The benefits of meditation

Healing Through Feeling and Awareness

by Mark T Harris — Conscious Choice, May 1998

“If the earth were your body, you would be able to feel the many areas where it is suffering. War, political and economic oppression, famine, and pollution wreak havoc in so many places. Every day, children are becoming blind from malnutrition, their hands searching hopelessly through mounds of trash for a few ounces of food…. Many people are aware of the world’s suffering; their hearts are filled with compassion. They know what needs to be done, and they engage in political, social, and environmental work to try to change things. But after a period of intense involvement, they may become discouraged if they lack the strength needed to sustain a life of action. Real strength is not in power, money, or weapons, but in deep, inner peace.”

— Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

The earthquake that struck Kobe, Japan in 1995 left a city in ruins and a people in shock. For one individual the events were so traumatic that an extraordinary thing happened. As the New York Times reported, following the quake a woman had rushed to the rescue of a neighbor trapped beneath the rubble of his home. The man, however, had assured her he was okay and urged her to go help others first. Then, before she could return, a fire had broken out, engulfing him in flames. The woman was forced to stand by helplessly as the man’s agonizing screams pierced the air. And within minutes his cries had given way to a deathly silence.

The woman was deeply affected by this tragic event. She could not get the screams of her dying neighbor — nor her guilt over not returning to him in time — out of her mind. As a result, she literally willed herself deaf. The physicians who examined her could find no other explanation for her sudden loss of hearing. Apparently, what she had heard was so emotionally overwhelming that at some unconscious level she had made the decision to no longer hear.

Such a story is a powerful illustration of the power of the mind to influence our physiology and health. But just as negative or traumatic events can adversely affect us, so, too, can we use our minds to influence ourselves in the direction of health. Thoughts and feelings associated with love and intimacy, for example, are known to enhance immune function and have recently been shown to prevent or limit heart disease. Psychotherapy that breaks through emotional blocks rooted in early childhood trauma can throw the switch to a powerhouse of healing neurologic pathways. Even religious faith — the belief in something good and great beyond ourselves — can in times of illness become a kind of biological invocation to healing.

Aerobic Conditioning for the Mind

One form of mental conditioning known to evoke a host of positive and lasting health effects is meditation. Contrary to the old Western stereotype, however, meditation is not about the esoteric contemplation of one’s navel, peformed for hours on end and preferably while sitting on a bed of nails. In fact, meditation techniques are being used with increasing frequency by Western physicians and health care organizations to treat a diverse range of medical conditions. Practicing meditation also fortifies our ability to sustain a personally active and socially engaged life.

According to Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of the Mind Body Medical Institute at Boston’s New England Deaconess Hospital, meditation can be an important complement to conventional medical treatment for depression, anxiety, hypertension, cardiac arhythmias, migraine headaches, insomnia, and many other conditions. The “relaxation response” technique pioneered by Dr. Benson has been used to reduce side effects of chemotherapy, minimize post-operative pain, alleviate symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, even to treat infertility.

One New England Deaconess study of a group of patients suffering chronic pain reported a 36 percent reduction in visits to their managed care facility in the two years following completion of the Institute’s mind/body program. The group, which combined meditation with other self-care strategies such as nutrition, exercise, and psychotherapy, reported less severe symptoms and less anxiety and depression after completion of the program.

Dr. Benson, author of The Relaxation Response, one of the first reports by a Western physician on the nature and benefits of meditation, has documented the uniquely altered quality of the meditative state; not like sleeping and not like being fully awake, deep meditation is characterized by distinct changes in metabolism, heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, and brain chemistry.

When you consider that an estimated 60 to 90 percent of all doctor office visits may be stress-related, the benefits of meditation become obvious. Under stress, there is enhanced sympathetic nervous system activity, and elevated blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. Circulation changes and blood moves away from the periphery into muscles and vital organs. This is why a person often looks pale when they’re stressed out. In this state, learning ability and other mental functions tend to be inhibited.

Over the last 25 years, what can be called the neuroscience of meditation has emerged as a burgeoning field for investigation. And with scientific inquiry have come newer, increasingly sophisticated meditation technologies designed to evoke specific brainwave frequencies associated with deep relaxation or peak performance. It is known, for example, that the stress response is marked by low amplitude, high frequency beta wave patterns in the brain. The “altered state” induced by meditation, however, can have the opposite effect, being characterized by high amplitude, low frequency alpha and theta rhythms.

