In Mind Over Medicine, in my latest TEDx talk and in many blog posts like this one, I talk about how the body is equipped with natural self-repair mechanisms that can be flipped on or off with thoughts, beliefs, and feelings that originate in the mind. This is great news, because it means, in essence, that you can heal yourself.

But how?

Mind Over Medicine has a whole section which teaches you the 6 Steps To Healing Yourself (you can read it for yourself by buying the book here). But one of the many simple ways you can flip on your body’s self-repair mechanisms is via meditation.

What Does It Mean To Meditate?

Dictionary.com defines meditation as “continued or extended thought; reflection; contemplation,” but I prefer Harvard professor Dr. Herbert Benson’s definition. He defines it as “Repetition of a word, sound, phrase, prayer, or muscular activity while passively disregarding everyday thoughts that inevitably come to mind and returning to your repetition.”

With this definition of meditation, anything can be a meditation—not just sitting with your eyes closed in the lotus position, but walking, making art, cooking, shopping, dancing, driving… whatever.

How The Body Heals Itself

In my medical training, we were not taught that the body knows how to heal itself. It is equipped with natural self-repair mechanisms that repair broken proteins, kill cancer cells, fight infections, prevent aging, and maintain the homeostasis of the body. When the body gets sick, whether from the common cold or something more serious, like heart disease or cancer, it’s almost always because the body’s self-repair mechanisms have broken down, usually because of stress.

When the nervous system is stressed, as it is during the “fight-or-flight” stress response that is so commonly triggered in modern-day life, these self-repair mechanisms are disabled and the body is at risk for disease. Only when the counterbalancing relaxation response is activated, when the sympathetic nervous system is turned off and the parasympathetic nervous system is turned on, can the body heal itself.

Why Meditate?

So how can you turn on that relaxation response so the body can heal itself? Mind Over Medicine lists many ways, but one of the simplest and most effective is meditation!  Meditation has been scientifically proven to activate the relaxation response, and as a result, almost every health condition improves. In his research at Harvard, Herbert Benson demonstrated that meditation is effective in treating angina pectoris, cardiac arrhythmias, allergic skin reactions, anxiety, mild to moderate depression, bronchial asthma, herpes simplex, cough, constipation, diabetes mellitus, duodenal ulcers, dizziness, fatigue, hypertension, infertility, insomnia, nausea and vomiting during pregnancy, nervousness, postoperative swelling, premenstrual syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, side effects of cancer, side effects of AIDS, and all forms of pain – backaches, headaches, abdominal pain, muscle pain, joint aches, postoperative pain, neck, arm, and leg pain. (Most likely it helps many conditions not listed here, but Dr. Benson just hasn’t gotten around to studying them yet!)

Meditation has been shown to decrease stress-related cortisol, reduce respiration and heart rate, reduce the metabolic rate, increase blood flow in the brain, increase activity in the left prefrontal cortex (which is observed in happier people), strengthen the immune system, and lead to a state of relaxation.

Meditation also reduces work stress, anxiety, and depression, promotes cardiovascular health, improves cognitive function, reduces alcohol abuse, improves longevity, promotes healthy weight, improves immune function, and heightens quality of life.

How To Start Meditating 

Deepak Chopra recommends the “RPM” (Rise, Pee, Meditate) approach to meditation, suggesting that those who can will be well served to meditate first thing upon arising.  However, if you, like me, have young children, you may find it easier to meditate when the kids are napping or away at school. If you work outside the home, you may find it easier to meditate over your lunch break or just before bed.

Regardless of when you do it, it’s crucial to make the time in your schedule to help your nervous system relax.

Here are some tips to help you get started with a sitting meditation practice:

1. Create a peaceful environment

If you’ve never tried a sitting meditation before, start by creating a peaceful environment in which to meditate. I have two altars I’ve created at home, one in my bedroom and one in my home office, which I sit in front of to meditate. When I sit down to meditate, I light the candles, burn some incense, and take a moment to let my altar soothe me.

