How Meditation Works
Conditions Benefited by Meditation
Meditation: Who's Doing It?
Simple Meditation Exercise
Meditation is a safe and simple way to balance a person's physical,
emotional, and mental states. It is easily learned and has been used as an aid
in treating stress and pain management. It has also been employed as part of an
overall treatment for other conditions, including hypertension and heart
From Ancient India to Western
Meditation has been practiced for several thousand years. It is only during
the past three decades that scientific study has focused on its clinical effects
During the 1960s, reports reached the West of yogis and meditation masters in
India who could perform extraordinary feats of bodily control and altered states
of consciousness. These reports captured the interest of Western researchers
studying self-regulation and the possibility of voluntary control over the
autonomic nervous system.
At the same time, new refinements in scientific instrumentation made it
possible to duplicate and substantiate some of these reports at medical research
institutes. Health care professionals who were often dissatisfied with the side
effects of drug treatments for stress-related disorders embraced meditation as a
valuable tool for stress reduction, and today both patients and physicians enjoy
the health benefits of regular meditation practice.
What is Meditation?
According to Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., a pioneer in the field of mind/body
medicine, meditation can be broadly defined as any activity that keeps the
attention pleasantly anchored in the present moment.
When the mind is calm and focused in the present, it is neither reacting to
memories from the past nor being preoccupied with plans for the future, two
major sources of chronic stress known to impact health.
"Meditation," says Dr. Borysenko, "helps to keep us from identifying with the
'movies of the mind'."
Although there are numerous approaches to meditation, most techniques can be
grouped into two basic approaches: concentrative meditation and mindfulness
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Concentrative meditation focuses the attention on the breath, an image, or a
sound (mantra), in order to still the mind and allow a greater awareness and
clarity to emerge. This form of meditation can be compared to the zoom lens of a
camera that narrows its focus to a selected field.
The simplest form of concentrative meditation is to sit quietly and focus the
attention on the breath. The connection between the breath and one's state of
mind is a basic principle of the practice of yoga and meditation. When a person
is anxious, frightened, agitated, or distracted, the breath will tend to be
shallow, rapid, and uneven. On the other hand, when the mind is calm, focused,
and composed, the breath will tend to be slow, deep, and regular.
Focusing the mind on the continuous rhythm of inhalation and exhalation
provides a natural object of meditation. As the meditator focuses his or her
awareness on the breath, the mind becomes absorbed in the rhythm of inhalation
and exhalation, breathing slows and becomes deeper, and the mind becomes more
tranquil and aware.
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Mindfulness meditation, according to Dr. Borysenko, "involves opening the
attention to become aware of the continuously passing parade of sensations and
feelings, images, thoughts, sounds, smells, and so forth without becoming
involved in thinking about them."
The meditator sits quietly and simply witnesses whatever goes through the
mind, not reacting or becoming involved with thoughts, memories, worries, or
images. This helps the meditator gain a more calm, clear, and nonreactive state
Mindfulness meditation can be likened to a wide-angle lens-a broad sweeping
awareness that takes in the entire field of perception.
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How Meditation Works
Hans Selye, a pioneering Canadian stress researcher, describes two types of
stress-negative stress and positive stress. The difference between the two
depends upon whether or not the individual feels in control of the stress. By
allowing one to become more aware of one's reactions to stress, meditation can
assist in providing the individual with an increased internal sense of control.
Studies have also shown that meditation (in particular research on
Transcendental Meditation [TM], a popular form of meditation practiced in the
West for the past thirty years), can bring about a healthy state of relaxation
by causing a generalized reduction in multiple physiological and biochemical
markers, such as decreased heart rate, decreased respiration rate, decreased
plasma cortisol (a major stress hormone), decreased pulse rate, and increased
EEG (electroencephalogram) alpha, a brain wave associated with relaxation.
The first research on the physiology of meditation was conducted by R. Keith
Wallace at U.C.L.A. Studying Transcendental Meditation (TM), Wallace found that
whereas the body gains a state of profound rest, the brain and mind become more
alert, indicating a state of "restful alertness." Studies show that after TM,
reactions are faster, creativity greater, and comprehension broader.
"Through meditation we can learn to access the relaxation response (the
physiological response elicited by meditation) and to be aware of the mind and
the way our attitudes produce stress," says Dr. Borysenko, former Co-director of
Harvard's Mind/Body Clinic. "In addition, by quieting the mind, meditation can
also put one in touch with the inner physician, allowing the body's own inner
wisdom to be heard."
