‘Doctor’s Orders: 20 Minutes of Meditation Twice a Day’ – How about 10 Minutes 5 Times a Day?

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Source: Muslim Sunrise Spring 2017

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

In a study published in 2012 in the American Heart Association journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, African-Americans with heart disease who practiced Transcendental Meditation regularly were 48% less likely to have a heart attack or stroke, or to die, than those who attended a health-education class.[1] [2]

What is meditation and how are we to practice it in the Islamic paradigm and what is the scientific evidence of its benefits, is the subject of this article?

The scientists generally do not study Salat or the Islamic prayers, but there is very extensive scientific investigation under way in the psychology and neurobiology of meditation. Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, according to a well known Hadith, said that a word of wisdom is like the lost treasure of a believer, he or she takes it, wherever he or she finds it. We, as Muslims, can benefit from meditation, as an independent discipline or in the context of Salat or Zikr-e-illahi, which is constant remembrance of Allah.

The constant bombardment of emails, text messages and bad news from all over the world keeps churning our minds constantly and has put many if not most in the 21st century in a frenzied state.

David Fontana PhD, who holds professorship at the universities of Minho and the Algarve in Portugal, uses the metaphor of muddy waters to describe the common state of our minds. He writes:

“Imagine the mind as a pool of water that for years we have been busily churning into mud with our mental chatter. Once the churning stops, the mud settles to the bottom, and the pool becomes clear. Not only can we now see the limpid, pure water itself, but also we can enjoy other pleasures, such as quenching our thirst, and bathing. Its clarity and cleanliness allow us to see through to the bottom of the pool, and discover there a new world of interest and wonder. When the mind becomes calm and still in meditation, we come to a much deeper understanding of ourselves and of our true nature.”[3]

Thousands of studies have been published that look at meditation, Dr. Doraiswamy, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., said, “Of these, about 500 have been clinical trials testing meditation for various ailments, but only about 40 trials have been long-term studies. It isn’t known whether there is an optimal amount of time for meditating that is most effective.”[4] The effective dose and duration is uncertain, perhaps, it is convenient for the Muslims to assume that 10 minutes – 5 times a day may be just optimum.

Salat in the Muslim tradition, in my view, has at least three parts to it. Firstly, a prayer or Dua to the All-Powerful God, for deliverance from a trial or fruition of our plans and efforts. We could pray to a cow, an elephant, a tree, a dead person or any false deity. But, they cannot even hear our prayers, a far cry from granting it.

The Holy Quran says: “Unto Allah is the true prayer. Those on whom they call besides Him, do not respond to them at all. Their case is like that of one who stretches forth his hands towards water, as if asking that it may reach his mouth, but it reaches it not. The prayer of the disbeliever is but a delusion, completely futile.” (Al Quran 13:15)

The second aspect of Salat is that of ecstasy, which may be briefly defined as in mysticism, the experience of an inner vision of God or of one’s relation to or union with the divine, accompanied by an extraordinary pleasure and calm. That aspect is beyond the scope of this article and for that I will just suggest one possible reading material here only.[5]

The third aspect of Salat is focusing our mind, attention and thoughts to the task at hand, rather than it wandering away in random pursuits. This is where the meditation tools developed by anyone, regardless of religion or goal can help us train our minds.

There was a recent article in Wall Street Journal by the title, Doctor’s Orders: 20 Minutes of Meditation Twice a Day, from which I have derived my title for this article and alluded to 5 daily prayers in Islam. Sumathi Reddy writes in this article:

Murali Doraiswamy says it isn’t clearly understood how meditation works on the body. Some forms of meditation have been found to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which stimulates the body’s relaxation response, improves blood supply, slows down heart rate and breathing and increases digestive activity, he said. It also slows down the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol.[6]

A billion people in the world are suffering from anxiety and depression disorders and they find it hard to clear their minds of anxious and depressing thoughts. Dr. Doraiswamy says he recommends meditation for people with several psychological issues depression, panic or anxiety disorders, ongoing stress, or for general health maintenance of brain alertness and cardiovascular health. [7]

Encyclopedia Britannica has the following to say about meditation in different religious traditions:

“In numerous religions, spiritual purification may be sought through the verbal or mental repetition of a prescribed efficacious syllable, word, or text (e.g., the Hindu and Buddhist mantra, the Islamic dhikr, and the Eastern Christian Jesus Prayer). The focusing of attention upon a visual image (e.g., a flower or a distant mountain) is a common technique in informal contemplative practice and has been formalized in several traditions. Tibetan Buddhists, for example, regard the mandala (Sanskrit: ‘circle’) diagram as a collection point of universal forces, accessible to humans by meditation. Tactile and mechanical devices, such as the rosary and the prayer wheel, along with music, play a highly ritualized role in many contemplative traditions.” [8]

“Researchers have found that the default mode of our brains appears to be that of mind wandering.” Says Professor Ronald Siegel of Harvard University, “This correlates with unhappiness and with activation in a network of brain areas associated with selfreferential processing—with thinking about ‘me.’” [9]

The circuits of the default mode network include the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex. It turns out that mindfulness practice can dramatically affect the activity of these areas.

