Medicine discovers meditation

stressFunny how the poets I read and taught in college have a way of popping up in my mind, even though I’ve been away from that scene for seven years now.  Take, for instance, the English poet Wordsworth.  He’s famous for his nature poetry and talks about “wise passivity,” by which he meant suspending the thinking part and simply letting the senses imbibe the stillness we often find in nature and arriving at the things that really matter. I’d say he was right on the mark, especially with our modern way of living crowding our space to be ourselves, muffling the intuitive stream that fosters coherence and confers tranquility.

A few days ago I was rummaging through the Tao Te Ching, which I like to do every now and then, since it’s densely packed with wise counsel, and came upon this passage that got me started on this present blog entry:

Act by not acting,
Accomplish by not straining
Understand by not knowing. (63)

 Simple but profound, such counsel promotes understanding and, with it, healing.  We need to teach ourselves to be still that we may intuit the essentials and practice mindfulness, something the East with its contemplative traditions discovered several millennia ago, anticipating poets like Wordsworth and, now, contemporary medicine.  The ancients were right all along about meditation as essential to our best selves.  In a time of ever increasing stress, we need its solace more than ever.  Consider this sober warning in the Harvard Newsletter (March 2011):

Over the years, researchers have . . . gained insight into the long-term effects stress has on physical and psychological health. Over time, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. Research suggests that prolonged stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction. More preliminary research suggests that chronic stress may also contribute to obesity, both through direct mechanisms (causing people to eat more) or indirectly (decreasing sleep and exercise).

With available electroencephalogram testing of alpha brain waves along with pulse rate monitoring and even MRI brain scans focusing on “gray matter” in the brain areas responsible for memory, self-awareness and empathy, we now have empirical data gathered by professionals that can be replicated.  In sum, we know meditation works, which means that it can assuage pain and prevent or heal some of our entrenched ills, whether physical or psychological. The paradigm of medical reliance on medication, surgery, diet and exercise is expanding.  In short, a quiet revolution is underway as medicine discovers the ancient axiom that mind and body are one.

Perhaps its seed was planted most notably in the fascination the Beatles showed for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of  Transcendental Meditation.  Luminaries such as film director David Lynch; TV notables, Ellen Degeneres and Oprah swear by it.  Hey, George Stephanopoulos is into it too.  TM prides itself on research findings, at this juncture, some 700 plus, allegedly confirming its effectiveness in reducing stress, depression, high blood pressure and cardiac risk.

BensonMedicine started to look seriously at a supplementary role for meditation with Harvard’s Herbert Benson putting it to the test via the rigors of refined imaging, using TM volunteers.  As he put it, “Three decades ago it was considered scientific heresy for a Harvard physician and researcher to hypothesize that stress contributed to health problems and to publish studies showing that mental focusing were good for the body.”  Benson opened up medicine to meditation’s possible inclusion with his best selling (four million copies) The Relaxation Response in 1975.  “With meditation alone, the T.M. practitioners brought about striking physiologic change.”

Benson subsequently converted TM into a simple two step approach:  repeat a word or phrase of your own choosing and disregard distracting, every day thoughts by returning to your word or phrase.

Benson’s work was soon popularized in the public world through Norman Cousins, physician Dean Ornish, and a Barbara Walter’s ABC interview.  Still, the medical community for nearly 15 years dismissed Benson’s findings as largely a placebo effect.  That changed as other universities took up their own research, supporting Benson.  Today, Harvard has launched an endowed professorship dedicated to continuing research and treats thousands of clients seeking relief from stress with the Benson method.  Relaxation Response therapy is, in fact, incorporated into specialized programs at Boston’s Harvard linked Beth Israel and Massachusetts General hospitals, with fourteen affiliates nationally.

