The point of meditation isn't to ensure that your mind is as clear as a glass of water, while you sit in a yogic posture and chant a mantra.
Not only is such a state impossible to achieve, but the minute someone tells us to clear our minds, our minds like to rebel and bombard us with even more useless thoughts than usual.
I took a meditation class a few months ago and it quickly transpired that, luckily, you are not expected to completely clear your head. Instead, meditation teaches you ways in which to step back and quietly observe your thoughts and feelings instead of acting on them. Once I realised this, I started to enjoy meditating, and quickly noticed how much calmer I felt. The dreaded daily commute from Dubai to Abu Dhabi even became, dare I say it, bearable.
And I'm not alone in my newfound daily ritual: Clint Eastwood, Tina Turner, Orlando Bloom and Eva Mendes are among celebrities who are reported to enjoy the calming benefits of meditation. With estimates suggesting that more than 20 million people in the US alone are meditating their way through breakfast, it seems that the practice has gone mainstream.
A quick Google search of meditation classes in the UAE brings up numerous results, and according to local instructors, the practice is on the rise here, too. Dr Mahnaz Emami, the national director of Transcendental Meditation (TM) UAE, says that there has been a sharp increase in people learning the TM technique worldwide, which she attributes to celebrity endorsements by the likes of the film director David Lynch, the comedian Russell Brand (when they were married his ex-wife, the pop star Katy Perry, learned TM, too), Dr Mehmet Oz and Oprah Winfrey. (Winfrey and Oz both went on to pay for the course to be offered to their entire production teams.)
Dr Emami says that this trend is evident in the UAE as well, as more and more individuals are turning to TM to manage their general health or debilitating illnesses. She estimates that the number of enquiries the centre has received from people interested in TM has jumped by more than 400 per cent over the past year.
"The general trend is more towards simple, time-efficient self-management techniques, particularly ones that you can do in your own home without the inconvenience of club memberships," explains Dr Emami. "TM delivers on all these levels and so is an attractive proposition for many busy people who appreciate efficiency and self-sufficiency."
LifeWorks Counselling and Development in Dubai has increased the number of meditation classes on offer at the centre to meet the rise in demand. Its director Helen Williams explains that the centre runs a monthly four-week course for 15-25 people in each group, up from several years ago when the courses were offered every three months, sometimes for just six people.
"I believe the documented benefits of meditation are clearly encouraging others to make constant practice part of their lives," says Williams.
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a technique developed by the internationally known meditation teacher Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, can help treat and reduce a variety of emotional and physical problems, including cardiovascular disease - by lowering blood pressure, according to a study at the University of Kentucky - and depression.
Last year, David Lynch gave US$1 million (Dh3.67m) in grants to provide TM instruction to active-duty military personnel, veterans and their families who are suffering from post-traumatic stress.
Studies are increasingly showing that meditation can help cancer patients improve their outlook - and even their chances of remission and survival. It can also serve as an effective natural remedy for chronic pain, with one US study (Wake Forest University) finding that meditation can reduce pain by 40 per cent - morphine typically reduces pain by 25 per cent.
Certain meditation techniques can also promote creative thinking. In a study conducted by researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands, participants who took part in an open monitoring meditation session performed better in divergent thinking and generated more ideas than prior to meditating. A recent study from Harvard Medical School in the US found that meditation can help practitioners learn faster and improve their memory. Researchers using brain scans found that meditators were better able to regulate their alpha brainwaves, which help screen out distractions. One study found that meditation helps shift brain activity from the stress-prone right frontal cortex to the calmer left frontal cortex.
Meditation can benefit the elderly, too: a study conducted at UCLA found that individuals age 55-85 who were assigned to a mindfulness meditation group reported a reduced sense of loneliness. It is also increasingly being used in prisons. The 2008 documentary The Dhamma Brothers follows the positive impact on inmates as they undergo an intensive meditation programme at the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Alabama.
Case Study: Going It Alone
Bhavnaa Sawlani, a 26-year-old features writer and health psychologist living in Dubai, first started meditating when she was 16, after she came across a chapter on meditation in a book on spirituality.
"I prefer the self-learning approach and only take classes when I feel the absolute need," she explains. "I used to meditate for almost 45 minutes at the beginning, which is a long time, but I started to get used to it and loved it."
A decade later, Sawlani continues to practise at times when she feels stressed or when she returns home from a very crowded place.
"Without a doubt, meditation has helped me become more patient," she says. "It has enabled me to reflect before reacting in general situations. On the other hand, it helps me negate and eliminate negative thoughts and day-to-day worries, stopping my mind from continuously thinking and rambling away."
Sawlani warns those interested in learning how to meditate that results can take time.
"It's important to understand that meditation is in fact the practice of non-doing," she says. "If you want to learn meditation, it's best you attend a class, or read some recommended books. Avoid getting information off the internet as it's scattered and sometimes even wrong. Also, be patient and continue practising. With time, you will notice the difference."
Stuck for time? Try the online option
Headspace (www.getsomeheadspace.com) was developed by a former Buddhist monk, Andy Puddicombe. Through the site, he teaches the basics and encourages people to practise for just 10 minutes a day.
Meditation and Islam
Reading the Quran is a way of meditating, writes Ayesha Al Khoori, helping people let go of their worries, anxiety and sadness to achieve inner peace, says Sheikh Mohammed Yaseen Al Rifai, a senior preacher at Abu Dhabi Police dispatch in Al Ain, who has a PhD in Sharia and law from Islamic Omdurman University in Sudan.
"By worshipping Allah, peace of mind and comfort is achieved," he says.
He says meditation allows people to have a different view in life, but people must know how to meditate properly.
"We have so many blessings, and we must thank Allah from our hearts," he says, "not repeat the words meaninglessly."