Loving the Lotus

I grew up in Southern California during the 1970s, so I've endured just about every New Agey self-helpy spirituality trend you can imagine. (Tony Robbins himself lived right down the street, for crying out loud.) By the time I left for college, my eye-rolling skills were superb, and I had no patience for anything that reeked of mysticism—or of incense.

So why would I take up meditation? Science has changed my mind. After hearing psychologists extol benefits, I signed up at my friendly, local Buddhist center for a course on "turning the mind into an ally." I wasn't looking for enlightenment—but if meditation helps me think more clearly and improve my patience and temper, as I've read it can, that's close enough to revelation for me.

The classes were unpretentious and fun: The teacher had good advice, as well as a lot of cheesy jokes. The meditation practice, on the other hand, was not so easy. The idea is to sit quietly, focus on your breathing and practice detaching yourself from your thoughts. You allow your worries and observations to arise without getting caught up in them. It's a surprisingly difficult task. As soon as you sit still, your mind starts churning out useless little thoughts: I wonder why my sister hasn't called me back. Will it rain? That Jon Stewart sure is funny.

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I was amazed at the nattering of my own brain—and annoyed. Where was the clarity I sought? It took nearly a month, practicing 10 minutes each morning, before I noticed a few changes. I became more aware of my brain chatter during the day, which allowed me, on occasion, to tune it out. The urge to elbow fellow subway riders was slightly less powerful. And it was interesting simply to be more tuned in to how my mind operates. Studies of monks who have meditated all their lives show that their cognitive abilities and even their brains have been permanently changed by the practice. But for those of us who can't spend years in a monastery, here are a few guidelines:

What will I get out of it?

Quiet contemplation is an effective form of relaxation. During meditation, your heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels decrease.

In the longer term, regular meditation can help you sleep better. You may enjoy sex more after training yourself to tune out distracting thoughts. One type of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, developed by the University of Massachusetts Medical School's John Kabat-Zinn, has been shown to ease chronic pain and anxiety disorders.

What if I'm not anxious or sick?

It has other benefits. As you learn to hold your emotions at arm's length, meditation may help you withstand mood swings and give you a longer fuse for anger or frustration. "It's a mistake to think it's miraculous," says Mark Leary, chair of psychology at Wake Forest University, who has written about the benefits of meditation. "But if you're not ruminating about the past and worrying about the future all the time, you end up with a lower resting baseline of anxious arousal. It takes more to push you over the edge."

Is it religious?

Not necessarily. In the United States, meditation training is usually presented more like cognitive calisthenics than spiritual instruction—gym for the brain. Look for "mindfulness stress-reduction" classes taught at health centers or hospitals, or try Kabat-Zinn's CDs.

When will I see results?

That's an open question. Experiments have shown that after eight weeks of practicing one hour a day, meditators show a stronger immune response and higher activation in parts of the brain associated with positive mood. But other changes may take longer. "The same way we train in sports or learn to play chess, we can train the mind to regulate emotion, stabilize attention and become more aware," says Antoine Lutz, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has studied changes in the brains of Buddhist monks. Some benefits—for example, stabilizing attention—may develop faster than others, such as anger regulation.

The sports-training metaphor is apt: Just like going to the gym, meditation takes motivation. When the demands of everyday life got in the way, I dropped the habit. But I plan on starting up again soon, and my attitude has changed: A little peace of mind is nothing to scoff at.

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