According to William Harris, director of The Centerpointe Research Institute, a Beaverton, Oregon developer of sound-based meditation programs, exposing the human ear to an orchestrated sequence of fluctuating sound frequencies can prompt an accelerated shift in brain wave patterns. Within a matter of minutes, listeners go from normal waking consciousness through progressively more relaxed states and finally into deep meditation.

In a sense, such sound-based technologies offer a kind of aerobic conditioning for the mind. “These fluctuations give the nervous system input, or stimulus, beyond its ability to handle, the way it is currently structured,” explains Mr. Harris. “In order to handle these fluctuations, the nervous system is forced to reorganize itself at higher, more complex levels of functioning, evolving a new structure that can handle the input it originally could not handle.”

Thus, new neural pathways may be created that stimulate the brain’s internal communication. This can lead to enhanced learning ability, mental clarity, intuition, creativity, and intelligence. In other words, to what scientists call “whole brain thinking.” Similarly, Dr. Benson’s research also confirms that the mind becomes much more plastic following meditation, and many mind/body programs encourage practitioners to focus in some constructive way on issues or challenges they may be facing after meditating.

Is the Universe a Friendly Place?

There are undoubtedly many styles, techniques, and outlooks of meditation practice. Most, however, flow from the philosophical premise that all life is cut from the same existential fabric; thus, in meditation it becomes possible to develop a more intimate awareness of what unites and connects us as human beings. Deep meditation becomes a transcendent habit of mind, a way of seeing beyond what Albert Einstein called the “optical illusion” of individual consciousness to the higher, more universal ground of existence.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., founder and director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, refers to the old yogic image of a wave on the ocean to illustrate this idea of the part’s connection to the whole. The wave has its own distinct or separate identity, for a short time, at least. But it is also and always an expression of the water, of the ocean’s unity or totality. In similar fashion do our lives manifest their expression in the world. Our spirit for life is like the crest of a majestic wave, singularly commanding yet never more than an integral expression of the unity of all living things, of the deeper wisdom that defines and determines existence.

There is, admittedly, something of a paradox to the meditative process. On the surface the most solitary of acts, meditation can break through that sense of individual isolation or loneliness, that feeling of psychological separation from the world, so common to modern life. And in doing so meditation helps us to discover more clearly how things really are for us. That is, meditation can bring into sharper focus problems or difficult feelings, allowing us to look more honestly at ourselves and the ways we’ve been conditioned from childhood. But it can do so in a more healthful, emotionally empowering context.

“Meditation is like mining veins of gold from within your own being. The more you mine them, the more you follow them down into your own being, the more you discover that those veins of gold in you are also in every other person.” Dr. Kabat-Zinn

In other words, in meditation we remind ourselves that we are not alone.

In a sense, meditation is like studying for an exam in which there is only one question: Is the universe, as Einstein asked, a friendly place? Significantly, it is a question answered not only in the logic of a thought but equally in the more intuitive or organic type of psychological knowing that comes from truly paying attention, to whom we are and what we feel in body, mind, and spirit. And as William James, the founder of American psychology, once said, the power of attention is the one aspect of human nature for which we are truly responsible.

Ultimately, the level of our awareness — the ways in which we pay attention — can either enhance or harm, strengthen or debilitate, turn us deaf or amplify our hearts. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for his opposition to the Vietnam War, reminds us that the practice of daily mindfulness leads naturally toward an inner peace rooted in clarity, determination, and patience. In this sense of inner peace our lives can acquire a kind of transcendent potential, a capacity for healing engagement, and an ability to lift up the world in relief of all unnecessary suffering, within our own hearts and in society at large.


Resources/Reading

Timeless Healing: The Power and Biology of Belief, by Herbert Benson, M.D. (Scribner, 1996)
Meditation for Busy People: 60 Seconds to Eternity, by Dawn Groves (New World Library, 1993)
Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, by Thich Nhat Hanh (Bantam Books, 1991)
Love & Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy, by Dean Ornish, M.D. (Harper Collins, 1998)
Meditation for Starters, by J. Donald Walters (Crystal Clarity Publishers, 1996)
The End: Personal Growth Through Technology Program, Centerpointe Research Institute, 4470 S.W. Hall Blvd., Suite 173, Beaverton, OR 97005, 800-945-2741
Synchronicity Contemporary High-Tech Meditation, Synchronicity Foundation, P.O. Box 694, Nellysford, VA 22958, 804-361-2323
Kashi Foundation: Practice of Kali Yoga and Kundalini Yoga Meditation as taught by Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, 800-226-1008
Sahaj Samadhi Meditation as taught by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, contact the Art of Living Foundation, Evanston, 847-604-1452
Transcendental Meditation, Maharishi Vedic University, Chicago, 312-431-0110

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