Monthly Archives: January 2018

Meditation and Its Benefits

Meditation is rooted in Eastern culture and has been practiced for thousands of years by different cultures throughout the world. The term meditation encompasses a wide variety of techniques and practices, including mindful meditation, transcendental meditation, and guided meditation. The various forms of meditation implement techniques such as focusing attention on an object, a word, or the breath. A specific posture is sometimes used but not necessary.

Meditation is easy to learn, requires no special equipment, and can be done most anywhere. Stress reduction is often experienced after just the first session. For long-term health benefits, most research agrees that a mere 20 minutes a day is all that is needed. However, even 10 minutes a few times a week can make a difference.

The regular practice of meditation contributes to both psychological and physiological health. Meditation brings the brainwave pattern into an alpha state, which is a level of consciousness that promotes healing. Meditation is used as a form of relaxation, to promote mental acuity, to promote psychological health, to aid in treatment in various physical disorders and diseases, and for overall mind/body health.

The psychological benefits of meditation can include:

  • Decreased anxiety
  • Decreased depression
  • Decreased stress
  • Decreased moodiness and/or irritability
  • Increased emotional stability
  • Greater creativity
  • Increased learning ability
  • Increased memory
  • Increased vitality
  • Increased happiness

The physiological benefits of meditation can include:

  • Lower heart rate, resulting in a reduced workload on the heart
  • Increased blood flow
  • Lower levels of cortisol, a corticosteroid hormone produced in the adrenal gland that is connected to stress levels
  • Reduction of free radicals, an unstable molecule within the body that can cause tissue damage and lead to disease
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Lower cholesterol levels
  • Improved air flow
  • Decreased muscle tension, thereby reducing tension headaches and various pain conditions.
  • Increases activity of natural-killer cells, thereby improving the function of the immune system
  • Increased exercise tolerance
  • Increased serotonin production, which may help relieve insomnia
  • A decrease in the intensity of some symptoms associated with various chronic illnesses

Much research has been done to back up the beneficial claims of meditation. Some of that research follows:

In order to determine exactly what part of the brain meditation acts on, researchers at Harvard Medical School used an MRI to monitor the brain activity of participants while they meditated. The research found that meditation activates the sections of the brain in charge of the autonomic nervous system, which controls body functions such as digestion and blood pressure. Since these functions are often compromised by stress, it makes sense that meditation would benefit stress-related conditions such as heart disease and digestive disorders.

Jon Kabat-Zin, Ph.D., associate professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and director of the Medical Center’s Stress Reduction Clinic, recorded the brain waves of stressed employees of a Madison, Wisconsin firm. Kabat-Zin found that people who meditate shift their brain activity from the stress-prone right frontal cortex of the brain to the calmer left frontal cortex. This shift decreases the negative effects of stress, anxiety, and mild depression. Kabat-Zin also noted that the amygdala, the section of the brain that processes fear, became less active.

In a separate study by Kabat-Zin, patients with chronic pain conditions participated in mindful meditation for an eight-week period. Seventy-two-percent of those patients experienced at least a 33-percent reduction in pain. Sixty-one-percent of patients felt their pain had been reduced by a minimum of 50-percent.

The arthritis self-help course at Stanford University employed meditative techniques as a key element of their program. More than 100,000 people with arthritis have taken the 12-hour course to learn meditation-style relaxation exercises. Graduates report a 15- to 20-percent reduction in pain.

The journal Stroke published a study of 60 African-Americans with atherosclerosis, divided into groups that either did or did not practice meditation for six to nine months. African-Americans were specifically chosen for this study because they are twice as likely to die from cardiovascular disease as are whites. The study participants who meditated showed a marked decrease in the thickness of their artery walls. Contrarily, the participants who did not meditate showed an increase of their artery walls. The reduction of artery wall thickness in the meditation group could potentially decrease the risk of heart attack by 8-percent and the risk of stroke by 8- to 15-percent.

