Under normal everyday circumstances an almost unending stream of facts and feelings pour into your mind. Your eyes and your ears join with other senses in gathering an enormous variety of bits and pieces of information. Each one of those pieces of information itself inspires assessments, interpretations and conclusions. Even when you aren’t consciously thinking of anything, or putting yourself under pressure, thousands of sensory messages keep your body busy adapting to changes in your environment.
During the last few decades scientists in a number of very reputable institutes around the world have produced evidence to show that if you can cut down the amount of information that your mind is receiving then you will cut down the number of mental responses that take place. You will become rested and relaxed and your body and your mind will benefit in a number of positive ways. If you suffer from any stress-induced disorders (such as high blood pressure, colitis, asthma, indigestion or eczema for example) you will benefit enormously. If you suffer from any stress-induced mental problems (such as anxiety or insomnia) that problem will also diminish in severity. And you will benefit by feeling stronger and healthier and by being more resistant to disease and disorders of every kind.
Unhappily, of course, many people find it very difficult to relax properly. We feel guilty if we slow down. We feel that we are failing ourselves and those around us if we sit and watch the world go by for a minute or two. We’ve been conditioned to think that only by pushing ourselves as hard as possible will we ever achieve anything worth while or win the respect of those around us. We are used to our lives being fast and frenetic and we regularly push ourselves too far and too quickly. We do not allow ourselves time to unwind; and we do not allow ourselves the chance to soothe our minds (and therefore our bodies) with pleasant, gentle, relaxing images. We try to relax, of course. But many people assume that if they sit down in front of the television set with a sandwich and a beer they are relaxing. In fact, of course, that sort of relaxation may help the body but it doesn’t help the mind very much. Lying down in a stupor in front of the television won’t do very much to soothe a troubled mind. The images and memories of the day’s problems will continue to fight for space alongside the images being projected by the evening’s television programmes. The television news will be full of terrible new worries to be added to the ones already clamouring for attention.
Meditation became popular when it became clear that although relaxation is important it is something that a lot of people find difficult to do. Derived from centuries-old Eastern practices, meditation was first investigated in the early 1970s. In 1972, for example, two American researchers, Robert Keith Wallace and Herbert Benson, published results which showed that during meditation an individual’s metabolic rate and oxygen consumption will both fall. Wallace and Benson (one of whom was an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School) showed that people who meditate become calmer and less anxious than people who don’t.
All around the world other physiologists and doctors came up with similarly impressive results. In Britain it was shown that during meditation the blood pressure falls noticeably. In France it was shown that people who meditate can learn to slow their heart rate. In Germany it was shown that people who learned to meditate could deal more effectively with anxiety and depression. It was shown that individuals who learned these skills could control their body temperatures and breathing rates.
Of course, there was nothing really new in any of this. The repetitive dance and chant rhythms used by primitive tribes all around the world have always been used to produce a loss of self-awareness and an accompanying sense of soothing relaxation. For years it has been known that Eastern mystics can stop their hearts at will.
But suddenly meditation became fashionable. Some people saw it as the answer to stress.
But it really didn’t work. Even though many doctors quickly accepted that meditation helps by triggering off the body’s own quite natural relaxation response – the natural antithesis to the stress response – the majority of those who might have benefited from meditation never really took to it. And stress problems continued to kill thousands every year.
There are, I think, several reasons why formally organized meditation never caught on in the West.
First, and most important, the religious and semi-religious features which were seen as an essential part of many forms of meditation were seen as frightening and forbidding by many people. The words ‘relaxation’ and ‘meditation’ became linked with shaven-headed mystics, religious groups and orange-robed eccentrics. People wanted to know how to deal with life. Instead, they were offered a bizarre escape route. They didn’t want to take part in organised rituals and they knew that they would feel self-conscious if they had to sing or chant any magic incantations.
Mantras, contemplative techniques and imagined paradoxes (‘imagine that you can hear one hand clapping’) are just some of the consciousness expanding techniques favoured by those who teach traditional meditation techniques.
Many who tried to introduce meditation into the Western culture made the simple mistake of trying to introduce a technique devised for an Eastern culture – a technique quite unsuitable for mass marketing in the Western world. Even when meditation was adapted for Western minds it was too often turned into something fearfully pretentious. It’s hardly surprising that millions backed away from meditation and relaxation and refused to have anything to do with these theories.
The second major problem was that many of those who talked of the value of meditation claimed that in order to benefit, people had to empty their minds of all inputs and all thoughts. That really isn’t easy. And many people found the prospect of completely emptying their minds so daunting that they didn’t even try.
As a result meditation has remained relatively unpopular; the prerogative of a small number of individuals.
Meditation is a form of treatment. There are no associated diagnostic skills.