Some people have rooms exclusively dedicated to meditation.  Even a small closet can be tricked out to become a special space designed to help your body relax and your soul connect. Meditating outside can also be lovely. Because I live on the California coast, I often meditate at the ocean on a rocky beach that is usually deserted or in Muir Woods, among the peaceful redwoods. If you have access to quiet spots in nature, try a beach, a riverfront, a meadow, or a forest free of distractions. 

2. Minimize disruptions.

Turn off the TV, silence your phone, and play soothing music if you like. The point is to create an environment conducive to freeing your mind from its daily clutter and relaxing your body.

3. Choose your meditation position.

If you can, sit on the floor and close your eyes. You don’t have to sit in the lotus position unless you want to, but sitting on the floor helps you feel grounded, connects you to Mother Earth, and roots you into your body when you meditate. Feel free to use pillows, cushions, and other props that help you feel comfortable. Keep your back straight so you can breathe deeply with ease. If sitting on the floor is too uncomfortable, sit in a chair and place your feet firmly on the floor to develop a sense of grounding.

4. Set a timer.

If you’re new to meditation, start with just five minutes per day and aim to work up to twenty. Set a timer so you don’t have to interrupt your meditation to check your watch.

5. Close your eyes.

Closing your eyes minimizes visual distractions, helps you come back into your body, and starts to settle you.

6. Focus on your breath as you inhale and exhale.

Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield suggests that if you notice yourself remembering, planning, or fantasizing, refrain from judging yourself, but do call it out. “Hello remembering.”  “Hello planning.” “Hello fantasizing.” Then return to the present moment, focusing on your breath. The minute you notice your thoughts starting to wander, come back to your breath and try to empty your mind. If your mind continues to wander and your breath isn’t enough to empty your mind, try counting your breaths or repeating a one word mantra like “peace” or “one” to clear your mind.

7. Release judgment.

Most importantly, don’t judge yourself as you learn to meditate. Criticizing yourself for meditating “badly” or beating yourself up because your monkey mind won’t calm down will only stress you out, defeating the purpose of making attempts to help your body relax so it can repair itself. Remain compassionate with yourself, and pat yourself on the back for any progress you make.

Can’t make it more than 10 breaths into your meditation? Give yourself a hug and try again the next day. Like anything, it just takes practice. As someone who resisted meditation for most of my life, I can attest to the fact that it really does get easier with regular practice, and the benefits are so worth the effort. 

Alternative Meditation Techniques

If you feel like expanding your meditation practice, try adding some of these meditation techniques to those listed above.

1. Relax your body.

To circumvent distracting images that may appear in your mind, you may also try scanning your body for any parts that don’t feel relaxed and visualizing your breath going to those tense spots. Imagine your breath as golden light flowing to the tense places and filling them with relaxation. Relax your back, your shoulders, your belly, your facial muscles. If you have trouble finding your tension, try tensing and releasing each muscle, starting at your forehead and moving down your body all the way to your toes.

2. Ground yourself.

You can also try visualizing a grounding cord, coming out of your bottom like an electrical cord or tree roots, dropping through the floor, coursing through the soil and into the bedrock, and landing at the core of the earth, where you can plug in. Allow anything that no longer serves you to release down that grounding cord, into the earth’s center, where it can get recycled. You can also visualize this grounding energy of the earth’s core coursing up through the grounding cord and filling you with healing light.

3. Visualize a relaxing scene.

Allow your mind to conjure up a real or imagined place of peace and beauty. Allow your mind to experience the relaxing place in a multi-sensory way. See it, feel it, smell it, taste it, and hear the sounds. If you’re battling an illness, you might add healing visualization to your meditation. In your mind’s eye, see the part of your body affected by the illness returning to wholeness and health in as much detail as you can muster.

4. Try guided meditation.

Does silence make you crazy? To start meditating right now, download the FREE Self-Healing Kit at MindOverMedicineBook.com. In addition to a free self-healing meditation of my voice guiding you through a meditation designed to activate your relaxation response,you’ll also get the 10 Secrets To Healing Yourself ebook, a Diagnosis Journal designed to help you determine the root causes of your illness, and a Prescription Pad so you can write The Prescription for yourself. Just enter your name and email address here.

Do You Meditate? Or Do You Resist Meditation?

