If the word meditation conjures images of a Buddhist guru sitting cross-legged in a Himalayan cave, youve got some catching up to do.
Devotees of meditation do take time each day to sit quietly, close their eyes and focus on their breathing.
But they could also be practicing while sitting in traffic, standing in grocery lines, or stuck in a contentious meeting.
Its available to us in a lot of life circumstances, said Sharon Salzberg, an internationally known leader of meditation retreats and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society. You dont have to close your eyes. No one even has to know youre doing it.
Salzberg, who helped bring Asian meditation to the United States in the 1970s, will be in Charlotte and Durham for lectures next week.
As she does in her latest book, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, Salzberg will talk about how meditation trains the mind to concentrate. It also helps people become more mindful of the moment, instead of worrying about the past or the future, and to be more compassionate toward themselves and others.
Its really mental training, Salzberg said, in the same way you might go to a gym for physical exercise.
Like exercise, meditation benefits both the mind and body. Modern scientific techniques and instruments, such as MRI, have enabled researchers to document that meditation lowers blood pressure, relieves chronic pain, reduces stress and protects the brain against aging.
Thanks in part to high-profile practitioners, such as famed NBA coach Phil Jackson, meditation is growing in popularity with mainstream America.
There was a time when you couldnt even say the word without people rolling their eyes, said Alexis Stein, one of five leaders of the Insight Meditation Community of Charlotte.
People are so blitzed out with stress, said Stein, a marriage and family therapist. Meditation is really catching on.
In the present moment
While meditation has roots in religion, becoming a Buddhist is not a requirement.
Many people come who are either strongly allied with another faith tradition, or have no faith tradition, Salzberg said.
One of the most popular forms of meditation Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction was adapted for the secular health care setting by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at University of Massachusetts.
Since 1979, more than 19,000 people have completed his eight-week program there, learning to cope with pain and other chronic illnesses.
Some who have taken the course now teach it in centers around the world. At Duke Integrative Medicine, more than 2,500 students have taken the course, taught by eight instructors.
Its all about mindfulness, said Dr. Ron Vereen, a Durham psychiatrist and one of the Duke instructors. Most people have probably experienced it, when were out in nature, and for a moment, were at one with whats happening. That kind of paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, with non-judgmental awareness its different from ordinary attention.
But with practice, it can become more automatic.
I use every experience as an opportunity to practice, whether Im talking on the phone to an insurance company and getting more and more irritated or enjoying an epicurean meal, Vereen said. Mindfulness helps us live larger.