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Meditation can help during crisis and everyday lives, UW-Madison expert says

July 13, 2018 By Käri Knutson

People often think of meditation being done in a quiet, candlelit room while soothing music plays in the background.

But for the 12 boys trapped in a Thailand cave, the conditions couldn’t have been more different. It’s hard to imagine what those dark days were like. Hungry. Scared. There was no promise of rescue.

Yet a glimmer of hope came from within as their soccer coach Ekapol Chantawong, a former Buddhist monk, helped them use the power of meditation to calm their minds as well as bodies until they were rescued earlier this week.

Dr. Charles Raison

Dr. Charles Raison, a professor in the Human Development and Family Studies Department within the School of Human Ecology and the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, wasn’t surprised to hear that meditation was used.

“For many people, simple mindfulness meditation practices can very rapidly produce relaxation, which of course was a key need for the poor kids stuck underground,” Raison says.

With meditation in the spotlight, Raison offers a few thoughts and suggestions on its many benefits.

How does meditation help during extreme situations?

“When it works it would calm the body and mind, even in beginners, although it is important to emphasize that not everybody benefits from meditation, and like everything in life, it is not necessarily for everyone. For people who have actually learned to meditate previously and have an active practice, mindfulness can also help put things in perspective. This can also be hugely helpful in extreme situations and can help people think more clearly.”

How does it help in our daily lives? Can you name a few specific circumstances where it could benefit us?

“Mindfulness can help with relaxation and it can help put a little safety brake between initial emotions and our responses. Both of these can be hugely useful in all sorts of daily life situations that are challenging. When something makes us mad, meditation can help us stop for just a moment before we have a knee jerk reaction. This can produce better human relationships and a more rational approach to life.”

How often do you meditate? How has it helped you?

“I am not the world’s greatest meditator. I do it episodically now, but there was a period in my mid-30s when meditation really changed my view of the world in a positive way, and the ideas behind meditation have also had a huge, and positive, effect on my life.”

This image released by The Royal Thai Navy on July 2 shows the boys trapped inside a cave in Thailand. Their coach used meditation to help calm them before their rescue. Thai Royal Navy

What are some misconceptions about meditation?

“Some people think that meditation is really difficult to start. In fact, it is easy to start. Some people think meditation will solve all their problems — it won’t. Like many good things in life, it can help, but there is no magic bullet for life’s challenges. Many people underestimate the difficulty of staying with meditation over the long term — it requires discipline.”

Seems like some of the people who may benefit most would be the least likely to use it. How do you encourage people who are either skeptical or think it takes too long?

“Many meditation programs now offer very brief meditation practices that really seem to help people. Even a few minutes of meditation done once or twice a day can be very helpful. Anyone has time for this.”

What do you think of meditation apps? Is it helpful or harmful for technology to assist?

“Overall, I think apps can be quite helpful. Moreover, there are lots of different apps so people can find one that really works for them.”

Meditation can be extremely hard and frustrating for beginners. Why should we give it a chance?

“Because you won’t know if it is something that helps you until you give it a bit of a try. It is definitely not for everyone, but I’ve been amazed how many people who didn’t think they would benefit from meditation found it changed their lives in really positive ways.”

How do we get started? And how can we stick with it?

“There are a lot of ways. Many people find apps to be a good way in. Books can also be very helpful and there are a lot of good books to help the beginner start meditating. Many people find that joining a group of like-minded people also meditating can really help stick with it.”