Although acupuncture is the most well-known of the 8 Branches of Chinese Medicine, historically, meditation has been considered the highest form of medicine in China. The 8 Branches are meditation, exercise like tai chi and qigong, diet, philosophy, bodywork like tuina na, massage and gua sha, feng shui and astrology, herbal medicine, and acupuncture.
There are a variety of types of meditation and it can take some trial and error to learn which kind suits you best. The simplest ( I didn’t say easy!) methods is to follow the breath. Focus your awareness on the breath, following it as you breathe in and out, and whenever your attention wanders, gently bring your focus back to the breath.
Another way is to do a body scan, starting with the top of the head and moving slowly through the entire body down to the feet, becoming aware of bodily sensations, feelings, allowing stress and tension to ease. And as you attention wanders off, gently bringing your awareness back to your body.
I often hear people say they cannot meditate because they can’t stop their thoughts. This is a common misconception. No, you cannot stop your thoughts, so don’t even try, and don’t become frustrated that you can’t. The best you can do is slow your thinking down, but the point is to create space and perspective so you are not so easily distracted and identified with your thoughts. They are just like clouds traveling across the sky.
Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and bodily relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that are long lasting. And newer research is demonstrating that changes in brain structure may underlie these improvements.
Meditation group participants in a Harvard University study showed increases in the gray matter density in the hippocampus area of the brain, known to be important for learning and memory, and in brain structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.
The area of the brain called the amygdala is our alarm system. It is the part responsible for many of our initial emotional reactions, including the fight or flight response. The same Harvard study showed through MRI that meditation decreases gray matter density in the amygdala, which correlates to a decrease in stress and tension.
Daily practice is important to maintain the positive changes in the brain and to reinforce and strengthen the increased ability to feel compassion for ourselves and others, and to help us keep a clearer perspective and enhanced sense of well-being. It’s exciting to know we can play an active role in changing the brain and improving our quality of life.
For those wanting to start a meditation practice or who might be experiencing emotional issues or traumatic memories while meditating, please seek out an experienced teacher to help you. A teacher can help you figure out what is right for you and can guide you through any difficulties you may be having. I’ve listed below some local resources.
Kevin Henry- private meditation instruction 412 576 1038;
Zen Buddhist meditation- Plum Blossom Zendo 412 371 9493;
Vipassana Sitting Group-
Carol Greco- private instruction, groups, meditation resource for meditation instruction and groups in Pittsburgh area. 412 623 3023
Meditation can be an incredibly helpful living tool. But it’s very important to be consistent. Start slowly, setting aside 15 minutes a day to begin. Lengthen the time as you can. This is a wonderful and loving gift you can give yourself daily. Remember, it’s the highest form of medicine there is.