Meditation: an Interview with Tim McCarthy, PhD

Posted July 31st, 2012 in Blog.

We recently sat down with Tim McCarthy, PhD, to talk about the practice of meditation. Dr. McCarthy uses meditation as a tool to help some of his patients manage stress.

FRX: What is meditation?

Dr. McCarthy: Meditation is the process of quieting one’s mind, and letting go of the worries and stress of life.  There are many different techniques and forms of meditation.  The common element among these techniques is that the person takes time out from the daily pace of life to close their eyes and reflect on thoughts or images that create internal feelings of peace and relaxation.

Meditation is both a mental and a physical relaxation process.  With the high stress of life many people find that their mind is constantly racing.  They cannot stop from thinking even during time away from work or school, when they’d like to be relaxing. Subsequently, they may also feel associated physical tension in their bodies.  In this case, the mind and the body are very closely connected to the stress response.

The physical act of meditating by closing one’s eyes and slowing down the speed of internal thoughts—especially worrisome thinking—results in a physiological response that is well documented in the scientific literature.  Specifically, studies demonstrate a reduction in blood pressure, heart rate, and other stress marker indicators.  So we know that from a scientific perspective it’s one of the most therapeutic things that one can do for the body and mind.

FRX: What are some types of meditation?

Dr. McCarthy: Meditation and contemplation techniques are a part of many religions of the world including Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and others.  However, meditation became more popularized in the 1960s with the advent of transcendental meditation, which prompted a more extensive scientific study of the physiological effects of meditation.

More recently, the practice of Mindfulness Techniques have grown in popularity and are taught in many universities.  This type of meditation practice actually has links to Buddhist practices, although it is frequently practiced in a secular manner.  There are also Christian techniques of meditation and contemplation. Methods of positive thinking and visualization might be also considered borderline forms of meditation when integrated with an extended form of “eyes closed” relaxation.

FRX: What are some simple techniques for meditating?

Dr. McCarthy: First of all, I would recommend that if you have any particular spiritual path or religious affiliation, that you do some research about meditation/contemplation techniques within that area of interest.  Simple techniques for meditation can involve repetition of spiritually focused words, thoughts or ideas that help one feel at peace mentally and physically.

In the Eastern practice of meditation there is typically a “mantra” that is a word or set of words that is repeated mentally.  This mantra helps one attain a state of mind more conducive to letting go and experiencing “feelings” of meditation. There is even a Christian mystical practice of meditation that involves repeating several words and phrases over and over again to create that kind of mental spiritual state.

I tell most people that the key aspect to meditating is that you close your eyes and engage in thoughts that are positive, uplifting, and create feelings of physical and emotional relaxation.  You may need to experiment to discover what kinds of thoughts are best for your own unique interests and situation.  For you it might be a repetitive “mantra,” or simply an open state of watching your breath, like in the Buddhist tradition.

No matter what technique you use, just let the mind slow down and begin to explore its internal surroundings. The primary object of meditation is to not become overly attached to any particular thoughts that may come into to the mind.  It is most important to let the mind “flow,” with less mental worry about, and attachment to, the various thoughts that may come into the mind.

FRX: What are some tips for people that find meditation challenging?

Dr. McCarthy: There is a common misunderstanding that during meditation the mind should never engage in processing thoughts. Actually, that is a high level end goal of meditation.  It’s the most desirable state, but for most individuals this rarely happens. It is, in fact, okay in meditation for the mind to move into many different directions, while at the same time attempting to return to a centered, relaxed state of mind.

Is difficult, if not impossible, for most people to become devoid of all mental thoughts, so what we want to do is fill the mind with those thoughts that induce positive feelings of peace, relaxation or happiness. The end goal is to do whatever helps slow your mind down, in order to achieve a peaceful, positive state of mind and body. The ability to meditate successfully is a very unique skill that will help you better weather the storms of life.  And it can help those with particular religious and spiritual beliefs connect more intensely and deeply with their faith path.

I suggest people simply start off by practicing twice a day for 5–10 minutes, and explore what it’s like to meditate. The stress reduction and mental peace starts to become a highly desirable state. After all, it’s great to let go of the worries of life!

So, do a little research on the type of meditation that you might like to try out and set aside some time. With some disciplined practice, the payoff can be immense.  It certainly has been for me. It has become an ingrained part of my everyday life that helps me feel so much more centered, patient and compassionate.  It even gives me great physical energy.  I recommended meditation to every person as a foundation for living healthier, being a more loving person, and leading a less stressful life!

FRX: What potential benefits might meditation have for people with IBD?

Dr. McCarthy: The primary benefit of meditation for people with IBD is likely the reduction of the stress response.  Meditation is a proven stress-reducer, and some studies have shown a correlation between high levels of stress and disease activity in individuals with IBD.

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