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Meditation as Medicine on the Rise

Many moons ago, a wandering Nepalese prince sat under a tree, vowing not to rise until he attained enlightenment.

After a long night of deep meditation, Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha, saw the light and declared that suffering is subjective, and can be reduced through self-awareness.

Today, 2500 years later, a growing number of American doctors and healthcare workers are teaching people who are ill how to apply Buddha’s epiphany to their lives.

In hospitals, businesses and community centers around the country, meditation is increasingly being offered as a method of stress reduction, and to help patients better cope with the physical pain and mental strain associated with many medical conditions, including heart disease and HIV infection.

Recent research shows meditation’s soothing effects can be detected in arterial walls and in the brain. Once considered outside the mainstream, today more insurers are paying for meditation, both as a form of medication and as preventive medicine.

Learning to ‘Disidentify’

“Meditation is the act of disidentifying from inner thought flow and concentrating on calming and healing,” explains Robert Thurman, Ph.D., a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University in New York and the first American to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Through meditation, doctors help patients detach from their pain and anxieties and cultivate a connection between the mind and the body, he says.

While there are many kinds of meditation, the mindfulness approach, used widely in hospitals around the country, focuses primarily on breathing. Practices vary, but the basic idea involves sitting comfortably, with eyes closed, spine straight and attention focused on breathing.

Practitioners aim to maintain a detached, calm awareness of their thoughts and sensations. Through mindfulness, experts say, meditators learn to pay attention to the present and cultivate clarity of mind, equanimity and wisdom.

Minor Mindfulness Miracles

All of which may sound very abstract. Unless, points out Jeff Brantley, Ph.D, Director of the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C., you are a patient who is suffering.

“We had one patient, a 40-year-old woman with metastatic breast cancer who was enrolled in the 8-week MBSR program. At her exit interview she said that before the course began 5 minutes wouldn’t go by without her worrying about what would become of her and her young family and now, after the class, she can concentrate on other things for more than hour at a time, even days,” Brantley says, calling the results “a minor miracle.”

The Duke program is one of at least 70 such mind-body based courses modeled on the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Stress Reduction Clinic, in Worcester, Mass., created in 1979 by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Taught mainly in hospitals around the country, mindfulness training is typically run as an 8-week-long outpatient program to complement other medical treatments.

The aim, according to a website dedicated to Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, is to assist people in taking better care of themselves “through a gentle but rigorous daily discipline of meditation and relaxation.”

Doctors refer patients to mindfulness programs for any number of diseases and disorders, including heart disease, anxiety and panic, job or family stress, chronic pain, cancer, HIV infection, AIDS, headaches, sleep disturbances, type A behavior, high blood pressure, fatigue and skin disorders.

In keeping with the growing interest in preventative medicine, some insurance companies, such as Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Massachusetts and a number of insurers in what Thurman calls “the more enlightened states like Oregon and California,” are now paying for all or part of these programs.

Research for Coverage

While the National Institutes of Health says it is too soon to quantify the medical benefits of meditation, Anita Greene, spokeswoman for the Institute’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine division, concedes, “It is a therapy worthy of further scientific investigation to refute or support the health claims being made.”

In fact, in 1999, the NIH granted Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, $8 million during a five-year period to study the effects of meditation in African Americans with cardiovascular diseases.

Researchers at Maharishi say that relaxing and reducing stress through transcendental meditation may reduce artery blockage and the risk of heart attack and stroke, according to a study released in the March issue of the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke (see related story).

Another recent pilot study, published in the May 15 issue of NeuroReport, by Sara Lazar, Ph.D., a Harvard research fellow in psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, suggests meditation activates specific regions of the brain that may influence heart and breathing rates. Using a brain imaging technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, Lazar measured blood flow changes in experienced meditators.

“What we found were striking changes. There was significant decrease in blood flow and activity in specific areas of the brain,” says the study’s senior author Dr. Herbert Benson, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Mass.

The usual, fight-or-flight brain response liberates adrenalin and is stressful to the body, he explains, but during meditation the brain acts to quiet the body through concentrated breathing or word repetition, evoking a relaxation response that minimizes the harmful effects of stress.

“It does away with the whole separation of mind and body and gives further proof to insurers that [meditation] is cost effective,” he says. Ultimately, Benson predicts, medicine will be akin to a three-legged stool, leaning on pharmaceuticals, surgeries and procedures, and self-care, which includes, meditation, nutrition, exercise and health management.

A Tool for Transformation

But, Thurman points out, meditation is for more than just health benefits: It is a tool for seeking inner transformation. Meditation practices in the health field are secular, however.