Dr. Judson Brewer and his colleagues investigated brain activity in experienced meditators and matched meditation-naive controls as they performed meditations focused on three skills: concentration (refocused attention), open monitoring (choiceless awareness), and loving-kindness practice (which cultivates acceptance). For the details of these techniques please see the video course by Prof. Ronald Siegel listed at the end of this article.

They found that the main nodes of the default mode network were relatively deactivated in experienced meditators across all three meditation types. They believe that the reason for this is that the “task” common to all three meditation techniques is the training of attention away from self-reference and mind wandering and toward one’s immediate, moment-to moment sensory experience. It would appear that, in this way, mindfulness meditation interrupts selfing.[10]

“Most meditative practices concentrate attention in order to induce mystical experiences.” Says Encyclopedia Britannica, “Others are mindful of the mental character of all contents of consciousness and utilize this insight to detach the practitioner either from all thoughts or from a selected group of thoughts—e.g., the ego (Buddhism) or the attractiveness of sin (Christianity). Meditation may also serve as a special, potent preparation for a physically demanding or otherwise strenuous activity, as in the case of the warrior before battle or the musician before performance.”[11]

Some short-term studies have found meditation can improve cognitive abilities such as attention and memory, said Dr. Doraiswamy. Using imaging, scientists have shown that meditation can improve the functional performance of specific circuits in the brain and may reduce age-related shrinkage of several brain centers, particularly those that may be vulnerable in disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.[12]

I just meant to create a little interest in meditation for you and how it can be a part of daily Salat or an independent practice for you or merged into Zikr-e-illahi, meaning recitation of different verses of the Quran, of your choice. Now, I will link two wonderful collection of video courses on meditation by experts in this field and if you are patient, these will go on sale and you may not need to pay a fortune:

  1. Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation by Professor Mark W. Muesse, Ph.D.[13]
  2. The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being by Professor Ronald D. Siegel, Psy.D.[14]

References

[1] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324345804578424863782143682

[2] https://themuslimtimes.info/2013/04/17/doctors-orders-20-minutes-of-meditation-twice-a-day-how-about-10-minutes-5-times-a-day/

[3] David Fontana Phd. Learn to meditate; a practical guide to self-discovery and fulfillment. Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1999. Page 16.

[4] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324345804578424863782143682

[5] https://www.alislam.org/library/eGazette-Oct2007.pdf

[6] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324345804578424863782143682

[7] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324345804578424863782143682

[8] https://www.britannica.com/topic/meditation-mental-exercise

[9] Guide book of the Teaching Company Course. Lecture 19. The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being by Professor Ronald D. Siegel, Psy.D. Harvard University. http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/the-positive-mind-mindfulness-and-the-science-of-happiness.html

[10] Guide book of the Teaching Company Course. Lecture 19. The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being by Professor Ronald D. Siegel, Psy.D. Harvard University. http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/the-positive-mind-mindfulness-and-the-science-of-happiness.html

[11] https://www.britannica.com/topic/meditation-mental-exercise

[12] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324345804578424863782143682

[13] http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/practicing-mindfulness-an-introduction-to-meditation.html

[14] http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/the-positive-mind-mindfulness-and-the-science-of-happiness.html

Read in the PDF file in the Muslim Sunrise: Muslim Sunrise Spring 2017

6 replies

  1. Very interesting blog. I find your teaching about the mud settling in the water interesting because this is a very powerful teaching if the Buddha dharma. Actually this is found in the Indian sage Tilopa Mahamudra texts. Very good but you might want to credit him

    http://keithdowman.net/mahamudra/tilopas-mahamudra-teaching.html

    But as to your comment that the default state of mind is wondering you could not be more wrong. The default state is peace, clarity, and wisdom . Nothing less the wondering arises from our ignorance and ideas of separation from one another. If our default state was wondering there would be nothing we could do to change it but since we can meditate and change it and find peace that is our default.

    Thank you

    QP

  2. Holy Quran says, “Verily, in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest!” (Quran 13:28)

    Prayers and remembrance of Allah brings peace to the troubled mind and contains the only sure cure for the heart that cannot find peace. A satisfied soul is in the state of bliss, content and peace.

  3. TM is not Mindfulness. Different practices and don’t give the same benefits. Likewise great to do your prayers but it does not do the same thing.

  4. Great article… Praying is like Buddhist chanting… What ever method people use to find peace and live happlily should be encouraged.
    Whether it is praying to a god or sitting downn watching your breath … Any method to find peace and compassion for everyone is good.

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