Today the meditation mainstream seems to be shifting to what’s called “mindfulness meditation,” an adaptation of the Zen approach to medication pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts to treat patients with debilitating diseases and chronic pain.  Like relaxation response meditation, mind-based stress reduction, or MBSR, is science centered, except it differs in how it approaches meditation.  Instead of a word, or mantra, and returning to it when your thoughts wander, you allow your thoughts, noting them, though not analyzing them, returning to focus on your breathing.  The idea is to objectify rather than personalize your thoughts, enabling you to better deal with them.  It’s been shown to activate the gray matter in those areas of the brain responsible for memory, a sense of self and empathy.  It inculcates self acceptance and helps us see that memory belongs to the past and isn’t real.

As such, it works well as a backdrop to the now widespread cognitive approach in counselingYou can actually practicemindfulness” anywhere, or while walking, listening to music, taking in conversation.  Allegedly, it can, with time, help  you become more empathetic through your heightened awareness of your own responses and thus a more diligent listener in social contexts

Whether you use a mantra or mindfulness approach doesn’t really matter since both result in a relaxation effect, though in my very limited experience I find the mantra version easier than mindfulness, which by its very nature can sometimes be distressing.  But there are many kinds of meditation formats, so you may want to search for what makes you most comfortable.  What’s worked especially well for me is known as Restorative Yoga, a derivative of Hatha yoga combining breathing, imaging, muscle relaxation and mild body postures.  I was introduced to it through Nurrie and Rick Stearn’s helpful book, Yoga for Anxiety:  Meditations and Practices for Calming Mind and Body.  Yoga might just be the most integrative of all approaches, administrating to both body and spirit.

I have to be candid: meditation does have its skeptics, some of them arguing that the alleged empirical effects can be attributed to advocate or placebo causes.  Personally, I’ve always found the latter untenable, since if it promotes healing, then the placebo response actually validates the psychosomatic power of the mind, which is ultimately what meditation is all about.

Others argue that random controlled trials (RCT), the gold standard, are lacking, and I’ve found this to have validity; for example, if you turn to the highly regarded Cochrane database, combing scores of medical journals, only one study turns up and it’s equivocal, recommending more randomized testing.

For all the claims that meditation can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, the American Heart Association has reserved judgment.  While its definitive report, published in April of this year, does indicate that TM can reduce blood pressure, it urges more research and assigns a lower rating to alternative meditation therapies.  I don’t see a problem here.  Meditation shouldn’t occur in isolation, but in concert with medication when needed, surgery when required, healthier food choices, and regular exercise as constants.

Meditation enthusiasts will rave about its benefits, how it’s made them calmer, more relaxed, better able to deal with both themselves and others, etc., but this is the stuff of anecdote, not science,  Just how do you quantify happiness?  And yet if we see behavioral change such as freedom from drugs; a happier disposition; a gentler, more loving person, we may not be able to measure it, but we know something is going on.

Frankly, I’m impressed with what doctors like Benson and Kabat-Zinn have uncovered.  To be sure, it’s a new science with bumps that need smoothing out, but its future lies in its promise and the empirical base on which it rests.

It seems The American Psychological Association APA) is on board, giving a resounding endorsement to MBSR.  (See Davis and Hayes.  “What are the benefits of mindfulness?” Monitor on Psychology.  July/August2012.  Vol. 43, No. 7.)

Of course, you can resort to SSRIs like Effexor, Zoloft and Lexapro, or quick fixes through benzies like Xanax or Valium, but they come with baggage, or side effects, sometimes worse than any proffered cure.  By the way, research has demonstrated that MBSR is at least half as effective in treating stress as SSRIs.  It’ so effective that the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has listed MBSR among primary therapies for depression.

As a final caveat, do you remember James Randi, skeptic extraordinaire, debunker of the paranormal?  Though he dismisses TM for its lavish claims that include levitation and psychic prowess to influence social behavior, he nonetheless can accept a relaxation response as ameliorating physical and psychological health, whether through meditation or some other means like music or just plain rest.

That makes sense to me.  After all, isn’t this what meditation comes down to–indulgence in time out?  We all need that.

Teach us to be still.






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