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Meditation Enjoys Newfound Popularity for Stress-relieving Benefits

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Ommm, my goodness. Meditation is back in the news again.

Recently Time magazine declared that the ancient mind- and spirit-enhancing art is becoming hugely popular and gaining medical legitimacy.

That hardly surprises former Kansas City Royals shortstop Buddy Biancalana.

Ten years back, when he started transcendental meditation, or TM, his major-league playing days were coming to an end. The glory of his Royals 1985 World Series Championship was eight years behind him. He had excruciating back pain, neck pain, depression. His marriage had fallen apart.

Then an old friend, a frequent meditator, re-entered Biancalana's life.

"I was at a point where I needed something to feel better," said Biancalana, who spoke by phone and coaches the Lakewood Blue Claws of New Jersey, a minor-league team affiliated with the Philadelphia Phillys.

So in September, a decade ago, Biancalana went to the Raj Health Center in tiny Fairfield, Iowa, where the followers of meditation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi began Maharishi University.

There, everything changed.

And, no, Biancalana didn't become some mantra-chanting, bullet-eyed religious convert. Transcendental meditation can feel spiritual at times. But it isn't about religion, he said. It's about letting go.

And that's what Biancalana did. He learned TM. To his delight, he discovered that "when one is meditating regularly, there is just very, very little fear in life."

The mind calms and quiets, he said. What thoughts you have during meditation become clearer, more focused. Anger, anxiety and worries give way to a peace that - as the name implies - transcends thought.

"It simplifies things. There's less anger. Better relationships," Biancalana said.

Yet it doesn't turn you into a passive, withering wimp who cares about nothing. Just the opposite, Biancalana said.

Because meditation centers you, he said, and helps you focus more intensely and intently on the moment rather than outside distractions, "it has made me very, very driven in the areas that I want to be driven in," he said. "I no longer waste time in life."

By most accounts, meditation is booming in America, with about 10 million die-hard practitioners, double the number from a decade ago.

Of course, asking how many Kansas City area people meditate regularly is like asking how many people ate hummus on any given day. It may be a lot. It may be few. You know it's some, but it's hard to quantify.

Nonetheless, at least three formal meditation groups practicing different forms of meditation (transcendental meditation, vipassana or "insight" meditation from the Buddhist tradition, Kriya yoga that centers on breathing) meet regularly in the Kansas City area.

"The trick is practice, like practicing the piano," said John van Keppel, who has meditated and taught its techniques for 15 years. "The more you practice, the more proficient you become. But any meditation worthy of the name is about quieting the mind and the chattering that goes on.

"If the mind gets quiet, the body gets quiet."

Medical studies continue to show regular meditation working magic in reducing blood pressure and stress-related illnesses, including heart disease. Brain images show that regular meditation helps calm the most active sensory-assaulted parts of the brain.

Some studies show it may even help students achieve better grades.

Because of such benefits, meditation is being used more regularly in schools, in offices, hospitals, even prisons. At least one study has shown that prisoners who meditate, once released, return to prison less frequently.

However, should anyone ask Clare Roberts' group of five friends who regularly meditate after work in her white, light-filled Kansas City, Mo., apartment, or in any one of their homes, they'll tell you that few stories go far enough in espousing the marvels of meditation.

Patricia Pelot, 75, a retired nurse, has meditated for 28 years, as has Elaine Pomfrey, an Internet consultant. Dan Koehn, a contractor, and his wife, Nancy, have meditated for 30 years. Roberts, who does public relations for Blue River Community College, has meditated for 31 years. Rick Sprinkle, who's in construction, for 30 years.

In the mornings, they meditate alone, 45 minutes or less.

In the evening, they sometimes meditate together. The force of group meditation, they say, is intense.

They sit in chairs in utter silence. Shoes off. Ankles crossed. Eyes closed. Backs straight. All face the same way, like frozen figures on a bus, each concentrating on their breathing and on their own special individualized mantras - a nonsense word or sound they repeat silently in their minds to help release thought.

Meditating together, they say, borders on the spiritual. Just as praying in a group of hundreds seems more powerful, so does meditating together. Just as joy is multiplied in a stadium filled with concertgoers, so peace and tranquility are multiplied the more people meditate together.

"It's the power of silence, like in churches," Pomfrey said. "The whole is greater than the sum of the parts."

So great, in fact, that TM's truest proponents claim that if the square root of one percent of an area's population would meditate together twice a day for two months, it would actually spread harmony and peace and reduce violent crime.

In the early 1990s, about 4,000 TM practitioners meditated together in Washington. Researchers at Maharishi University say that in D.C., crime on that day did go down.

"There is this whole area of peace studies," said Robert Schneider, a physician at the Raj Health Center and director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention in Fairfield, Iowa. "There are more than 20 sociological studies showing that when people practice these techniques together, there is a reduction of stress in a whole community."

On a much smaller scale, Pelot, who is a nurse, said meditation has helped her control migraine headaches that have plagued her since childhood. A premature atrial contraction that made her heart feel as if it was skipping a beat "absolutely disappeared," she said, because of the technique.

Others talked of how meditation helped them stem terrible ulcerative colitis, depression and anxiety. Still others said it brought them even closer to their religions, made their prayers that much deeper and more profound.

"It is much more than just sitting," Roberts said. "Thoughts may come up, but you're not focusing or concentrating. Your goal really would be not to think rather than to think. You're actually learning to release thought, a kind of letting-go of thought."

All of which, Sprinkle said, leads to a kind of inner harmony, peace and joy, not unlike the carefree and thoughtless joy a child may feel swinging on a swing on a summer day. Or an adult may feel, just for a moment, staring contentedly at the sun rising or setting over the ocean.

"The mind becomes completely enlightened," Sprinkle said. "It settles down and arrives in a field of calm."

As far as Biancalana is concerned, that's a great place to be.

"Initially, before I had been around it, I didn't know much about it, and it seemed a little odd," he said of meditation. "But as I got to know some of the people who practiced it, I saw a difference among those people.

"They were very, very present and alert and very, very energetic. They were creative and happy and kind and very outside themselves.

"Since I started, life has gotten much better," he said.

"You just realize, when meditating, that this is an unbelievable place to be. There is nothing better than quieting the mind. No amount of money can match that experience."


(c) 2003, The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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