Just Say Om

Scientists study it. Doctors recommend it. Millions of Americans--many of whom don't even own crystals--practice it every day. Why? Because meditation works

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As meditation is demystified and mainstreamed, the methods have become more streamlined. There's less incense burning today, but there remains a nugget of Buddhist philosophy: the belief that by sitting in silence for 10 minutes to 40 minutes a day and actively concentrating on a breath or a word or an image, you can train yourself to focus on the present over the past and the future, transcending reality by fully accepting it. In its most modern, Americanized forms, it has dropped the creepy mantra bit that has you memorize a secret phrase or syllable; instead you focus on a sound or on your breathing. It's a practice of repetition found somewhere in the history of most religions. There are dozens of flavors, from the Relaxation Response to gtum-mo, a technique practiced by Tibetan monks in eight-hour sessions that allows them to drive their core body temperature high enough to overcome earthly defilements or--even cooler--to dry wet sheets on their backs in the freezing temperatures of the Himalayas.

The brain, like the body, also undergoes subtle changes during deep meditation. The first scientific studies, in the '60s and '70s, basically proved that meditators are really, really focused. In India a researcher named B.K. Anand found that yogis could meditate themselves into trances so deep that they didn't react when hot test tubes were pressed against their arms. In Japan a scientist named T. Hirai showed that Zen meditators were so focused on the moment that they never habituated themselves to the sound of a ticking clock (most people eventually block out the noise, but the meditators kept hearing it for hours). Another study showed that master meditators, unlike marksmen, don't flinch at the sound of a gunshot. None of this, oddly, has been duplicated for a Vegas show.

In 1967 Dr. Herbert Benson, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, afraid of looking too flaky, waited until late at night to sneak 36 transcendental meditators into his lab to measure their heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature and rectal temperature. He found that when they meditated, they used 17% less oxygen, lowered their heart rates by three beats a minute and increased their theta brain waves--the ones that appear right before sleep--without slipping into the brain-wave pattern of actual sleep. In his 1970s best seller, The Relaxation Response, Benson, who founded the Mind/Body Medical Institute, argued that meditators counteracted the stress-induced fight-or-flight response and achieved a calmer, happier state. "All I've done," says Benson, "is put a biological explanation on techniques that people have been utilizing for thousands of years."

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