Formal programmes of meditation follow fairly structured plans. The patient will be told to sit in a special position, empty his or her mind, repeat a particular phrase over and over again and maintain the position and chant for many minutes, even hours at a time.
There is no doubt that such formal programmes do work. But as I have already pointed out, millions of Westerners find meditation difficult to accept or practise. And for them there are simpler alternatives which are far more acceptable and yet just as effective. For example, in my books Bodypower and Mindpower (both published by the European Medical Journal) I recommend the technique which I call ‘daydreaming’.
Most of us daydream when we are small. But our teachers and our parents teach us that it is a wasteful, undesirable habit that we must lose. In fact it isn’t a bad habit at all. It is, on the contrary, a natural technique which you can help you relax your mind thoroughly, and achieve a beneficial level of tranquillity even when things around you are just as hectic as ever. When you daydream you use a cut-out process which your mind has available but which it has forgotten how to use.
To daydream effectively you have to allow your imagination to dominate your thinking and to take over your body too. It really isn’t a difficult trick to master and once you’ve learned how to do it you’ll be able to use the technique wherever you happen to be and whatever you happen to be doing. (Although I must warn you that the daydreaming technique is so effective that you should not try it while driving or operating machinery of any kind.)
To begin with you have to learn how to practise. Learning to daydream is a bit like learning to play golf or learning how to dance. If you don’t practise it will never come easily or naturally.
Start by finding somewhere comfortable to lie down. Your bedroom is probably the best place. Close the door and lock it if you can. Put a ‘Do not disturb’ notice on the outside door handle. Before you go into your room, by the way, take the telephone off the hook, put the cats out and make sure that there isn’t anyone due to call or arrive home for fifteen or twenty minutes or so.
Now, lie down on your bed and make yourself as comfortable as you can get. Take big, deep breaths and try to conjure up some particularly restful and relaxing scene from your past. Don’t let anyone wander into your daydream because if you do then the chances are that your daydream will either become a fantasy or a nightmare.
You can, of course, use just about any scene you like when you are daydreaming. And you can even build up a library of your own private, favourite daydreams. Some of your daydreams can be based on real memories. Some can be memories taken from films, television programmes or radio programmes. Some may be based on scenes you’ve encountered in favourite books or magazines.
If you find it difficult to create your own daydream images then hunt out an old photograph or postcard of a spot that you remember as being restful, peaceful and relaxing. Carry the photograph with you and look at it through half-closed eyes as often as you can. Try to imagine yourself there once again. Try to remember all the relevant sensations: the sounds, the smells, the temperature and so on. Try to see yourself in that relaxing situation as often as you possibly can.
In future when you go on holiday collect postcards of the places that you find comfortable and calming. Take your own photographs too and if possible get someone to take photographs showing you sitting or lying somewhere peaceful, comfortable and relaxing. Then carry the postcards and photographs around with you.
Daydreaming has one important advantage over the type of meditation favoured by religious groups. With meditation you have to empty your mind completely and replace real anxieties and troubles with a clinically empty, clean space. That isn’t easy to do. When you daydream you replace your natural fears with calming, comfortable, tranquil memories which do themselves have a useful and positive effect.
Meditation does, undoubtedly, halt the damage caused by the pressures of the outside world. But when you fill the void instead with peaceful, tranquil thoughts, you don’t just halt the damage – you do much more. You can build up your inner strength by filling your mind with positive health-giving feelings. Once you have learned how to daydream properly then you will be able to use the same technique just about wherever you are, and whatever you are doing. If you’re stuck in a traffic jam, for example, and you feel your heart rate rising and your muscles tensing, just lie back and get as comfortable as you can. Close your eyes and imagine that you are on your beach or in your country hotel. Replace the real fears and frustrations of the world around you with the relaxing feelings and memories of a scene that you find soothing and calming.
Similarly you can try the same technique when you are sitting in an office and besieged by people anxious for your attention. Take a few minutes off and rest completely and properly. If there is nowhere else to do your daydreaming disappear into the washroom. A few minutes’ relaxation will help you work far more effectively and efficiently.
Incidentally, if you want to prove to yourself just how useful this technique can be, take your pulse when you start a daydreaming session and then take your pulse again when you finish. You’ll almost certainly find that your pulse rate will fall noticeably during a ten or fifteen-minute daydreaming session.
After relaxing through either formal meditation or daydreaming you should not get up too quickly. If you have relaxed efficiently your blood pressure will have fallen considerably. And if you do get up too quickly you’ll probably feel rather dizzy. Instead, stretch your arms and legs carefully and gently for a minute or two. If you’ve been lying down move slowly into a sitting position and stay like that for a few seconds in order to give your body time to adapt.
Meditation (or daydreaming) will help you improve your resistance to pressure and reduce your susceptibility to the many disorders now known to be caused by too much stress.