Share your experiences and offer any tips that work for you in the comments below.

Om…

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18 Comments

  1. Ellen M. Gregg

    I have recently added meditation to my healing basket. I’m a Reiki m/t, and daily self-practice is, for me, a form of meditation. I am drawn, however, to the stillness of meditation (no hand placements, as with my Reiki self-practice) and am enjoying that practice tremendously.

    Reply
  2. Vane SM

    Thank you Lissa for the post 🙂 for me it helps singing mantras or painting mandalas or practicing taichi, but sometimes just focusing in my breath and letting everything else go works fine. Your book sounds great, I’ll put it on my must-read list. See you!

    Reply
  3. Erin C

    I began meditating about three months ago and I’ve been working my way up to 20 minutes. I am truly amazed at the difference I feel in myself. It isn’t so much a difference I feel while I’m meditating, but a difference I feel when I’m going through my day. I notice less stress, and even physical symptoms I used to have have disappeared and my relationships are improving.

    One tip I have is to try to tie your mediation practice to an already established routine. That really tends to help make it a permanent habit rather than something you do every now and then.

    Reply
  4. Maarten Boks

    Meditation is NOT a tool for self-healing. Actually it may be DAMAGING.

    In the relaxation response, old tensions and emotions may arise. And if they do, it means that in the past, the capacity of the body to self-regulate was not fully developed. If those tensions are too big, and you keep meditating, the nervous system will experience complete overwhelm, which is very damaging.

    It’s an absolute fable you can meditate “through” these old tensions and emotions. Propagated by some spiritual teachings, but clearly contradicted by recent findings in neuroscience.

    When you are meditating and notice that during it you feel much tension or emotional distress, stop immediately. Find an activity that has an effect you consider comfortable and pleasant as a substitute.

    Reply
    • Hemachandran Menon

      Interestingly, you are the first person I have come across who says against meditation practices.

      Reply
      • Maarten Boks

        Yes, and that’s a problem! Guru’s and alternative HCP’s should offer a disclaimer when they teach meditation. For what I have seen, it doesn’t work for at least 50% of the people who try, but because no one warns them they continue and damage themselves even more in the long term. Depressive feelings, diminished aliveness and less healthy aggression (to do what you want) are some signs meditation is not healthy for you. It may become so in the future, but that takes work with people who are trained in restoring stress regulation. The only thing meditation can do is rely on regulation mechanisms that are already there.

        Reply
        • Pavel

          I am sorry dude but that is total nonsense 🙂 when you have the correct teacher and you do meditate correctly you will always only gain improvement in mind in soul and even in body. it can actually heal you form anything once you keep consistence on the highest level. it cannot do otherwise! Do more study 😉

          Reply
          • Maarten Boks

            That meditation works for you and your buddies doesn’t mean it works for anyone else. Some people – a lot actually – are not able to meditate “correctly”. This is not an issue of ability, but an issue of nervous system regulation being damaged. The best teacher in the world can’t change that; you need a specialist to help you fix it before you attempt meditation.

          • Positive Psychology is Real

            Actually, Mr. Boks, it appears your research and statistics are incorrect.

            If you read Buddha Brain, see the film Happy, or the film Dhamma Brothers, you will see that Mindfulness Meditation (through findings in nueroscience) changes the structure of the brain to increase the capacity for positive experience, thus increasing the capacity for and the strengths of the positive networks in the brain.

            Meditation is simply learning to sit still without focusing on anything more than your breath. Then when you notice your mind wander, you refocus yourself on breath. The imagery and other points of focus come with time. You cannot damage your brain through breathing and focus. You cannot meditate ‘wrong’.

            Yoga is a form of meditation also in use for many moons. Long ago, Yogis would write prescriptions of yoga poses to heal ailments. Yoga is a form of body meditation. There is also Yogic Breath work that stimulates and calms the central nervous system. Perhaps this breath work would help your ailment you reference as ‘nervous system regulation issues’ during meditation.

            Just because “modern medicine” uses advertising and fancy imaging to prove it’s worth, doesn’t make it necessarily better. Relative to the practices of meditation, modern medicine is still quite new. Scientists are now using brain imaging to study buddhist monks brains and can see the positive difference in the brain structure and neuron activity.