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Conditions Benefited by
Patricia Norris, Ph.D., Director of the Biofeedback and Psychophysiology
Clinic at the Menninger Foundation, reports: "In our practice at Menninger we
use meditative techniques to enhance immune functioning in cancer, AIDS, and
autoimmune patients. We also use meditation in conjunction with neuro-feedback
to normalize brain rhythms and chemistry in alcohol and drug addiction, as well
as other addictive conditions. Almost all of our patients use meditative
techniques in learning self-regulation for disorders such as anxiety and
hypertension, and for stress management. We consider meditation a recommended
practice for anyone seeking high-level wellness."
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Meditation: Who's Doing
In addition to the growing body of research literature on meditation,
physicians, psychotherapists, and other professionals are increasingly adding
meditative techniques to their practice. According to David Orme-Johnson, Ph.D.,
Dean of Research for Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa, over
six thousand physicians have begun the practice of Transcendental Meditation and
regularly recommend the TM technique to their patients.
Other physicians who advocate meditation include Dean Ornish, M.D., who
recently demonstrated that heart disease can be reversed with a comprehensive
program that includes meditation.
Ron Hunninghake, M.D., has made meditation a key element in the integrated
health program at the Center for the Improvement of Human Functioning
International in Wichita, Kansas.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., founder and Director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at
the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, has taught Buddhist meditation
and yoga to thousands of patients, most of whom were referred by their
"Many well-known physicians," adds Dr. Norris, "such as Larry Dossey, M.D.,
Deepak Chopra, M.D., Bernie Siegel, M.D., and Norman Shealy, M.D., also use and
advocate meditation for total well-being.
The benefits of an ongoing meditation practice can be classified into three
categories: physiological, psychological, and spiritual.
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The Transcendental Meditation technique has proven to be a successful coping
strategy in helping to deal with drug addiction, a useful tool in
psycho-neuro-immunology by helping to control the immune system, and an
effective manager of stress and pain.
A strong link has also been established between the practice of TM and
longevity. Only two factors have been scientifically determined to actually
extend life - caloric restriction and lowering of the body's core temperature.
Meditation has been shown to lower core body temperature.
Stress Control: The term stress was first popularized in the 1950s, based on
Dr. Selye's physiological studies of animals injured or placed under extreme
conditions. People now use the term to refer to any or all the various pressures
experienced in life. These stressors can stem from work, family, illness, or
environment and can contribute to such conditions as anxiety, hypertension, and
According to Dr. Kabat-Zinn, "How an individual sees things
and how he or she handles them makes all the difference in terms of how much
stress he or she experiences."
In one research project conducted by Dean Shapiro, Ph.D., of the University
of California at Irvine, individuals reported self-regulation, effects that
long-term meditators (average four plus years) could identify as positive
attributes from meditation.
Those studied agreed that learning to control stress was an enormous benefit.
Becoming more relaxed, learning to control negative thinking, and being able to
handle situations with calmness and equanimity were other noted benefits.
Pain Management: "Chronic pain can systematically erode the quality of life,"
says Dr. Kabat-Zinn. Although great strides are being made in traditional
medicine to treat recurring pain, treatment is rarely as simple as prescribing
medication or surgery.
In one study overseen by Dr. Kabat-Zinn, 72 percent
of the patients with chronic pain conditions achieved at least a 33 percent
reduction after participating in an eight-week period of mindful meditation,
while 61 percent of the pain patients achieved at least a 50 percent
Additionally, these people perceived their bodies as being 30 percent less
problematic, suggesting an overall improvement in self-esteem and positive views
regarding their bodies.
Chronic Illness: Dr. Ainslie Meares, an Australian psychiatrist who uses
meditation with cancer patients, studied seventy-three patients who had attended
at least twenty sessions of intensive meditation, and wrote: "Nearly all such
patients can expect significant reduction of anxiety and depression, together
with much less discomfort and pain. There is reason to expect a 10 percent
chance of quite remarkable slowing of the rate of growth of the tumor, and a 50
percent chance of greatly improved quality of life."
Meditation can help
most people feel less anxious and more in control. The awareness that meditation
brings can also be a source of personal insight and self-understanding.
Drs. Benson and Borysenko note that even among patients with little
psychological orientation, approximately 20 percent (of these patients) with a
wide range of psychophysiological disorders who joined stress reduction and
relaxation programs involving mindfulness meditation became interested in
psychotherapy for further expansion of self-understanding.