A study published in Psychosomatic Medicine had 90 cancer patients practice mindful meditation for seven weeks. At the end of the study, the patients reported significantly less depression, anxiety, anger, and confusion. They also had more energy and fewer heart and gastrointestinal problems.

Researchers at the Maharishi School of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, studied a group of people who had meditated for four months. At the study’s closing, the researchers determined that the group produced less cortisol (the so-called stress hormone) and were better able to adapt to stress in their lives.

Meditation

Imagine entering a doctor’s office and being greeted by a sign saying,”Quiet, Meditation in Progress,” and finding a waiting room full of people sitting with eyes closed. The doctor seated amongst them opens one eye and motions to you sit down and join in. Could this vision be the missing component of healthcare reform?

Many progressive doctors are championing the need for prevention and lifestyle changes as a way to reduce healthcare costs, yet reams of scientific research indicates that meditation may offer a short cut to this major overhaul in health consciousness.

A truly healthy lifestyle-change begins within, with a change in attitude and feeling about ourselves. Society teaches us to direct our attention towards material gain and sensory stimulation-chasing after fulfillment in the world of product consumption. The result is usually exhaustion and lack of connection to our bodies and inner well-being. It is no wonder we have allowed our healthcare to be based on consumerism, too. When we are sick, we buy a ‘magic’ pill to fix us and pay for expensive treatments and consultations. Looking outside ourselves for health, we suppress symptoms instead of dealing with the root causes of illness.

Taking care of the body starts with taking care of the Self within. Medical doctor and author Frank Lipman suggests, “Ultimately the most effective way to increase the health of the nation and to cut healthcare costs is by taking responsibility for our own health and learn prevention. It has been repeatedly shown that what we eat, how we respond to stress, how much exercise we get, our exposure to chemicals and the quality of our relationships and social support systems is powerful medicine.”

The missing link to creating this health consciousness is creating the inner strength and clarity of mind necessary to make healthy decisions. Day to day choices about what to eat, when to go to bed, how much exercise to do, how to handle stress at work-all depend on our mood and state of mind. An effective meditation practice that releases stress and deepens our connection to inner contentment and mental clarity is the best foundation for creating healthy habits that last.

Fortunately, science has taken the mysticism out of meditation and its effect on health. In the market place of self-help and meditation practices, subjective reports are unreliable for the purpose of healthcare reform. But researchers have studied what happens in the brain during meditation, and how meditation effects metabolic rate, blood lactate, heart rate, blood pressure and aging.

As early as 1971, scientists started looking beyond the subjective reports of meditators and investigating the physiological correlates of the meditative state. In the physiology laboratories of UCLA, the TM Meditation technique was found to produce decreases in oxygen consumption, respiratory rate, heart rate, muscle tension, and blood pressure, and a greater increase in skin resistance (showing a more relaxed state). Since that time, over 600 studies have been published in scientific journals. TM is the most widely researched of all meditation techniques, showing extensive benefits for mind, body and behavior. Healthcare reformists in Washington, overwhelmed by pharmaceutical lobbyists, should consider these findings on health savings :

o A study published in the journal of Psychosomatic Medicine found that the TM group had 55% less medical care utilization, both in-patient and out-patient, compared to controls matched for age, gender, and occupation. The TM group had lower sickness rates in all categories of disease, including 87% less hospitalization for heart disease and 55% less for cancer. [1]

o Compared with the five leading anti-hypertension drugs over a period of 20 years, a study published in the American Journal of Hypertension indicated that the TM technique had the lowest cost and the most health benefits. The cost reduction of TM ranged from 23.7% to 72.9% less than the anti-hypertensive medications. [2]

o People who practice TM spend 11% less annually on health care than the general population. [3]

o Research shows that the TM technique also strengthens health by decreasing habits such as tobacco, alcohol and non-prescription drug usage, which are behavioral correlates of chronic stress and result in millions of dollars in health-care expenditures each year. For
example, figures from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids assert that smokers cost the economy $97.6 billion a year in lost productivity.

