Meditation has surprisingly broad medical uses, science is finding. It takes discipline, though, to reap the benefits.
Inside a church community room, beginning meditators close their eyes, straighten their spines in their folding metal chairs and try to rein in, for just 10 minutes, the thoughts that race like wild horses through their minds.
A woman in the back row yawns. The woman next to her fidgets. Another student sneaks a peek.
“My mind still wanders,” Jeremy Morelock, 33, says of the Buddhist meditation class he has attended for three months in search of stress relief and spiritual growth. “I have these imaginary conversations with people, and then I think, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa … concentrate!’ “
Regular meditation practice is supposed to quiet the mind and allow the body to tap into its own innate healing mechanisms. Yogis and monks have preached the powers of meditation for thousands of years, and the counterculture generation of the ’60s embraced transcendental meditation — a still-thriving form of internal mantra-chanting — as a method to alter consciousness.
But many people today are taking up meditation for reasons that have little or nothing to do with spiritual enlightenment and a lot to do with improving their health. Scientists are using MRI and other advanced technologies to study the physiological changes that occur in meditating Buddhist monks. These researchers are starting to demonstrate, with the type of laboratory science that can influence even skeptical physicians, what those who engage in this ancient practice have believed for many centuries: Meditation works.
A growing body of research has shown that meditation has clear benefits. Now, doctors and other health-care professionals are recommending meditation as a way to treat a variety of ills, from depression to high blood pressure and hyperactivity. In some cases, meditation — or as it’s sometimes called, “relaxation techniques” — is prescribed when other treatments, such as prescription drugs, haven’t worked, or as a complement to drug therapy. Recent research has shown that meditation can help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as reduce pain and enhance the body’s immune system.
Meditation is free, accessible and portable. It has no negative side effects — a fact that makes doctors feel comfortable recommending it. Meditation requires only that you be able to sit quietly for 10 minutes or more, while focusing on your breath or a word or phrase. Anyone can do it. And while millions of Americans already are meditating in some fashion, many more would likely benefit.
“I believe that meditation is the most important thing a person can do for their health,” said Dr. David Simon, medical director and chief executive of the Chopra Center at La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., the wellness clinic founded by New Age author and physician, Dr. Deepak Chopra. “The most powerful pharmacy on Earth is not Savon or Rite Aid, but the human body,” Simon said.
With so much evidence, why aren’t more people doing it?
As with many lifestyle changes, most notably diet and exercise, getting started and sticking with meditation can be difficult. Meditation takes time and discipline. Desperately seeking health or sanity, many stressed-out people yearn for some quiet time amid the chaotic frenzy of their daily lives. Finding 10 uninterrupted minutes and a quiet place to sit down and shut your eyes can be a stumbling block. It’s problematic to zone out in a cubicle at work, or at a restaurant during lunch. And home life can be hectic in these wired and wireless times.
No one knows for sure how many of those who begin meditating continue the practice. Gen Kelsang Lekma, a Buddhist nun who has taught meditation for a decade in Los Angeles, said the dropout rate is fairly high: Only about half the students who begin a typical 13-class series will complete it, she estimates, and perhaps two out of 10 students who begin meditating will still be doing so after a couple of years.
Students abandon the practice for a variety of reasons, Lekma said. Some don’t like it or can’t get the hang of it, and others lack the discipline to practice it regularly, usually daily. Some students are attracted to meditation out of a desire to learn something about Buddhist philosophy, but eventually lose interest.
How a person comes to meditation may also have an impact on his or her willingness to stick with it. For example, an increasing number of physicians are recommending meditation as a form of therapy to patients with heart disease, high blood pressure and even infertility. Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard University professor and president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Chestnut Hill, Mass., said that in his clinical experience, about 60% to 70% of those who begin a meditation-type practice primarily for medical reasons (sometimes at the recommendation of their doctor) adopt the teachings.
Proponents of the practice — from Buddhists to cardiologists — are trying to help more people work meditation into their daily lives. So what are the most effective approaches for starting meditation and ensuring you’ll stick with it?
The first step is to make the commitment, experts said. Learn about why it works physiologically and how it might benefit your health.
