In our fast-paced culture, it is a rarity for one to sit, focus inward, and aim for a state of total relaxation. Many people view the practice of meditation as highly foreign or esoteric. Something reserved for Buddhist monks, recluses in far away places, and the crunchy-granola types among us.
Before college, when I knew little about meditation and its variations, I also held this view. I could see the benefits of taking deep, full-bodied breaths when I felt anxious, but that was the extent of my appreciation for meditative practice.
When the stress and growing demands of undergrad at the University of Michigan consumed me, however, I searched for an outlet other than the standard: partying, treadmilling, and eating mounds of chocolate and junk food.
Well, the Graduate Student Instructor for my women’s studies class happened to live at the Zen Buddhist Temple in Ann Arbor. She brought our entire discussion section on a mini field trip down Packard Street to get a taste of what Zen Buddhist Meditation has to offer. I doubt that those at the Temple like to think of meditation as a commodity, but I was sold.
I signed up for an introductory meditation course, cultivated a practice of sorts, and as a psychology student, became a research assistant for the U-M Integrative Medicine program, which was conducting a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) study in local elementary schools. MBSR, introduced by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979, is a clinically based, secular method that uses standardized meditation techniques. Through taking part in this research and reading extant studies, I became fully aware of the broad spectrum of health benefits of meditation—particularly as a result of regular, frequent meditation.
What is meditation?
The word meditate is derived from the Latin meditari, “to think or reflect upon.” Meditation ranges from techniques used to promote relaxation to exercises performed with a goal of reaching a heightened sense of well-being. Meditation techniques have been practiced for thousands of years based on Eastern religious or spiritual tradition. But with the increasing popularity of yoga and complementary therapies, many people—including celebrities Moby, Russell Brand, and Dr. Oz—have begun to take up meditation to promote health and well-being (and apparently to cope with divorce—but that’s an issue for another time).
Meditation used as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is considered a type of mind-body medicine. In fact, meditation was one of the very first mind-body interventions to be widely accepted among the world’s mainstream healthcare providers.
According to the National Institutes of Health, mind-body medicine focuses on:
- The interactions among the mind, the body, and behavior.
- The ways in which emotional, mental, social, spiritual, and behavioral factors influence health.
A growing body of evidence suggests that meditation can do a lot of good. Based on research, meditation can lead to reduced anxiety, psychological stress, pain, insomnia, high blood pressure, drug abuse, and depression, as well as improved clinical symptoms.
While the quality and quantity of peer-reviewed research on meditation is growing, some worry that the variability in types of meditation, individual differences across meditators, and the broad definition of meditation that many research studies use, lead to methodological challenges that hinder the design and results of meditation research. Thus, research methods that account for these challenges are necessary.
Despite these potential limitations, the majority of research points to the efficacy of meditation both as a clinical and public health resource. Certainly, the potential for mindfulness-based interventions seems promising.
How does meditation actually work?
Research tells us that meditation may actually produce changes in the body by affecting the two parts of autonomic nervous system: slowing down the one that mobilizes the body for action and speeding up the one that reduces the heart rate and improves blood flow. Research also suggests that meditation may change brain function, increase neuroplasticity (growth of new connections and development of new neurons in the brain), or improve the mind’s ability to pay attention. For instance, in several studies, Tibetan Buddhist monks were recruited to take part in research on the brain and meditation. Neuroimaging performed on this sample suggests that, “over the course of meditating for tens of thousands of hours, the long-term practitioners had actually altered the structure and function of their brains”…Guess these guys really are professionals!
So, if you have meditated on the benefits of meditation and are ready to stop taking your blood pressure medication, you shouldn’t throw out the bottle just yet. But cultivating a practice as an adjunct to conventional care has its clear health advantages. And by increasing your gratitude, awareness, and introspection, you may even increase other health promoting behaviors as well.