Americans are increasingly turning to meditation and mindfulness to achieve greater well-being.

In 2012, about 18 million Americans practiced meditation including mantra meditation, spiritual meditation or incorporated it as a part of other practices such as yoga or tai chi.

Meditation is a mind-body practice of focusing attention. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine says that while many of the techniques used in meditation arose out of Eastern religious and spiritual traditions practiced over thousands of years, many people today use meditative techniques for health and well-being.

Dr. Peter Dorton , a family medicine practitioner at Novant Health Primary Care Foxcroft in Charlotte, North Carolina, is a convert to meditation. He began practicing mindfulness six years ago after hearing a presentation at an integrative medicine for mental health conference in Arizona. “I was so impressed with the scientific evidence on the benefits of meditation, I started practicing that day,” he said.

“It can be beneficial to so many things we see in primary care medicine such as depression, anxiety, insomnia and other sleep issues,” Dorton said. “It can help with chronic pain, fibromyalgia or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).”

Some scientific studies have shown the benefits of meditation. People meditating 25 minutes a day, three days a week were better able to cope with stress. A University of California, Los Angeles, study found long-term meditators had better preserved brains than nonmeditators as they aged. A Johns Hopkins University study found that meditation was as effective as medication in treating depression and anxiety.

There is a great deal of confusion on what exactly constitutes meditation, but what it boils down to is learning to focus your attention. Dorton said it’s normal for our minds to wander from thought to thought, but what is important is learning to focus, concentrate and help steer the mind.

“Meditation doesn’t stop the mind from thinking,” Dorton said. “You’re not just shutting down the mind, but quieting the mind, allowing all those streaming thoughts to settle for a short period of time.”

Dorton said he noticed the benefits that he derived from meditating pretty quickly. When he meditates 15 to 20 minutes in the morning before going to work, he finds himself “more stable” and less moody. “It helped me be more present with people,” he said. “I was definitely more patient with people in the exam room and a better listener. It also helped with my co-workers and with my relationships at home.”

Dorton brings up the topic of mindfulness and meditation with his patients when he thinks it appropriate and if they might benefit from it, though he said it is not an issue he pushes on people. With patients who are under stress or having problems at home or work, he may recommend some breathing exercises initially and then discuss meditation if they’re interested.

He said he’s gotten positive feedback from the patients he’s helped in this way. Most who made the effort were surprised by the results, he said. “Usually I tell them, ‘If you want to try this, you need to give it a good month and don’t worry about doing it right,’” he said. “’You just have to do a little every day without any particular expectation and let’s see how you feel after four weeks.’”

Those who put in the effort will experience change, he said.

Meditation isn’t just about sitting in a quiet room and focusing your attention. People can also reap the benefits with other contemplative activities such as yoga, prayer or walking. “In walking meditation, you focus on your feet, feeling the sensation of the ground and wind and sun on your skin,” Dorton added.

For those interested in learning more about meditation, Dorton recommends Dr. Andrew Weil’s website as well as Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, Full Catastrophe Living .

Novices to meditation can learn online or through tapes. Dorton said beginners can benefit from guided meditation. His practice offers a stress reduction workshop quarterly open to the public that runs four weeks for an hour and a half each week. The next session begins on Sept. 15. Call 704-316-3136 to register.