly from a moving meditation like yoga or Sufi dancing. A more sedentary person might find it easier to get started with a simple breathing meditation. But as one grows as a meditator, it's often good to work against the grain, as it were--to try meditations that stretch the body/mind in new directions. So at that point a more sedentary person might take up yoga, and a more hyper person might learn haiku, the Zen writing meditation. Incidentally, another underlying principle of our approach is that one need not have one form of meditation only. There are reasons some people might feel uncomfortable with some forms--discomfort from their religious upbringing, for instance--but for both Teri and I, meditation is a gentle encounter with spirit, and not anything which is fearful in any way. next.

Moderator: Is meditation always spiritual?

Monaghan: In my opinion, everything in the world is spiritual! I think the word I'd use for your question is "religious" rather than spiritual. Is that what you mean? next

Moderator: I would agree.... I know some people associate meditation with religion and that is not true correct

Monaghan: Absolutely. There is no reason for people to think that meditation means they have to become a devotee of some specific religious orientation--or not. I make the distinction between "religion," which is an organized approach to spirituality, and "spirituality," which is the inner life of human beings. We all have some spirituality, even those who do not believe themselves religious. For those who are not interested in using a religiously-based meditation, there are many ways to experience the benefits of relaxation and serenity that comes with meditation. Crafts, for instance, have the kind of rhythmic movement that is common to meditations. Gardening, too--one of my prime forms of meditation. When I lived in Alaska, as I did for most of my life, some of my most meditative moments occurred when I was picking berries, as I did for hours and hours many summer afternoons. William James, the great philosopher of religion, defined states of timeless unity with the world as "mystical." In that sense, many people are looking for mystical experience through meditation. Not mystical in the "woo-woo" way, like having visions or anything. Mystical in the sense of knowing--not THINKING, not imagining, but knowing--that you are connected, in an ineffable and yet powerful way, with the universe. This serenity doesn't usually come immediately with meditation. It can, in fact, take years to attain. That's another thing I want to mention about most meditative techniques--they're not Magic Bullets. I've met people who say, "well, I sat zazen for two weeks, and nothing happened." Nothing is likely to happen in two weeks. But, over time, meditators report a great ease and facility with dealing with the natural stresses of life. And, occasionally-- although not every day, even for advanced meditators--there are those times of timeless connection that make everything make sense. next.

Moderator: At what age can one begin practicing meditation?

Monaghan: Great question! I've known yoga teachers who work with preschoolers. I've taught meditation to 7-10 year old girls--well, there was one who had to yell real loud every time we did meditation!--but mostly they were able to concentrate their minds for at least five or ten minutes. Even more importantly, there's no upper age limit for meditation. This isn't an "old dogs-new tricks" kind of practice. next

Moderator: Should you do meditation in a particular place or a particular time?

Monaghan: Once you've learned a meditative practice, you can usually do it anywhere. But for beginners, it's useful to have a regular time and place, as a cue to the body/mind that meditation is occurring. Zen practice moves towards the ideal of being able to meditate continually. I love the famous old Zen proverb that says before you become enlightened, you chop wood and carry water, while after you become enlightened, you chop wood and carry water. Being able to meditate in real life takes a bit of practice, but it's a practice worth cultivating. I know one person who meditates for a few seconds between the first ring of a phone at work and the second, and another who meditates whenever she's standing in line. My late husband used to meditate whenever he was stuck in traffic. He grew to love long trains, instead of being annoyed by them, because they cued him to meditate. As I say, though, for beginners a regular time and place are useful for getting into the practice. I meditate in the morning because I find my mind gets more active as the day goes on, and when I do sitting meditation in the evening, my mind zips around so much I just get exhausted and discouraged. Mornings, however, I can meditate much more readily. So beginning practitioners might try different times of day to find the right time for them. next

DebbieDavis_WebMD: Why do you think meditation has grown in popularity and do you think it's a lot of people getting on the meditation band wagon? What do true / purest meditators think of the rapid growth and popularity of their sacred ritual.

Monaghan: Very good question. There is a bandwagon about meditation right now, and many different forms of meditation are being taught. Some people who practice a specific form express anger at what they see as a diluting of their practice, which is precious to them. While I can appreciate the sense of desire that meditative traditions aren't sold like patent medicine--which they are not--I also feel that some people who present themselves as spiritual have other motives as well (or in addition) to aiding others spiritually. Whenever someone charges a great deal of money, has many levels of initiation which are almost impossible to attain, or otherwise makes wisdom secret and expensive, my personal belief is that it's not about spirituality anymore. I would advise against paying huge sums for learning a specific breathing technique, for instance. Most meditative breathing techniques are similar, though not identical. All that said, though, it's also important to realize that meditation is a commitment--if it's going to work. Dabbling in meditation isn't harmful, but it's not especially helpful. Once you've found a meditation that suits your lifestyle and beliefs, it's very important to keep it up, not to be casual about it. Daily meditation is like toothbrushing. You don't want to fall out of the habit. next.

Moderator: How often should you practice meditation to receive optimum benefits?

Monaghan: Daily, without question. Especially in the beginning. Meditation need not take hours, so everyone can I believe learn to fit some in. I like, for instance, the journal writing meditation of just writing freely for ten minutes. Every one has ten minutes. Few of us have an hour. So starting meditation with a small commitment of time allows you to promise regularity. After you've made it a part of your daily habit, missing a day or two won't be a problem. You'll look forward to that peaceful period and welcome it back into your life. I find it hard to meditate while traveling--at least, to do sitting meditation, although I keep up other forms--and when I get home, it almost feels like a vacation to resume my usual morning practice! next

Moderator: You have mentioned a few benefits from meditation in our discussion, can talk a little more about what one gains by practicing meditation?

Monaghan: Yes. Aside from the physical benefits (lowered blood pressure being the most noted), there is a greater mental focus, a more flexible approach to life's stressors, and a sense of a peaceful center. In terms of mental focus, I like what the Zen masters say about there being "monkey mind" and "wild mind." So much of our life, our minds are ranting out of control; the monkey mind is in control, worrying and fretting and going on and on about something. The interior dialogue, once you start listening to it, can be pretty negative and self-defeating! So in meditation, by stopping and paying attention to what that inner voice is saying, you can begin to detoxify it. Most meditative practices tell you not to get in an argument with the monkey; that'll only make the inner dialogue more tiring. Instead, try to see the great spacious mind that is behind the monkey--like the great forest in which it's climbing around. Moments of that "wild mind" show us that we don't have to be constantly exhausted by our interior monologue. I notice we're about out of time so I'll just say that the greatest benefit I've found is that, whatever happens, I know that there is a pure pool of silence to which I can return. I have grown more peaceful over time because of that experience-- notice I say experience, not theory. Meditation cannot be a theory--it has to be practiced. next

Moderator: We are almost out of time. Before we say good bye is there anything else you would like to add.

Monaghan: I appreciate this chance to talk with you again--and once again, I have the online version of being out of breath--sore wrists! next

Moderator: Unfortunately that's all the time we have. I would like to thank Patricia Monaghan, author of Meditation, The Complete Guide for coming back on WebMD and being our guest speaker this afternoon. This discussion has been very informative. I encourage WebMD members to check the program schedule to see what other shows we have coming up. Thank you and have a wonderful day.

Monaghan: Thank you!

Moderator: This was a great discussion. Thank you so much.

Monaghan: You are most welcome!

Moderator: Have a wonderful day.

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