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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What scientists are discovering through these studies is that with enough practice, the neurons in the brain will adapt themselves to direct activity in that frontal, concentration-oriented area of the brain. It's what samurais and kamikaze pilots are trained to do and what Phil Jackson preaches: to learn to be totally aware of the moment. "Meditation is like gasoline," says Robert Thurman, director of the Tibet House (and father of actress Uma Thurman). "In Asia meditation was a sort of a natural tool anyone could use. We should detach it from just being Buddhist."

Increasingly it is being detached from Buddhism. Along with the more obscure Zen techniques (such as sitting for hours in positions that look painful to me and asking to be hit with sticks if you feel you are about to doze off), Americans are trying Vipassana (which begins by focusing on your breath), walking meditation (at first walking really, really slowly and then being hyperaware of each step), Transcendental Meditation (or TM, repeating a Sanskrit syllable over and over), Dzogchen (cultivating a clear but even-keeled awareness) and even trance dance (spinning with a blindfold on for an hour to dance music). And early next year a new book, Eight Minutes That Will Change Your Life, by Victor Davich, will advocate the most American form of meditation yet: a daily practice that he claims takes just eight minutes. That, it turns out, is exactly how long we're conditioned by modern society to concentrate, since it's the amount of time between TV commercials.

Josh Baran, author of the upcoming book 365 Nirvana Here and Now, says when his brain wanders in a distinctly unfocused, nonmeditative way--that deal when you've flipped five pages of a book and read nothing--it actually causes him discomfort. Roger Walsh, a professor of psychiatry, philosophy and anthropology at the University of California at Irvine, has been studying the extent to which meditators can control their psychological states. "Only in recent years has Western psychiatry recognized attention-deficit disorder, but the meditative-contemplative traditions have maintained for thousands of years that we all suffer from some kind of ADD and just don't recognize it." It's the kind of basic human attention deficit that makes it hard to keep reading a paragraph if it doesn't end with a joke.

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