Changing the healthcare model from focusing on costly disease treatment, to preventative care with meditation as a core practice, will create a health care system that will not only be cost effective but create a higher standard of what it means to be healthy.

1. Reference: Orme-Johnson, D. W. (1987). Medical care utilization and the TM program. Psychosomatic Medicine; 49(1): 493-507.

2. Reference: Schneider RH, Alexander CN, Staggers F, Orme-Johnson DW, Rainforth M, Salerno JW, Sheppard W, Castillo-Richmond A, Barnes VA, Nidich SI. A randomized controlled trial of stress reduction in African Americans treated for hypertension over one year. American Journal of Hypertension, 18:88-98, 2005.

3. Herron, R. E., Hillis, S. L. (2000). Impact of the TM Program on Medical Expenses. Abstracts of the American Public Health Association 128th Annual Meeting and Exposition, Nov. 12-16, p. 178.

Stress Solutions

We’re flooded by information, news, new ideas, technology, work, personal demands, relationship problems, financial worries, etc. Even during times of relaxation, we’re aware of pressures and problems. The body has to function in a heightened sense of arousal and alertness, in the fight-or-flight stress response with its associated cascade of physiological reactions. The anxiety sends constant signals and internal alarms of survival fear coursing throughout our bodies and minds.

All of this makes it nearly impossible to tune into our inner selves, our true nature. Meditation techniques help us clear our minds, manage our emotions, get rid of stress, become truly calm and relaxed.

Whenever we experience stress, our bodies automatically react to prepare us for the stress reaction of fight or flight/run/avoid. When faced with extreme danger, this reaction can be a life saver. A prolonged state of such arousal, however, can lead to physical damage and disease in every part of the body and mind. Meditation has an opposite effect to this stress reaction. It helps to restore the body and mind to a sense of inner calm, assists in cellular repair, while preventing the damage from the physical effects of stress.

The more we meditate, the more we move away from the superficial stresses, the worries, anxiety and tension that mostly happens in the left brain with high tension beta waves. It allows the right brain with its slower alpha waves to become more prominent. When relaxed, we have whole brain function where left and right brain work as an integrated whole, making us happier, healthier, more creative and able to solve problems and find solutions. Meditation, just like any new technique learnt, requires patience and practice, but as you continue to meditate every day, your patience will actually increase!

Meditation involves concentrating on an object, such as a flower, a candle, a sound or word, or your own breath. Over time, the number of random thoughts diminish. More importantly, your attachment to these thoughts, and your identification with them, progressively lessen. Thoughts will still intrude, especially when you start practicing meditation for the first time, but once you become aware of this, attention is gently brought back to the object of concentration. Meditation can also be objectless, for example consisting of just sitting, standing or walking.

Experiences during meditation vary from one person to the next. Relaxation, increased awareness, mental focus and clarity, and a sense of peace are the most common results of meditation. Meditation, however, is a complete practice in and of itself. The experiences and benefits are only an added bonus, and not the main purpose at all! Never meditate with any goal in mind, like ‘am I doing this right?’, ‘is this working?’, ‘will I heal, work harder, earn more money?’, or mindless monkey chatter: ‘this is nonsense, I’m wasting my time!’, ‘people will think I’m a fool!’. Your mind will be captured by your thoughts again, going off on a tangent, completely forgetting that you’re actually meditating. This will spoil your practice and the benefits of meditation. The best attitude is not to have any expectations at all. The ego self and inner self will soon form a relaxed relationship of integrated wholeness, living together in peace, learning from and growing from strength to strength.

Since meditation involves becoming more aware and more sensitive to your inner self, you might find unpleasant parts of yourself also rise to consciousness, by way of deeply buried strong negative emotions. That’s okay. Make peace with all you are and let go any attachment to painful emotions and thoughts. Become aware of them, discuss them with a mental health practitioner or friend, if necessary. Work with and through them, learning more and more about yourself and life in the process. Then trust, surrender and let it go.

