PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 July, 2004, 12:00am

Sit back and relax. It sounds a lot easier than exercise, but doing so for about half an hour every day can help improve your studies and cure you of many stress-related diseases.

Meditation has its roots in religions such as Buddhism. Thanks to Dr Herbert Benson, a Harvard University researcher whose book The Relaxation Response explored the medical value of meditation, this apparently simple healing art is now recognised by many doctors as a complementary means of treating patients suffering from illnesses such as insomnia, eating disorders and depression.

Some researchers find that meditation can effectively help people reach a state of equanimity - a mental state that helps our mind and body better cope with stress, negative thoughts or bad experiences.

'Meditation is really about coming into 'no mind' where you are no longer bothered or troubled by plaguing thoughts, ghosts of the past and worries about the future,' says meditation practitioner and instructor Marco Dean.

According to Mr Dean, there are four different states of mind: beta, alpha, theta and delta. Beta is the stress stage and most common, and alpha is the stage where our mind starts getting calmer. Delta is the state of no mind, or unconsciousness. Most successful people operate in the state of alpha where their mind is slow, calm and relaxed.

'If you become a relaxed person things come to you more easily,' Mr Dean says. 'If you are chasing things all the time they don't come. Desire is paradoxical. It's better to sit back and just reflect. If you can do that for 15 minutes a day your life will improve.'

There are various types of meditation that can help you reach the state of calmness, and the one that works for your friend may not be right for you. Two of the common types are mantra meditation and Za Zen.

Mantra meditation is the use of specific sounds - such as chanting a phrase or word - as a tool for meditation. Za Zen practitioners just sit silently and watch the wall, floor or ceiling. During the process, they observe all thoughts, emotions and images that come to them.

'The most important form of meditation is just sitting silently and watching the mind,' Mr Dean explains. And it is also one of the best types of meditation for newcomers, as very few techniques are involved. Take 15 minutes, sit in a chair and watch a wall. Observe your breathing and your thoughts. It doesn't matter whether you do it with your eyes closed or open as long as you allow both the positive and negative thoughts to flow. Practise it twice a day, first thing in the morning and last thing at night

However, don't mistake meditation as a cure for all ills. It is a means for enhancing self-awareness rather than preventing negative emotions or experiences.

'When you become more aware of yourself, you become awake. You stop walking around in a stressful state ... you become more intuitive and make better decisions,' Mr Dean says.