RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—When I first started meditating 34 years ago, I was more than a little bit skeptical. How could sitting with your eyes closed for 20 minutes change your brain function, strengthen your immune system, increase your intelligence, and make you dramatically happier? I was wary of devoting 40 minutes (20 minutes twice a day) to practice a technique that was apparently developed by a little man from India in a white robe with a long beard and a strange laugh. So I read everything I could about the science behind transcendental meditation, and finally was convinced that it was a technique worth learning.
Thirty-four years later, meditation has transformed me, and it is in the process of transforming health care in America. Mind-body medicine has become an important dimension of health care as we have gained a greater understanding of the powerful effects of thoughts, emotions, and stress on physical health. Increasingly, mind-body stress reduction techniques, such as meditation, are used to help people cope with and reverse physical and emotional conditions ranging from high blood pressure and anxiety to chronic pain and depression. Meditation has been used for thousands of years in cultures around the world as a spiritual practice. Today, it is a powerful technique used by millions of Americans to improve their health and enhance their well-being. I encourage most of my clients to learn meditation. Those that do progress faster, develop greater calmness and mental clarity, and make positive changes in their lives more easily.
The two types of meditation that have been researched most extensively are transcendental meditation and mindfulness meditation. While the practices have slight differences, they both involve:
• Focusing attention on one thing, such as the breath, an image, or a word or sound, called a mantra
• Focusing attention on the present moment
• Cultivating a compassionate, nonjudgmental attitude
• Letting go of our usual preoccupation with daily problems, goals, and concerns.
Early research on the effects of transcendental meditation by R. Keith Wallace, PhD, in the 1960’s showed that it lowers blood pressure, slows down brain waves, and leads to significant reductions in anxiety and stress-related illness.
With the advent of more sophisticated brain-imaging technology in the past decade, we have been able to observe very specific ways that meditation alters the function and structure of the brain. In 2004, Richard Davidson, PhD, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that long-term meditators showed more electrical activity in the brain’s left prefrontal cortex, an area associated with positive mood, than a control group of nonmeditators. This physiological finding fits with the experience of many meditators, who find that they became significantly happier and less prone to anxiety and depression after they began to practice meditation.
Last year, Sara Lazar, PhD, a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, found that brain regions associated with attention and sensory processing were thicker in meditators than in control subjects. This finding may have important implications for helping to prevent cognitive decline in older age. By offsetting the net loss of brain cells that typically accompanies aging, meditation may help to make additional brain regions available to compensate for those that are lost.
The best ways to learn how to meditate are from a meditation teacher or from audio recordings. For more details, see our topic page on mindfulness.
Also check out the remedy finder for more ways to ease stress
Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is a Rodale.com advisor and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. His column, “Mind-Body-Mood Advisor,” appears Mondays on Rodale.com.