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Stressed? First take a big breath


In the moment: Carissa Casey meditates in the lotus position

In the moment: Carissa Casey meditates in the lotus position

In the moment: Carissa Casey meditates in the lotus position

Meditation has come a long way since The Beatles first promoted it as a natural alternative to LSD in the 1960s.

It is now a serious psychological discipline, as likely to be used by heart patients in hospitals as hippies in an ashram.

In these days of economic turmoil, it is also a very effective way of managing stress and anxiety.

"No matter what problem you have you'll solve it better with a clear mind," says Michael Herbert who has meditated for the last 20-odd years.

As a teenager and a huge Beatles fan, he became fascinated with the subject. Now in his mid-50s, and retired from Windsor Motors where he was managing director, he credits meditation with both his success in business and his overall sense of well-being.

"When you're in a difficulty, and a lot of people are at the moment, it's hard to think clearly. The mind is like a glass of muddy water. If you're stressed, you're stirring it the whole time so it's constantly cloudy. If you let it go still, the mud will drop to the bottom and you'll see clearly. In meditation that's exactly what happens. The mind calms down to the point where it comes clear."

Herbert is a disciple of transcendental meditation (TM), the technique pioneered by The Beatles' former guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It's now being taught to kids in schools across America thanks to a foundation set-up by surrealist Hollywood film director David Lynch, who practises TM twice a day. Lynch has persuaded former Beatle Paul McCartney to give a benefit concert for the foundation next month. The Twin Peaks director has also written a book on the subject, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity.

He believes TM helped unleash his creativity and made him a happier person.

"If you were a burglar, you'd become a much better burglar," says Lynch of TM. "But after a while, you would probably say, well, wait a minute. You would probably have compassion for people you were burglarising. You might even bring some stuff back."

The medical establishment too is tuning in to the benefits of meditation. It's being used to treat heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer, along with a host of mental ailments. At Tallaght Hospital, psychologist Veronica Doherty runs a meditation-style course for patients diagnosed with heart disease as part of a research study.

"Meditation has great potential," she says. "Stress is definitely a component that contributes to heart disease. We've had very positive early results."

Doherty's course is on 'mindfulness', a kind of meditation-lite. She teaches patients to pay attention to both their thoughts and any physical tension they hold in their bodies.

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"Often the very first signs of stress occur in the body. For example you feel neck strain or you're not sleeping well, or waking up tense. Part of the training is that when you can spot minor changes in the body, you'll also spot the repetition of thoughts going on in your head."

According to Doherty, the most damaging thoughts are negative and controlling. They are a huge contributor to stress. "We are finding that after the third week what's going on in a person's head becomes clear for the first time. It's about accepting the level of negative thoughts, not suppressing them. It's something you can change."

Dublin taxi-driver Ken Farrell (58) was one of the first patients on Doherty's course and was referred by the cardiac rehabilitation team at Tallaght Hospital.

"I wasn't well but I didn't know what was wrong with me," he says. "My breathing was bad. I went to the hospital and they discovered that three of my heart arteries were partially blocked."

Doherty's mindfulness course not only improved Farrell's breathing and helped him manage stress, it also cured his persistent neck pain.

"I was on a waiting list to see a specialist about the neck pain. During the course I started concentrating on those pains. At first I could feel the pain more when I was with it. But the whole thing relaxed me and after a while it disappeared. I had it for years so I put it down to the course. You take a deep breath in and bring your breath around your body. I've learnt how to do that."

Farrell doesn't worry about his heart problem now, although it's still a medical issue. He practises mindfulness with tapes and says he has never felt more confident.

Doherty's study is the first to look at meditation among heart patients.

Elsewhere, studies have shown the benefits of meditation for pain-relief in cancer patients, the management of high blood pressure and attention deficit disorder in children.

"Many of the studies are very new," says Doherty. "The medical establishment has only embraced this recently."

The TM movement was an early pioneer of meditation research. It has its own Maharishi University in Iowa, America. Many of its research studies have been published in reputable scientific journals, again showing both mental and physical benefits. An independent study at the University of Michigan, for example, showed that children who practised TM appeared to score significantly higher on tests of self-esteem and emotional competence.

John Burns teaches TM in Ireland and describes it as an effortless technique based on a personalised mantra. "The mantra facilitates the mind transcending and settling down. When a person comes out of TM, they're very alert mentally and very relaxed physically. It's the combination of the two that attracts people to it."

He believes the current economic turmoil is an ideal time to explore meditation. "We've always had people come for either two reasons. They've had change in their life that they find stressful or they feel there must be more to life than what they're experiencing."

"Both things are happening now. People are being forced to take stock. They're thinking there's got to be more than this up and down roller coaster. People believed in the economic success and that it would go on forever. That's proving wrong. Meditation is a way to find stability in the middle of all this chaos."

Meditation made easy

Breathing is a key to meditation because of its calming properties. Here’s a simple breathing technique that can be easily mastered and practised nearly anywhere, even a busy train or bus.

? Sit in a comfortable position. Close your eyes. Focus on your breathing. Allow it to settle if it’s jerky or raspy.

? Once it’s settled, begin to lengthen the breaths by counting slowly.

In, two, three, four. Out, two, three, four.

? When that feels comfortable, pause after each in-breath for a count of four. Then pause after each outbreath for a count of four.

In, two, three, four. Hold, two, three, four. Out, two, three, four. Pause, two, three, four.

? Repeat the cycle for two minutes, or longer if you can. If you start gulping for breaths, come down a count. The important thing is to establish a regular, easy pattern. If thoughts crop up, and they nearly always will, just try to let them go.

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