Dr. Borysenko adds that "meditation may also lead to a breakdown of screen
memories so that early childhood abuse episodes and other traumas suddenly flood
the mind, making the patient temporarily more anxious until these traumas are
Many so-called meditation exercises are actually forms of imagery and
visualization that are extraordinarily useful in healing old traumas,
confronting death anxieties, finishing 'old business,' learning to forgive, and
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The longer an individual practices meditation, the greater the likelihood
that his or her goals and efforts will shift toward personal and spiritual
growth. One practitioner in Dr. Shapiro's study noted, "I began meditating to
decrease my stress and fear of public speaking. But as my practice deepens, not
only do I have decreased heart rate, but I also am developing a more open
heart-more sensitivity, greater compassion and less negative judgment toward
Many individuals who initially learn meditation for its self-regulatory
aspects find that as their practice deepens they are drawn more and more into
the realm of the "spiritual."
In her work with many cancer and AIDS patients, Dr. Borysenko has observed
that many are most interested in meditation as a way of becoming more attuned to
the spiritual dimension of life. She reports that many die "healed," in a state
of compassionate self-awareness and self-acceptance.
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According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., founder and Director of the Stress
Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, one simple
way to bring awareness into your life is through walking meditation.
"This brings your attention to the actual experience of walking as you are
doing it, focusing on the sensations in your feet and legs, feeling your whole
body moving," Dr. Kabat-Zinn explains. "You can also integrate awareness of your
breathing with the experience."
To do this exercise, focus the attention on each foot as it contacts the
ground. When the mind wanders away from the feet or legs, or the feeling of the
body walking, refocus your attention. To deepen your concentration, don't look
around, but keep your gaze in front of you.
"One thing that you find out when you have been practicing mindfulness for a
while is that nothing is quite as simple as it appears," says Dr. Kabat-Zinn.
"This is as true for walking as it is for anything else. For one thing, we carry
our mind around with us when we walk, so we are usually absorbed in our own
thoughts to one extent or another. We are hardly ever just walking, even when we
are 'just going out for a walk.' Walking meditation involves intentionally
attending to the experience of walking itself."
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Transcendental Meditation (TM) is a simple mental technique introduced by
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi from the Vedic tradition of India. TM is easily learned,
can be practiced for fifteen to twenty minutes, twice daily, and requires no
change in lifestyle or belief. Since 1958, 4 million people have learned TM and
over five hundred scientific studies have been conducted on it at over two
hundred universities worldwide.
Physiological research shows that during TM, the body gains a deeper state of
relaxation than during ordinary rest. EEG (electroencephalogram) changes
indicate a state of heightened awareness and coherence. Regular practice of TM
has been found to produce a state of increased stability, adaptability, and
integration during all phases of activity.
Also, TM has been found to increase intelligence, creativity, and perceptual
ability and to reduce high blood pressure and illness rates by more than 50
percent. Meta-analyses (research comparing large numbers of studies) have found
that TM is one of the most effective techniques known for reducing drug and
alcohol abuse, decreasing anxiety and increasing self-actualization.
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A Simple Meditation Exercise
The first step to practicing meditation is learning to breathe in a manner
that facilitates a state of calmness and awareness. The following exercise is
recommended as an effective method for achieving calmness by Jon Kabat-Zinn,
Ph.D., founder and Director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of
Massachusetts Medical Center.
- Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed
and practice the following for several minutes each day.
- Assume a comfortable posture lying on your back or
sitting. If you are sitting, keep the spine straight and let your shoulders
- Close your eyes if it feels comfortable.
- Bring your attention to your belly, feeling it rise
or expand gently on the in-breath and fall or recede on the out-breath.
- Keep the focus on your breathing, "being with" each in-breath.
Every time you notice that your mind has
wandered off the breath, notice what it was that took you away and then gently
bring your attention back to your belly and the feeling of the breath coming
in and out.
- If your mind wanders away from the breath, then your "job" is simply to
bring it back to the breath every time, no matter what the
Practice this exercise for fifteen minutes at a convenient time every day,
whether you feel like it or not, for one week and see how it feels to
incorporate a disciplined meditation practice into your life. Be aware of how it
feels to spend time each day just being with your breath without having to do
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Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide
the Burton Group
Future Medicine Publishing, 1997