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Meditation: The key to calm

By Brigid Delaney for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- It is Wednesday night after work and after a hellish Tube journey I am at the London Buddhist Center for an evening of meditation.

It is my first attempt at this ancient art and I am curious to discover how to meditate and what happens. It soon becomes obvious that meditation is a discipline.

The whole idea of stilling the mind sounds fine in theory but slowing down your thoughts and concentrating on your breathing is easier said than done. The first hour of the beginners' session is spent getting comfortable and working with various postures that help aid mediation.

We can sit on a chair says our guide Maitreyabandhu or on cushions on the floor. Most of us sit cross-legged supported by cushions. Maitreyabandhu guides us through the first part of the meditation. It is as much about forgetting the stresses of the day as blanking your mind.

We sit still in five minute blocks as the teacher tells us at intervals to concentrate on our breathing and notice the sensations in our body. We break for a cup of tea and a chat. I speak to one of the participants, David who has been meditating for almost a year now.

He tells me he spends 20 minutes a day meditating (usually in the morning) and tries to come to the center twice a week. "Not only does meditation calm me down, but it helps give me great insights," he says. Exactly what these insights are, I hope to find out in the next session.

The last hour deals with meditating on kindness. It involves thinking of yourself, a good friend, a neutral person and an enemy and sending them out good vibes. It's a surprisingly effective exercise. I find my previous harsh feelings towards my enemy, who shall remain nameless, softening. I walk out into the cool Bethnal Green night feeling relaxed, serene and slightly sleepy.

What is meditation?

Meditation has as many different definitions as practitioners, although many broadly define it as a "state of conscious relaxation." Meditation has some roots in religion, particularly Buddhism, but the process itself need not have a religious element. The relaxation often comes by focusing on the breath. This takes our minds away from the constant clutter and new thoughts that come in and out.

Says Maitreyabandhu of the London Buddhist Center, "Meditation is about being in life. People tend to think its about blanking your mind: it's not, it's about becoming more alive -- alive to your own experiences, the world and others."

How does it help?

According to many practitioners, learning meditation helps to manage daily stress, concerns and pressures. Says Maitreyabandhu, "Lots of people come to meditation because they want to relax. Some people come because they want to live more vividly. I meditate now because I want to gain some sort of transcendental awareness of the universe. It's about that experience that changes you completely - so it's not just a fluffy, relaxing, muesli eating thing."

The London Buddhist Center also runs meditation programs for people with depression. So far the results of many participants have been encouraging.

Why should we meditate?

In a nutshell -- to feel calmer and to slow down.

Says Maitreyabandhu, "Modern life is incredibly complicated and fast. That has a very stressful effect on the mind and body and people's quality of life diminishes. We are obsessed with choice - people often choose things that are not in their long-term benefits. You can easily feel you've taken the wrong path. People are really busy -- they might be well off but they are unhappy.

"People feel there's a definite meaning vacuum. Materialism is not helping us. People are increasingly realizing materialism is not working, choice is not working. The basic assumption is the more choice you have the happier you'll be. People need to get a sense that their lives matter - they get it from people also from meditation. You enter another world."

As a result of our rushed lives we can also lose touch with ourselves. Meditation then becomes a way of "checking-in" and assessing how things are going.

Says Maitreyabandhu, "We can become alienated from our more subtle emotions. We are alienated from our bodies. There is a real need to get in contact with something alive. We easily get stuck on the surfaces of ourselves. In the west we forget the mind has depths. There are depths of the mind that are really satisfying and profound."

The difficulties of meditation

Finding the time for a start. Then the space. Then the concentration. As easy as you think it may be, in this fast world it's hard to sit still. Says Maitreyabandhu: "For many people meditation is not that easy to weave into their lives. A lot of people learn meditation from books. It's an art -- it's like magic -- it's not a recipe, there's nothing like going to a class to teach you a real meditation experience. Just try it out and see what happens.

"One of the big disciplines in life is put aside time for things that might be good for you. Most things can be addictive very easily: food, TV, alcohol, drugs. We've all watched hours of TV and felt empty. How do we convince ourselves to do something better for ourselves?"

Quick tips for meditating

Switch of any distractions...
Including mobile phones and BlackBerrys.

Set aside a calm, peaceful, quiet place...
Make a sanctuary in your own home.

Sit in a comfortable position...
Either with cushions or in a chair.

Keep your eyes 'soft'...
Close them and you may fall asleep, open them too wide and you could be distracted.

Start meditating in five minutes blocks until your concentration improves...
Aim to do two twenty minute sessions a day.


Meditation at the London Buddhist Centre: "Not just a fluffy muesli-eating thing."

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