“We get everyone from born-again Christians to avowed atheists. We tell people we are not trying to make anyone into anything,” Duke’s Brantley reassures. No matter what their religious persuasion, he says, patients find an increased awareness and appreciation of their lives.

Registered nurse Shirley Gilloti, a San Rafael, Calif., health educator and mindfulness training teacher agrees, “I tell people to try to bring more mindfulness to saying their rosary if that’s what they do.”

NEW YORK, July 5 By Ephrat Livni

NHS recognises that mindfulness meditation is good for depression

Mindfulness meditation has been shown to give patients control over their own depression and anxiety levels and levels of chronic pain, according to a paper published earlier this month in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Previous studies have found that mindfulness meditation can cut the recurrence of depression by 50%, and neuroimaging scans have shown significant positive change in brain activity of long-term meditators. But while scientists knew mindfulness was having an effect, they have not known how until now.

Catherine Kerr, lead author of the new study and director of translational neuroscience for the contemplative studies initiative at Brown University in Providence, in the US, says that when we are depressed, attention is "consumed by negative preoccupations, thoughts and worries". Instead of disengaging and moving on, we find ourselves digging deeper into negative thought patterns.

Mindfulness gives patients control over this habitual chain via a "body scan" technique, where patients systematically engage and disengage with the sensations in each part of the body. As they do so, alpha rhythms, which organise the flow of sensory information in the brain, increase and decrease. Kerr describes this as a "sensory volume knob" and it is this flexible focusing skill which, the paper proposes, "regulates attention so that it does not become biased toward negative physical sensations and thoughts, as in depression". Early Buddhists advanced a similar theory 2,500 years ago in a famous practice text called "Mindfulness of the body and breath".

I came to mindfulness on a 10-day Buddhist meditation retreat in Thailand. Letting go of thought felt as impossible as tearing off a limb; particularly when the leg and back pains started from sitting cross-legged.

Years later, I came to see that it was unacknowledged emotions that gradually manifested as pain, on an emotional and sometimes physical level. Turning towards them, and accepting them fully, helped to resolve them.

Thankfully, the secular antidote that the NHS has rolled out is far easier than the one the Buddha taught. You don't have to sit cross-legged, and the sessions, usually run by a clinical psychologist, take place once a week over a period of eight weeks.

Having recognised the health and cost benefits, some NHS trusts accept self-referrals, others accept referrals via GPs. The Mental Health Foundation, which has produced a list of some of the NHS-funded courses, estimates that as many as 30% of GPs now refer patients to mindfulness training.

However, these programmes are often bundled under "talking therapies" treatment, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is misleading since talking is exactly what mindfulness practitioners aren't doing.

Mia Hansson
The Guardian, Tuesday 26 February 2013

Meditation on the Move

When you read the word "meditation," what images pop up in your mind? For many of us, we think of someone sitting in the lotus position (legs crossed), eyes closed, and hands in a mudra (symbolic hand gesture). But there's another form that is equally as relaxing. It's walking meditation, and you can do it practically anytime and anywhere. Walking meditation is a simple way to implement mindfulness practice into your active life. If you're a regular meditator, it also adds variety to your daily routine, and it's particularly useful when your body just doesn't feel like sitting still. Over time, you'll experience similar decreases in stress and increases in relaxation as you would during your sitting meditation.

Peace of Mind One Step at a Time An essential component of all meditation methods is creating a rhythm. Whether it's breath meditation, mantra meditation or walking meditation, the mental rhythms we create give us a break from the constant agitation of the "monkey mind." "Monkey mind" refers to the constant mind chatter that agitates us throughout the day. Meditation calms the monkey mind, thereby encouraging rest, rejuvenation, and healing. Here are four steps to a walking meditation practice.

1. Location First off, you're going to be walking very slowly. Therefore, it's best to find a place where you can walk undisturbed and undistracted. If you're practicing where there are lots of people, you may become preoccupied with what others think of your slow pace. Meditation is about focus, so avoid environments that will make you self-conscious of what others are thinking of you.

2. Breath Through Each Step Once you find a proper location, begin walking, and match each step with your breath. As you breathe in, lift your foot. As you breathe out, put your foot down. Then do the same with the other foot and continue this pattern.

3. Breath First, Step Second Your breath should direct the pace at which you walk, not the other way around. Breathe naturally, and have your steps follow it. As you move, you'll find that your mind calms-despite the fact that you're moving. The key is to focus on your breath. As with any other type of meditation, thoughts will arise. Don't fight them or push them away. Simply draw your attention back to the rhythm of walking and breathing.

