Richard L. Peterson, M.D.

Private Practice Psychiatry

San Francisco, CA

November 26, 2004


Meditation:  Benefits, styles, and techniques for practice


Meditation is an ancient technique practiced for spiritual, mental, and physical growth.  On a psychological level, different styles of meditation have been shown to improve mood[1], decrease anxiety[2], lengthen attention span[3], and enhance feelings of connectedness, gratitude, and compassion[4].  On a physical level, meditation leads to improved immune system functioning[5], a reduction in blood pressure and mortality from heart disease[6]-[7], a reduction in fibromyalgia[8] and chronic pain[9], a decreased hormonal response to stress[10], a reduction in psoriatic plaques[11], a decrease in irritable bowel syndrome[12], and a reduction in inpatient (-54%) and outpatient (-44%) visits to hospitals and clinics[13].  Additionally scientists have recently found that meditation practice changes the structure and function of the brain over time and can lead to increased awareness and compassion (among other benefits)[14].  There are many styles of meditation and many opinions about how to meditate, and I will outline a few below.


We often live without ever truly stopping to examine our feelings and thoughts, much less the expectations and hopes and fears that underlie them.  By observing our mental life, we can gain insights into why we do what we do, and we can begin to feel more authentic and present in our daily lives.  The unity of your sense of self with your moment-to-moment experience, achieved by constantly pulling your attention and awareness back to the present moment, is at the core of many meditation practices.


Mediation makes us more aware of our neuroses, defenses, and other “stuck” areas in our lives.  Missing from meditation is the experience of working through mental conflicts with another person.  When we can openly discuss our experiences with an empathic and genuine teacher or therapist, then our capacity to face the mental challenges that arise during our daily lives is enormously strengthened.


Many meditation techniques combine awareness of the breath with an erect seated posture.  There are many styles of meditation.  Osho and transcendental meditation techniques are not discussed here.  The following is a list of some common meditation styles with simple instructions:


Introductory meditation (helps encourage release)

I know my body. (inhaling)

I am not my body. (exhaling)

I know my mind.

I am not my mind.

I know my witness.

I am not my witness.


Standard Mindfulness Meditation (Vispassana)

Pay attention to the breathing – the inward and outward motion of the breath.  Observe and label your thoughts, feelings, and judgments as they arise, and then let them go.  For example, when a thought arises, label it “thought” and then return your full attention to your breathing. 


Mantra-based Meditation

Focus on an object, vision, phrase, or word (a “mantra”) and maintain your full awareness there.  Sometimes a verbal phrase, such as “Om Mane Padme Hum” (in Tibetan Buddhism) is repeated.  Others will visualize the Buddha or a perfect being.  Roger Walsh, M.D. suggests visualizing a white circle with a white dot in the middle on a black background – continuously hold your full attention and awareness on the vision.  Some practitioners watch a candle flame or single point, others listen with full attention to the sound of Tibetan “singing bowls.” You can cultivate awareness with any one of these repetition or focus-based “mantras.”  Notice what thoughts, feelings, and experiences come up during the meditation, let them go, and return your full attention to the mantra.


Loving Kindness (Metta)

For all the wrongs others have committed against me, knowingly or unknowingly, I forgive them.

For all the wrongs I have committed against others, knowingly or unknowingly, I forgive myself.

For all the wrongs I have committed against myself, knowingly or unknowingly, I forgive myself.


(Repeat the following phrases first for yourself, then for a trusted companion, then for a neutral person, and finally for a disliked person.  Try to really feel the blessings)

May I be filled with loving-kindness

May I be filled with loving-kindness

May I be well.

May I be well.

May I be peaceful and at ease.

May I be peaceful and at ease.

May I be happy.

May I be happy.

May my road be easy and my burden be light.

May my road be easy and my burden be light.

May I be liberated.

May I be liberated.


Thich Nat Hahn

(In sync with your breathing, repeat silently)

I am a mountain,        (inhaling)

I feel solid.                  (exhaling)

I am a flower,

I feel fresh.

I am a still pool,

My mind feels clear.

I am empty space,

I feel free.

I am a mountain lake,

I reflect everything.


