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Meditation is a captivating but elusive practice, made famous for its benefits but frustrating for its intangibleness. Some describe it as not thinking about anything, but, then, what happens if you do think about something? If you admonished yourself every time a-triple-chocolate-chip-cookie craving came to mind, you’d soon grow exhausted. Others say a meditative frame of mind bids you to take the opposite approach, by making absolutely no effort to control the mind’s thoughts. For still others, meditation is intent focus on the present moment, for example, feeling the coolness of the air, and the dry crush of fallen leaves underneath one’s feet.

At its root, meditation is relaxation for the mind — a definition broad enough to encompass a spectrum of activities. Focusing attention on sensations in the present is one way; you close your eyes and breathe, noticing any sensations, but with the intention of making no judgments. A guided meditation will often prompt the meditator to focus on parts of the body as a way to release the mind from the drudgery of thought. Alternatively, meditation can also manifest as letting your mind simply be, without asking it do anything at all. “Stop thinking” is an oxymoron, isn’t it? It makes you think involuntarily. So, it’s a misconception that meditation is not thinking about anything; meditation is a state where one can observe the mind and any thoughts, but not actively pursue them. It’s OK that your mind will wander; just don’t go egging it on.

Last Thursday, I asked students in W20, “What do you think when you hear the word ‘meditation’?”

“A lot of guys sitting on the floor, wearing orange, being bald,” said Charlie Henerberry with a smile. True, the Buddhists alluded to by Henerberry are notorious meditators, sitting for hours a day in the hope of achieving enlightenment. But a 2007 survey by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that 9.4 percent of polled U.S. adults, representing more than 20 million people, had used meditation in the past 12 months. A group that big must contain even secular people with full mops of hair, suggesting much less lofty benefits than nirvana can be had by the practice.

Shamarah J. Hernandez ’12, looked joyful despite being weighed down by her La Verde’s groceries when she stopped to talk to me. She contemplated why she meditates — for her, a practice that constitutes taking long breaths and not thinking about anything beyond them. “During tests, or problem sets, when I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, I breathe, [and] think things are OK,” she said. “And it takes like five seconds to quickly regain focus; [if I didn’t do it] I’d be spiraling out of control, and I think that’s how a lot of MIT students feel.”

Reasons for meditating in the MIT community aren’t limited to just high-stress situations, though; Jacky Chen G, a graduate student at Sloan, will meditate when he hasn’t slept enough the night before to gain energy, and MIT Media Lab graduate student, Elliott B. Hedman G, makes it a regular practice because of the influence it has on the quality of his life; “Meditation allows me take a break from the swirling chaos of MIT. No matter how much stress I have because of papers, research, and deadlines, meditation is a little island where I can escape [to], and recognize what’s really important,” he said. “Because I meditate, I … can take things in stride, and feel more fulfilled.”

Because personal accounts like these have been too tantalizing to ignore, a great deal of research has come out regarding meditation’s effects in an effort to quantify its fuzzy, feel-good benefits. Findings have substantiated what many practitioners say about meditation; it enables them to better control emotions, lower stress levels, and cultivate compassion. For example, imaging studies on Tibetan monks in 2004, done by researchers at the University Wisconsin-Madison, showed that these long-time meditators had significantly higher levels of gamma waves in the brain, which appear during heightened awareness. They were so high in fact, levels like these had never been seen outside of pathological cases. Interestingly, the levels were highest in the regions of the frontal lobes involved in modulating emotion.

A more recent study found that a kind of meditation — mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR — helps produce a “cone of silence” for meditators. In 2010, a collaboration out of MIT and Harvard found that brain alpha waves, which help suppress the flow of distracting information in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, were more responsive and of greater amplitude among meditators, indicating they had increased their ability to focus.

With such positive evaluations, I wonder why I’m not tripping over meditators in the Infinite, as they listen to guided meditations on their iPods — ignoring me peacefully. But that isn’t the case; actually, many people I’ve talked to have never meditated. While some brush it off with a daub of self deprecation — “[It] sounds very interesting, but I’m not clever enough not to think,” said Chris C., MIT employee – others just aren’t sure what to think. “I don’t really know what meditating entails,” said Grace Tuyiringire ’13. “You sit silently, but I guess I don’t see why.”

On campus, though, interested students can find many resources for meditation; the Community Wellness Center has meditation drop-in sessions once a month, the Buddhist group, Prajnopaya, has meditation in the chapel once a week, and the Yoga 24x7 club meditates as a component of their weekly meeting. Classes like PE.0501, Upgrade Your Health and Happiness, teach some meditation as a stress management technique, and, finally, the Art of Living club holds a short course on meditation and yogic breathing, called Yes+, to give students a more immersive meditation experience. Matt Clarke and Henerberry are two students who might pursue such options. Clarke, spurred by his curiosity, asked the internet how to meditate when he was 18, but felt that he wasn’t getting the most he could out of it. “I would like to do more,” he said.

Henerberry was bashfully interested, too. “I would totally try it; I just don’t know how.”

Just relaxing your mind, a task so easy, can be hard at first. But MIT’s abundant resources are a great starting point to show you how.