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Patrick Henry: Meditation helps quiet our overactive minds

Lately we’re hearing a lot about a simple technique scientifically proven to promote positive mental health, something I’ve been doing daily for some 20-odd years:

Nothing.

Well, that’s not quite true. It is definitely something.

Call it “meditation,” “mindfulness” or, simply, “sitting,” the practice of taking time to do what, at first glance, appears to be nothing is growing in popularity. Even Parade, the most widely read magazine in the country and a supplement to this newspaper, did a cover story on the subject (the article is still available at www.Parade.com). Now that’s what I’d call entering the mainstream.

If you were to ask most people what they do to relax, answers would include watching TV, reading, crafts or other relatively quiet activities. While all are generally low stress, none of them fully disengages the mind, which is the key to true relaxation.

The problem is that the mind never quits. It always wants to be busy, from rehashing a fight with your spouse to deciding what to make for dinner to obsessing about something that may or may not happen in the future.

The mind never ceases running through its endless loop of thoughts and memories, and this is where meditation can help. It is a technique that frees and relaxes the mind. This is especially important today, surrounded as we are by the digital din of proliferating social media and a 24-hour news cycle.

I discovered meditation in my mid-40s, at a time when my job and a son’s serious illness were sending my stress levels into the stratosphere. I felt as if something was about to give – my heart or my sanity – when a friend recommended Transcendental Meditation. TM is a meditation technique that was brought to the United States by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who became famous in the ’60s as a spiritual Pied Piper to the Beatles and other rock stars.

From a TM teacher I learned how to sit upright, spine erect and eyes closed, and to focus on the feeling of my breath as it moved slowly in and out of my nostrils. Later I was introduced to a mantra – a Sanskrit phrase, the sound of which matters more than does its literal translation.

A mantra has nothing to do with religion, per se. It is merely a tool to help the mind interrupt that constant internal monologue. I was taught to allow (not force) my mind to silently embrace the mantra, thereby disengaging the mind (shifting it into neutral, if you will) so as to truly relax.

After TM I went on to explore other meditation methods, finding that most consist of the same components: a quiet place, a stable posture and something upon which the mind can attend to help it detach temporarily from the endless waves of thought.

This business of sitting and appearing to do nothing, strange as it sounds, does require effort. One can learn a simple meditation technique in a few minutes, but the key to making the practice work is, well, practice. That is, doing it consistently, on a daily basis. The secret is both that simple and that hard.

I can assure you, however, that if you’re willing to make the commitment you will eventually develop a center of emotional strength within yourself, a place from which you can calmly move through the crazy world that surrounds us all.

And then you won’t be just “sitting.” You’ll be sitting pretty.