The days of calling your doctor with a complaint and being told to “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning” may be changing. These days, your doctor is as likely to tell you to “Sit and meditate for 20 minutes and call me in the morning.”
And there are good reasons for this. Once conceived of as something that only hippies or those intent on gaining enlightenment practiced, meditation has become mainstream. Doctors, businessmen, athletes, soldiers, and housewives swear by meditation, and credit it for improving not only their sense of well-being and their ability to stay calm in stressful situations, but their overall health as well. Scientific studies have indicated that meditation can not only produce a restful state of relaxation while you’re practicing it (which for many people in our stressful times would be reason enough to give it a try), but that it can lower blood pressure, improve students’ ability to concentrate and thus their grades, and strengthen the immune system. Meditation and related practices such as mindfulness have become so mainstream that the U.S. Army is using them to treat soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). So, even if you’re not intent on achieving enlightenment, there may be benefits for you in learning to meditate.
What is meditation?
This is a more complex question than it appears. Many different practices are called meditation, and they can be as different as night and day, both in how you practice them, and in their effects. When most people think of meditation, they imagine sitting with their eyes closed for twenty to thirty minutes, and “tuning out” the world. And this is an accurate description of what sitting meditation looks like from the outside. From the inside – meaning from the point of view of the person actually meditating – they may be doing very different things. One person may be concentrating intently on an object of focus, while others may be practicing a more effortless, non-concentration type of meditation, and still others may just be focusing on their breathing and “letting go.”
And that’s just sitting meditation. There are many forms of meditation that can be practiced while walking, or working, or doing almost anything. One increasingly popular form of meditation – mindfulness practice – can be done anytime, anywhere. Some techniques such as Tai Chi and Qi Gong have been referred to as meditation, and they are practiced while performing gentle physical movements. Some feel that practicing yoga is a form of meditation.
As a general definition for this article, you can consider meditation to be any practice that aims at allowing your mind and body to settle down, to become more focused and less chaotic. In almost every community you can learn to meditate, for the most part inexpensively. There is hardly a major hospital in America these days that doesn’t offer classes in mindfulness meditation, because of its proven effectiveness in helping patients to deal with chronic pain and stress.
So what are the supposed health benefits of meditation?
First, when evaluating any form of sitting meditation, just the process of sitting quietly for a few minutes is good for you. It allows your metabolism to slow down, which provides rest to your body, and allows your mind to slow down and become more “centered” or relaxed, which better allows you to deal with the stresses of the day. But there have also been a number of scientific studies that indicate that profound changes take place in the body during meditation. Sitting meditation has been found to reduce heart rate and blood pressure. Researchers who measured brain activity during meditation have found significant shifts, as the electrical activity shifts from one area of the brain to another, or becomes more “coherent,” as the different lobes of the brain seem to become more synchronized.
The most research on meditation and its effects has probably been done on one of the first well-known “brands,” Transcendental Meditation (or TM). Its founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, started researching the effects of TM in the late 1960s, and to date over 600 studies have been performed detailing its supposed benefits. In the past decade, a great deal of research has been done on mindfulness practice, and with surprising results – they found that mindfulness produced actual changes in the structure of the brain (increased brain tissue in the hippocampus, which is important for learning and memory, and reduced tissue in the amygdala, which is associated with anxiety and stress).
Wow. All this research sounds convincing. Can I trust it?
The answer to this question is, sadly, not always. All credible scientists, including many who have done studies on meditation, warn that their research is in the early stages, and needs to be replicated by others before any health claims are based on it. Add to this general caution a more specific one – that much of the early research on meditation was conducted by people who were “True Believers” in that form of meditation. That is, they had a vested interest in producing positive results, an interest that may have rendered them less than unbiased.
The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness, reviewing a wide variety of studies on meditation, said that “The quality of before-and-after studies was poor. The methodological quality of observational studies was also low… There were major deficiencies in the selection and comparability of the study groups.” The Journal Of Hypertension, reviewing a recent study on TM, said that they found “insufficient evidence to conclude whether or not Transcendental Meditation decreases blood pressure.” To balance this, some of the recent studies on mindfulness meditation have been positively reviewed by peer scientists, and their methodologies praised.
So the jury is still out, but because of this peer review and criticism of studies on meditation, the newest research is becoming stronger, with acceptable control groups and less bias in the selection of study populations. And much of this new research is pointing in the same general direction as the early research – meditation really does seem to be good for you.
So where do I go if I want to learn to meditate?
Just look around – in the Yellow Pages, on the Internet, and on bulletin boards at your local schools, churches, and community organizations. There are many groups that teach for free, or for a reasonable (low) fee. I have practiced meditation for over 45 years, and have taught several different forms of meditation, and I cannot recommend any particular “brand” over another. In general, given the range of quality introductory classes in meditation that are taught for free or at a reasonable price, I would suggest avoiding those “brands” that charge a lot.
The most important things to look for in a “meditation teacher” in my opinion are that he or she speaks clearly in non-jargon English, and can explain to you both the mechanics of how to perform that technique of meditation, and what the different experiences you might have while practicing it may mean. As with any subject you choose to learn, the most important thing is finding a teacher or an organization you have an affinity with.