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UC Davis Magazine

Volume 28 · Number 1 · Fall 2010

Photo: Beth Cohen, Sharon Salzberg and Henry McHenry

From top: Beth Cohen, Sharon Salzberg and Henry McHenry

Worth Contemplating: Freeing the Mind

Misconceptions About Meditation

Key misconceptions exist about meditation, said Beth Cohen, a clinical/organizational psychologist and certified meditation instructor.

Meditation is not about stopping thoughts — “The longer someone meditates, the easier it becomes to neutralize or observe their thoughts rather than react to them,” Cohen said.

Meditation is not about stopping emotions — Meditating won’t stop us from feeling either positive or difficult emotions, she said. Rather, feelings may become enhanced — particularly feelings of joy, love and empathic concern for others.

Meditation offers more than just relaxation or stress reduction — “Mediation creates changes in our neurobiology and, therefore, encourages changes in our attitudes, health and quality of life,” said Cohen.

The Nature of Meditation

Sharon Salzberg has played a crucial role in bringing meditation practice to the West. An author and student of Buddhism since 1971, she has led meditation retreats worldwide and written prolifically on the subject. Her latest book, Real Happiness, Learn the Power of Meditation: A 28 Day Program, is due out in January.

Think of meditation, Salzberg says, as skills training in “concentration, mindfulness and compassion.” She described the Shamatha Project as “illustrative of this pragmatic, dogma-free approach, which can include anybody who is interested in pursuing it.”

Tattoos and Religions

Henry McHenry, a UC Davis professor of anthropology and an international expert on human origins, has been meditating for 25 years.

“Look at the faces of participants in a meditation program,” said McHenry. “Opening the heart shines through the eyes. Posture improves. Smiles flash constantly. Old and bitter people develop the look of loving grandparents.”

Last summer, McHenry visited the Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado to participate in a meditation retreat. There he observed a “bunch of smart, but cynical and rowdy, teens become kind, sensitive, and uplifted members of the community” after receiving meditation instruction.

“They looked great — tattoos, piercings and all,” said McHenry, who has taught at UC Davis since 1971.

One’s religious preference does not matter, he said.

“Meditation itself is completely secular,” said McHenry, pointing out that psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn has developed secular meditation techniques that have brought mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society. Kabat-Zinn has also made significant contributions to modern health care with his research on mind/body interactions for healing.

Back to Worth Contemplating

Clifton Parker is associate editor of UC Davis Magazine.