            Please do some research on positive psychology, mindfulness, yoga, and then try it for awhile. It may seem outlandish to you now, but there’s a reason this stuff has been used for so long. For example – Yale School of Medicine and Behavioral Science recently did some studies on the positive impacts of these items on the brain.

            Just breathe and focus my friend.

          • Maarten Boks

            You react to none of the issues I’ve addressed. I have no stake in debating with someone who is not open to a conflicting standpoint, especially on the internet. I will say that I practiced zen buddhism for four years and thus know what I’m talking about. Meditation and yoga can be useful, but under guided practice, and it should not be romanticised as is done in the article above and the comments below. There are very real risks and I want readers to be aware.
            For further reading I’ll recommend Peter Levine’s Waking the tiger or Diane Heller’s work on attachment trauma, which will resonate with anyone engaged in meditation.

          • Positive Psychology is Real

            Mr. Boks,

            You don’t have to fling your credentials all over the place. I am not trying to instigate a debate of standpoint. If you see below, I fully am aware of what you are pointing out. However, as you stated the meditation in the article is romanticized, I would personally word it as over-simplified, but that is neither here nor there.

            I also appreciate the book recommendations, I have read Waking the Tiger previously and am very familiar with attachment trauma. However, based on my name, noted titles, and having read these you can see I have an interest in the topic. Please let me know of any others that are good.

            The issues you speak of come when someone is using advanced techniques without a full understanding of what they are. As the article above is written though, it simply is explaining how to focus and breathe. Neither of which will harm your brain or nervous system.

            I am not disputing that certain techniques can’t have a potentially negative effect (i.e. using Chandra Bheda with depression). I am simply pointing out that your statements are a bit overzealous for the specific reading above.

            Take care Mr. Boks

          • Maarten Boks

            Are you aware you are responding under an alias (positive psychology is real), and that it’s therefore not clear to me who you are?

            Stating I studied zen buddhism intensely for four years was not meant to convince you of my credibility or my rightiousness – I’m not an authority in this field and I don’t pretend to be. I felt obliged to share my opinion because what I’ve seen in those four years and beyond; namely that meditation will make psychological and physical ailments worse in a large part of the people attempting it, which is swept under the rug by the community.

            I’m not implying that meditation will harm the nervous system or brain. I’m saying that when harm has already been done, as is the case in traumatisation, one should 1) not attempt somatic mindfulness without proper guidance and 2) work as much on coping as on observing the mind and body, with anxiety as a definite stop sign.

            You say that problems may only arise with more advanced techniques, but it’s well-documented that some patients will shoot into full-blown anxiety at the first hint of somatic mindfulness. Pushing through this, as is often done in the name of “compassionate observing”, may make matters worse and in extreme cases push patients into psychosis. If meditation gets promoted without the appropriate disclaimer – if it causes overwhelming anxiety for you, stop or seek out professional help – I will offer it, because the danger is too great to be ignored.

          • Sebastian Caine

            Breath focus would be okay. If paying attention to those sensations in the body produces anxiety, then breath meditation would be a remedy and would have no negative effects at all. Paying attention with acceptance of negative sensations in the body is a way to overcome those senstaions by desensitization of the fear response, this is a remedy, however i agree people may do it incorrectly and increase there problems. However anyone would be okay to do a breath meditation as long as they are just observing breath, and not trying to control the breath itself. Alternatively perhaps a mantra would be more appropriate for anxious people idk.

  5. Hemachandran Menon

    Good evening, Mr.Maarten, thanks for this information, but these practices are being done by ancient hermits and sages thousands of years ago which was continued from generations to the current generation. If such practices would have been damaging people would have discontinued it long before. Anyway today’s medical science do not offer much to these problems either. Such recent findings do not offer cure, right?

    Reply
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    Reply
  7. kc

    I wanted to know if meditation works in healing of the body due to side effects if you have s lso stopped the medication
    medicatio

    Reply
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    this sounds amazing! – I am going to shut myself away for 15 minutes a give it a go. Great website.

    Reply
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