Healing Thoughts

The ancient practice of meditation is becoming mainstream, and more studies are showing its health benefits

Health & Fitness

December 07, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

A funny thing happened to meditation on the way to the 21st century. It stopped being mystical, and in the process became acceptable to mainstream America.

You won't hear people talking about Nirvana much with today's Westernized meditation, and there's hardly a crystal in sight. Instead, scientists are studying Buddhist monks with electroencephalographs and magnetic resonance imaging.

Health care professionals are recommending meditation when drugs and other therapies don't work, and sometimes when they do -- they may call it a "relaxation technique," to avoid the m-word.

Meditation, a discipline nearly as old as human life and a mainstay of Eastern spirituality, has gained reluctant acceptance as a treatment for everything from high blood pressure to attention deficit disorder. By sitting quietly and concentrating on a word, breath or image, meditators can put themselves into a state of deep relaxation. Recent scientific studies have shown the process may boost the immune system, control pain and lower stress.

"Its effectiveness has been fairly well-established with controlled research," says Glenn Schiraldi, who is on the stress management faculty of the University of Maryland, College Park Department of Public and Community Health. Schiraldi meditates 10 or 15 minutes every morning. "It creates changes in the body opposite in every way to stress, and it's intrinsically pleasant to do."

Several months ago, an unusual conference took place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Tibetan Buddhist monks and their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, met with leading U.S. neuroscientists and behavioral researchers to plan future studies. The conference sold out to an audience of 1,200 (most of them scientists) and had a waiting list of 1,600.

"Meditation works," a cover story in Time magazine proclaimed this summer, detailing the scientific research that shows it can profoundly affect the body and actually reshape the brain.

Millions of Americans seem to agree. As alternative medical treatments go, meditation seems to have the most clear-cut benefits, the kind that can be demonstrated in the lab (although the article also poked fun at the process, expressing the ambivalence many Americans still feel about it).

While it's true that meditation is being stripped of the mystical trappings that make Westerners uneasy -- the chanting, incense and Sanskrit mantras (a repeated word or phrase to quiet the mind) -- people who start practicing for health reasons often end up finding the spirituality of meditation on their own. Reaching Nirvana might be even better than, say, controlling migraines.

A few months ago, Bob Parrott, a 49-year-old car salesman who lives in Abingdon, was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer.

He started to meditate daily, using a bargain-table book he picked up at a Barnes & Noble as a guide.

When he talks about the benefits of meditating, he doesn't mention pain or stress, or the fact that he's able to tolerate the radiation treatments better.

"The system has helped me live in the here and now," he says. "I'm not wearing any of my hats. I'm not a car salesman. Not a husband. Not a father. The discovery of a deeper self erases a lot of the fear of mortality."

The short-term positive effects of meditation on the nervous system have been generally accepted in the United States ever since the best seller Relaxation Response by a Harvard cardiologist, Herbert Benson, was published in 1975. The latest science suggests meditation can have long-term health benefits, maybe even life-extending ones. Sophisticated scans have shown it can actually rewire the brain.

You don't need any special equipment to practice, although a whole industry has sprung up in the last few years selling cushions, clothes, audio and videotapes, books and focusing aids like meditation crystals. You don't have to wait for an appointment or worry about whether your health insurance will pay for it. And you don't have to be a New Age kook.

Lisa Sanders, a Towson graduate student whose field is human resources development, has been practicing for the last three years. Three or four evenings a week she goes into her bedroom, puts on a CD of meditation music she bought at Best Buy, sits with her legs crossed and meditates for 15 or 20 minutes.

"I relax, I get a new start on whatever I'm into, it calms me down," she says.

If scientists were recording the 23-year-old's EEGs as she focuses on her breathing, shuts out the outside world and enters a meditative state, they would find that the activity in the areas of her brain that process sensory information slows down. Conscious thought decreases and relaxation increases.

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