4. Open Your Eyes You may wonder where you should look throughout your walking meditation. Simply cast your gaze towards your feet. Watch your feet as they move to the pattern of your breath.

Meditation in Public Spaces If you're in a place where you can't slowly walk without attracting attention, here's an alternate version: take two steps with each breath. As a result, you'll walk at a faster pace. Focus your gaze a little in front of you, so you know where you're going. Breathe in, two steps; breathe out, two steps.

Anytime. Anywhere What I enjoy about walking meditation is that I can do it nearly anywhere: airports, shopping malls, parks and more. You can lead an active life, be surrounded by crowds of people, and still maintain a meditative practice. With each step you take, you'll decrease stress and experience calm

Published on November 4, 2011 by Robert Puff, Ph.D. in Meditation for Modern Life

6 Other Reasons to Meditate

Why meditate? Outside of religious contexts, the most common reason is stress management. But as these latest research findings demonstrate, meditation is much more than just a relaxation technique. Here are a half-dozen more good reasons to take up meditation.

To enhance concentration Meditation has an undeserved reputation for being esoteric and difficult to learn. In truth, it's really nothing more than the practice of focusing the mind intently on a particular thing or activity. It seems logical that regular meditation would hone a person's powers of concentration, and a recent study in the Journal of Neuroscience found just that. In the study, three months of intensive meditation training led to improvements in attentional stability - the ability to sustain attention without frequent lapses.

To lower blood pressure
Research suggests that meditation may help lower blood pressure. In a study published in the American Journal of Hypertension, 298 college students were randomly assigned to either a Transcendental Meditation (TM) group or a waiting list (control) group. The study found that TM helped the students decrease psychological distress and increase coping ability. More interestingly, in a subgroup of students at risk for high blood pressure later in life, these changes were associated with a reduction in blood pressure. That's heartening news, because young adults with even slight elevations in blood pressure have a three times greater risk of developing full-blown high blood pressure within the next 30 years.

To improve sleep
Research indicates that meditation may help fight insomnia. In a study from India's National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, researchers looked at how sleep was affected by vipassana meditation. This form of meditation involves focusing the mind on mental and physical processes in order to develop insight. The study included 105 healthy men between the ages of 30 and 60. Half were experienced vipassana meditators, and half had no experience with any type of meditation. The meditators showed enhanced slow wave (deep) sleep and REM sleep across all age groups. In contrast, the non-meditators showed a pronounced decline in slow wave sleep with age, a sign of declining sleep quality in the older men.

To manage pain
One of the best-studied medical uses of meditation is for helping manage chronic pain. The form of meditation often employed for this purpose is mindfulness meditation, which involves fully focusing on whatever is being experienced from moment to moment. The idea is to take note of the here-and-now experience without judging or reacting to it. For chronic pain sufferers, mindfulness may help them notice and accept their pain without becoming anxious and panicky, which just makes the pain worse. However, a study from the University of Montreal suggests that long-term practice of mindfulness meditation may also lead to physical changes in the brain that directly affect pain perception. The study matched 17 expert meditators with non-meditators of the same age and gender. Structural MRI brain scans showed that the meditators had a thicker cortex in certain pain-related areas of the brain. This cortical thickening was associated with lower pain sensitivity.

To live longer
Meditation may influence not only quality of life, but also quantity. Three converging lines of research explain why. One, meditation may help counter the body's stress response and all the physical wear and tear that goes along with chronic stress. Two, meditation may help slow aging by decreasing oxidative stress - cellular damage caused by highly reactive molecules known as free radicals. Several studies have linked meditation to reductions in various measures of oxidative stress. There is also evidence of enhanced activity by antioxidants - molecules that defend the body against free radicals - during meditation. Three, meditation may help fight chronic inflammation throughout the body, which contributes to diseases as diverse as obesity, atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer's disease. Research indicates that meditation can dampen several inflammatory processes.

To connect with others
Meditation might seem like the ultimate in self-absorption. But at least one form of meditation, known as loving-kindness meditation, also seems to help build a sense of social connectedness. In loving-kindness meditation, the mind is sharply focused on compassionate feelings and well wishes that are directed toward real or imagined others. A study in the journal Emotion found that just a few minutes of this form of meditation practice increased positive, connected feelings toward strangers.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a health journalist who writes frequently about mind/body medicine. She is author of a kids' book called Meditation (Franklin Watts, 2004).

By Linda Wasmer Andrews


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