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Meditation once was thought to be a mysterious practice reserved for Buddhist monks or hippie types. But now we see articles about meditation and the benefits to our health in magazines and on television, and we hear people talking about their own practice of meditation.

In our culture, which often views multi-tasking as a sign of competence, focusing your attention on one thing can seem unproductive. But members of many Eastern religions long have realized the benefits of meditation. In Western civilization, it could be compared to some of the benefits we are familiar with during times of silence, appreciation of nature or prayer.

As long ago as 1968, Dr. Herbert Benson and his colleagues at the Harvard Medical School started putting meditation to the test. Since then, researchers have found the practice successful in the treatment and prevention of high blood pressure, heart disease, migraine headaches and autoimmune diseases such as diabetes and arthritis. In the mental health profession, it has proven to be helpful in curbing obsessive thinking, anxiety, depression and anger.

So, what is it and how long does it take to learn? Actually, you can learn in just a few minutes. But as with any new skill, the benefits increase as the practice deepens. People report feeling more relaxed, attention becoming steadier and having more peace in their lives.

The primary goal of meditation is to slow our thoughts and prevent them from jumping from one thing to the next. But expect that, when you first start the practice, after a minute of sitting you will be surprised to discover your mind has covered everything from what's for lunch to the disagreement you had with your spouse. Don't be discouraged; we never know how busy our minds are until we take the time to pay attention to the chatter.

Find a quiet place and pick a position that is comfortable for you. Some people just sit in a chair with their back straight and their hands resting on their lap. Others prefer to sit cross-legged on the floor with a cushion under their buttocks. Don't get bogged down in thinking there is a "right" way to meditate. Initially, just let your body relax and let go of all of the tension. You might want to take a mental scan from head to toe, and instruct each part of your body to relax, one at a time, from your forehead to your toes.

The next step is to focus on the breath or a pleasant word or saying. Some people focus on their breath and pay attention to how it rises and falls. Others like to focus on a "mantra," which is a word or phrase that brings them peace. Start out sitting for a few minutes, and you will be amazed how busy your mind is, and that is perfectly OK. Just keep bringing your mind back to the breath and gently push away all the clutter that is attempting to distract you.

You might hear the birds outside, or the kids fighting, or any of the myriad of house noises that occur. Just notice these things and keep bringing your mind back to the breath or mantra.

When we first sit, it is amazing how slow the time passes and how our minds are just jetting from here to there. We get uncomfortable and want to get up because we just can't quiet our minds and there are things to do. But with practice you will find that this little oasis of silence can have a dramatic effect on your mood, efficiency and general well-being.

Our minds do not have to be akin to runaway trains; we can control our thoughts and slow down our lives so we live more effectively. Start with just a few minutes a day and gradually increase the time to a time allotment that feels comfortable. Even a few minutes a day can have positive physical and mental benefits. And as with most practices that are good for us, consistency is key. Decide that you are just going to give yourself the gift of five minutes a day.

While we're doing our spring cleaning and uncluttering our homes and yards, we should take a few minutes to unclutter our minds and enjoy the peace we deserve.

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