Meditation is a technique where the attention is focused on a point of reference, such as the breath or an object, in order to help you create a peaceful, quiet state of mind. For people with cancer, it may be useful for pain, anxiety, and distress and to help cope with the symptoms of cancer and its treatments, such as fatigue, sleep and mood disturbance, nausea, and depression, thereby improving quality of life. People with cancer who have practised meditation describe a number of benefits such as increased positivity, better coping strategies and being more in control, and being able to deal with pain in other ways than relying on medication.
Meditation is usually practised in a group, although an individual therapist can help you learn how to meditate. The session, usually lasting an hour, starts with some relaxation and verbal instructions, followed by silence for practice to take place. You can be seated or lying down and some traditions adopt certain seating positions, such as the lotus position or sitting cross-legged.
There are also moving forms of meditation, such as Tai Chi, Qi Gong, Yoga and Aikido. It is recommended that meditation is practised regularly at home for it to be of most benefit. You can also practice meditation without a therapist, using a music file, CD or tape, which may be useful if you have to stay in bed or can’t leave your home. You can buy these online, from some book stores or health shops, and from some cancer support groups or centres.
Meditation has been practised for thousands of years across the world. The history of meditation is intimately bound up with the religious context within which it was practised. Some practices and religions that use and teach meditation include forms of Buddhism (e.g. Tibetan, Zen), Hinduism, Aikido, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, Islam, and Yoga.
Western Christian meditation contrasts with most other approaches in that it does not involve the repetition of any phrase or action and requires no specific posture. Secular forms of meditation were introduced in India in the 1950s as a Westernised form of Hindu meditative techniques, and arrived in the United States and Europe in the 1960s. Rather than focusing on spiritual growth, secular meditation emphasises stress reduction, relaxation and self-improvement.
Meditation is generally considered safe, especially under the guidance of a trained health professional, although cancer patients should consult their doctor or other healthcare professional before using a movement based meditation such as yoga or tai chi. There are no reports of side effects. There is no legal requirement in the UK to have a licence to teach meditation and/or mindfulness techniques, so it is best to check what training your therapist has had. Some traditions and schools of meditation have their own training and accreditation schemes. Some nurses and doctors have training in this area. And psychotherapists, psychologists and psychiatrists all have training in the use of relaxation and visualisation techniques. Through the process of meditation, you are calling on yourself to participate in your own wellbeing. Meditation is thought to help people live in the moment rather than worrying about the future. Meditation can be both a spiritual practice and a health practice.
As a spiritual practice, it is used to gain an understanding for self-improvement, and ultimately to link with the divine in a state of altered or heightened consciousness. Some people consider prayer to be a form of meditation. As a health practice, the West has taken an interest in meditation for its potential to maintain health and help healing. Popular and scientific interest in the 1960s and 70s looked at how meditation could help relieve stress, reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure and generally improve health by stimulating what Dr Herbert Benson, a pioneer in mind/body medicine, termed the relaxation response. Meditation is commonly used alongside other self-help practices such as Creative Visualisation. An example is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, which includes yoga, imagery and group work.
Some clinics are able to offer a package of free/ low cost sessions. Costs can vary widely depending on the size of the group, length of the sessions and tradition. Some practitioners ask for a donation, rather than a set price. Others charge by the hour.
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