Failure to experience silence, peace of mind, mental clarity, bliss, or any other promoted benefit of meditation, is not in itself a sign of incorrect practice or that one can’t concentrate properly or long enough to be good at meditation. Remember, meditation is not a goal oriented practice. It’s not the usual striving for perfection, improvement and achievement of your everyday life! Whether you experience peace or bliss is not important. Being disciplined enough to practice regularly, preferably at the same time every day, in the same spot, always trying gently to return your thoughts to your chosen focus of meditation, is important. It is very difficult for the Western mind bathed in left brain consciousness, to become still. It really takes some practice for you to let go of thoughts, ideas, expectations, fears and worries, even for 10-20 minutes a day! Don’t be concerned: you remain consciously awake, aware and in control! Nobody or nothing will ‘steal’ your mind, put thoughts in your head or hypnotise you!

There is no right or wrong technique – choose one that’s right for you! You can practice meditation without belonging to any specific religious order. Meditation has, however, always been a part of all religions, Eastern and Western, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Sufi, Hindu, Muslim, etc. If you find it very difficult to practice on your own, or with tapes or CD’s, it might be well worth your while to join a meditation group. There are Transcendental Meditation groups in all the major centres, also visualisation, Buddhist retreat centres, etc. Go on a quest, explore and search for a practice that fits and soothes your soul. An old Chinese saying to assist you on your journey: ‘When the student is ready, the teacher will appear’. The ‘teacher’ being a person, book, group, your own life and relationships!

Tips for meditation practice:

  • Do it every day, preferably at the same time.
  • You can do it early in the morning upon waking or at sunset, or both. Some people find it beneficial to meditate in the middle of the day.
  • Keep your eyes open, half open or closed. Just be aware that wide open eyes tend to wander!
  • Do it preferably before, rather than after, a meal.
  • Pick a special spot that you use only for meditation. Use a comfortable chair, cushion, or mat; arrange your own special relics (sea shells, crystals, feathers, dream catcher) and perform your own cleansing (a warm bath with your special choice of oils, or a handful of course sea salt) and focusing rituals (lighting a candle, saying a prayer, burning aromatherapy oil in a burner, lighting incense, etc.). Give your creative imagination free reign! Let this be the distinctive place where you honour your inner being, looking forward to the privilege and comfort of its enveloping grace every day. With slight adaptations, you can also create a meditation sanctuary at work – all you need are a few likeminded colleagues, a small private room and creative imagination!
  • Sit with the spine straight, head and chin lifted, arms and hands relaxed in your lap. You can sit cross legged on the floor with a small cushion behind your buttocks, lifting them, or in a comfortable chair. Lying down, you’ll easily fall asleep. This is fine for rest, but you won’t be meditating.

How to meditate

All you need:

  • A quiet place
  • A few minutes
  •  A willing mind

    * Sit in a comfortable position to enable you to relax completely. Use a comfortable chair, or sit cross legged on the ground.
* Close your eyes.
* Focus on your breathing and make it deliberately deep and slow.
* With each out breath, feel yourself relaxing more and more. Notice any thoughts and simply let them float by like clouds in the sky. Try to detach from your thoughts. This quieting of the incessant monkey chatter of the left brain, is the most difficult part of learning to meditate!
* Try to do this for 5 minutes in the morning and evening. Gradually increase this to 20 minutes twice a day.
* Remember the 3 P’s: practice, patience, perseverance! Learn to just sit there, doing nothing, simply being!
 