Cultivating Compassion (Tonglen)

In tonglen practice, when we see or feel suffering, we breathe in with the notion of completely feeling it, accepting it, and owning it. Then we breathe out, radiating compassion, loving-kindness, freshness; anything that encourages relaxation and openness.

1) First,rest your mind briefly in a state of openness or stillness.

2) Second, work with texture. Breathe in a feeling of hot, dark, and heavy, and breathe out a feeling of cool, bright, and light. Breathe in and radiate completely, through all the pores of your body, until it feels synchronized with your in-and out-breathe.

3) Third, work with any painful personal situation that is real to you. Traditionally, you begin by doing tonglen for someone you care about. However, if your stuck, do the practice for your pain and simultaneously for all those just like you who feel that kind of suffering.

4) Finally, make the taking in and the sending out larger. Whether you’re doing tonglen for someone you love or for someone you see on television, do it for all the others in the same boat. You could even do tonglen for people you consider your enemies--those who have hurt you or others. Do tonglen for them, thinking of them as having the same confusion and stuckness as your find or yourself.[15]



[1] Speca, Michael, Carlson, Linda E., Goodey, Eileen, Angen, Maureen.  A Randomized, Wait-List Controlled Clinical Trial: The Effect of a Mindfulness Meditation-Based Stress Reduction Program on Mood and Symptoms of Stress in Cancer Outpatients.  Psychosom Med 2000 62: 613-622


[2] Schwartz, GE, Davidson, RJ, Goleman, DJ.  Patterning of cognitive and somatic processes in the self-regulation of anxiety: effects of meditation versus exercise.  Psychosom Med 1978 40: 321-328


[3] Arnold LE.  Alternative treatments for adults with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  Ann NY Acad Sci. 2001 Jun;931:310-41.


[4] Jean L. Kristeller, Ph.D. and Thomas Johnson, Ph.D.  Cultivating Loving-Kindness: A Two-Stage Model for the Effects of Meditation on Compassion, Altruism and Spirituality.  Portions presented at the conference: Works of Love: Scientific and Religious Perspectives on Altruism, Villanova University, Villanova, PA. June 3, 2003.




[6] Schneider RH, Nidich SI, Salerno JW.  The Transcendental Meditation program: reducing the risk of heart disease and mortality and improving quality of life in African Americans.  Ethn Dis. 2001 Winter;11(1):159-60.

[7] Orme-Johnson, D.  Medical care utilization and the transcendental meditation program.  Psychosom Med 1987 49: 493-507.


[8]   Kaplan KH, Goldenberg DL, Galvin-Nadeau M.  The impact of a meditation-based stress reduction program on fibromyalgia.  Gen Hosp Psychiatry. 1993 Sep;15(5):284-9.


[9] Kabat-Zinn J, Lipworth L, Burney R.  The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain.  J Behav Med. 1985 Jun;8(2):163-90.

[10] MacLean CR, Walton KG, Wenneberg SR, Levitsky DK, Mandarino JP, Waziri R, Hillis SL, Schneider RH.  Effects of the Transcendental Meditation program on adaptive mechanisms: changes in hormone levels and responses to stress after 4 months of practice.  Psychoneuroendocrinology. 1997 May;22(4):277-95.


[11] Kabat-Zinn, J, Wheeler, E, Light, T, Skillings, A, Scharf, MJ, Cropley, TG, Hosmer, D, Bernhard, JD.  Influence of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction intervention on rates of skin clearing in patients with moderate to severe psoriasis undergoing phototherapy (UVB) and photochemotherapy (PUVA).  Psychosom Med 1998 60: 625-632.


[12]  Keefer L, Blanchard EB.  A one year follow-up of relaxation response meditation as a treatment for irritable bowel syndrome.  Behav Res Ther. 2002 May;40(5):541-6.


[13] Orme-Johnson, D.  Medical care utilization and the transcendental meditation program.  Psychosom Med 1987 49: 493-507.


[14] SHARON BEGLEY,Scans of Monks' Brains Show Meditation Alters Structure, Functioning” Wall Street Journal - SCIENCE JOURNAL. November 5, 2004.