Published more than 25 years ago, Benson’s pioneering book, “The Relaxation Response,” showed how 10 minutes of meditative technique a day could increase concentration and counteract the harmful effects of stress, such as high blood pressure and strokes.
Considered by many to be the father of meditation in this country, Benson uses the phrase “relaxation response” to refer broadly to various meditation-type techniques — including prayer, qi gong, yoga and tai chi — that quiet the brain. The practices also counter the “fight-or-flight” response, which is triggered in stressful situations, and the accompanying secretion of norepinephrine, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland that, along with epinephrine, increases metabolism, blood pressure, mental activity and heart rate.
Newcomers need to stick with meditation long enough to make it a habit. Taking a meditation class or attending a meditation retreat can be a shortcut to feeling the positive effects of meditation faster and establishing a routine, experts said.
“Most people find it very difficult to begin a meditation practice on their own,” said Lekma, 37, resident teacher at the Echo Park Buddhist temple. “When you meditate with others, you get some kind of group dynamic going. When you get some people who are experienced, you kind of feed off it.”
Experts caution, however, that meditation won’t produce the immediate “hit,” such as reduced stress or increased energy, that a workout in the gym or other brisk exercise will do. Meditation takes time to learn, and even people who have been doing it for years still have times when their minds wander.
“The first few times you feel like an idiot doing it,” said Dr. Lee Lipsenthal, medical director of the Dr. Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease and Lifestyle Advantage in Sausalito, Calif., who has meditated for 20 years and recommends meditation, along with diet and exercise changes, to patients with heart disease. “You are feeling anxious, your head is spinning, you are thinking you could be doing X, Y and Z, until you get the hang of it. That takes nearly six weeks of daily practice.”
Experts also stress the importance of new students choosing a meditation technique that conforms to their own belief system. This should make it easier to stick to the discipline over the long run. For a Catholic, it could be saying Hail Marys. For a Jew, it could be davening. For others, it could mean simply repeating a mantra-type phrase like “peace, love.” Finally, it is important to be patient and start slowly. Lekma, the Buddhist nun, suggests starting with tiny steps, such as a single weekly session with others, followed by a small personal commitment that you could stick to — for example, five to 10 minutes a day.
“People come in with a lot of enthusiasm, but have unrealistic expectations,” Lekma said. “Instead of taking very small steps they say, ‘I want to run a marathon.’ First you have to run half a block.”
A study recently conducted at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles showed how quickly those small steps can make a difference. The study, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and presented at the American Heart Assn. scientific sessions in Orlando, Fla., in November, found that patients with coronary heart disease who practiced transcendental meditation for the first time showed a significant improvement in their blood pressure and insulin resistance (pre-diabetes).
The 16-week study, conducted by Dr. Bairey Merz, of Cedars-Sinai, with Dr. Robert Schneider, director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, is the first to demonstrate this blood pressure effect in heart patients. Meditation was able to produce a benefit roughly equivalent to the use of one type of blood pressure medication, the researchers found.
Mario Farnier, 53, a biomedical researcher, was recovering from a 1999 heart attack when he was admitted to the hospital last August with chest pains and underwent an angioplasty procedure. He enrolled in the meditation study and, by the study’s end, had improved enough that his doctors were able to cut one of his medications by half.
“I must say, I felt good at the time of the study,” Farnier said. He continued meditating with others until the group study ended, but has found it more difficult to continue a regular practice on his own. He still meditates occasionally, shutting his office door for quiet, but finds it harder to make time to meditate than for the regular running workouts he has done for decades. “The more you think you need it, the less time you have to do it,” he said. “If the pressure is there I can’t do it. I say I’ll do it later, but by the end of the day I never do it.”
Most beginners say they continue to need help to carry on the practice. At a crowded Wednesday night meditation class at the Khandakapala Buddhist Center in Los Angeles, Dave Hernandez, a self-employed artist, sat cross-legged on a burgundy cushion and worked to tame his restless mind. “I tried meditating on my own,” he said. “But it’s just like a rocket ship taking off when you are meditating with other people. It’s really high. That high place is just harder to get to when you are on your own.”