Health benefits of regular meditation practice

  • Complete relaxation with a decrease in stress hormones and other stress chemicals, with muscle relaxation, improved oxygen and nutrient supply to all cells and systems, also improved clearing of toxins, debris and cellular waste.
  • Reduced metabolic rate
  • Increased blood flow with oxygen and nutrients to the brain
  • Reduced cortisol and other stress hormone levels (as opposed to an increase during long term stress)
  • Reduced muscle tone (as opposed to muscle spasm associated with stress)
  • Integration of left and right sides of the brain with whole brain functioning. creation of new communication pathways between the logical right and creative left sides of your brain, balancing your brain and giving you a whole being experience. Areas in the brain associated with positive emotions like happiness, peace and joy are activated. All of this leads to increased orderliness of brain function, access to unconscious resources and abilities, allowing creative imagery, problem solving skills, clarity, productivity. There is also an increased ability to make good decisions based on values, improved mental alertness with more energy, vitality and a relaxed, focused mental alertness, leading to learning in an effortless manner
  • Dramatically improve your learning ability, memory, intuition, creativity, perception and ability to focus, concentrate and think more clearly!
  • Lowering of blood pressure and breathing rate
  • Improved immune system function with higher levels of antibodies
  • Increased self awareness and management of thoughts and emotions
  • Improved production of vital, pleasurable brain chemicals (e.g. endorphins and serotonin) related to longevity, wellbeing, vitality, happiness and quality of life

More benefits of meditation 

  • Reduction in health care costs, need for medicines, visits to hospitals, doctors and other primary care health professionals
  • Reduction in major risk factors for disease: high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, drug abuse, obesity, cardiovascular reactivity to stress, anxiety, depression, hostility
  • Enhanced appreciation of health protecting factors, e.g. job satisfaction, love of life and psychological health

Using Meditation for Health Benefits

Meditation has for many centuries been associated with spiritual health and a general sense of well being. Those in the Eastern countries, where meditation has always been widely practiced, may have recognized its holistic effect, and the direct part meditating can play in good physical health as well as spiritual.

In Western countries, though, there has mostly been a dismissive attitude to the part the practice of meditation can play in health. In fact, any benefit from meditating was mostly derided until recently. Health, of course, is the profession of doctors and support professionals, so while doctors have been widely dismissive of meditation as a health aid, it is not surprising the general public in Western countries have followed their lead.

In some ways, though, those traditional attitudes of the medical profession do not stand up to close examination. How often have you heard of a patient being told, on being examined, that there is nothing wrong, “it is all in the mind”? There you have a doctor saying, without hesitation, that the patient’s symptoms are all in the mind; they come from the brain and are not “real”. So, if they acknowledge so readily that the mind creates symptoms, why dismiss entirely that the mind cannot also play a part in cures or improvements in health?

It has also been common for doctors to dismiss some improvements to a patient’s symptoms, when taking a non-drug treatment, that it is merely a placebo effect. In other words, the improvement is “all in the mind”. On these occasions, the doctors, in trying to dismiss the patient’s health improvement, are acknowledging that the patient’s own mind has brought about that improvement.

The human mind, of course, is in contact with the whole of the body 24 hours a day, so if you look at it from that angle, the mind and body, physical and mental health, are all inextricably linked at all times. As meditation helps to establish more self control over your mind, it does leave wide open the possibility that meditating can be used to affect health. In recent years, some health practitioners have come to realise that meditation can have some health benefits, and these are the areas where interest has been most focused:

1. Most modern doctors will acknowledge that stress is a source of health problems, and some now acknowledge that meditation can reduce stress and help people to relax.

2. There has been some study into blood pressure being lowered during meditation. That is one positive use of meditation on health that I can vouch for, as I have measured my own blood pressure during meditation, and brought my diastolic reading down by 10 points or more, on several occasions.

It is good to read that some hospitals and doctors are incorporating some stress reduction therapies, such as meditation and massage, into their every day activities. In fact, my first experience of yoga meditation was 10 years ago, in a class organised jointly by the local hospital and council. I was the only “baby”, being under 50, in the class, which was aimed at those with some physical restriction (in my case fused vertebrae) and thus attracted mostly those in their late 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. All felt some benefit from the sessions, including two patients with Parkinson’s disease. No miracle cures, but they did say it helped them.

While there is a lack of scientific study into meditation and health, it is probably wise not to ignore the possible benefits to your health in meditating, especially as a preventative measure against stress. For specific health problems, you should follow your doctor’s advice, but there is no reason you should not ask if meditation, or other relaxation techniques, may help you. These days, you may be surprised by his or her answer.