MEDITATION HAS TWO groups of adherents: those who are naturally enticed by the possibilities of health, calm and compassion; and the rest of us, who resist meditation until driven by a specific need, often stress-related, to give it a try.
Meditation is hard to explain to resisters, which included me for most of my life, despite being aware of increasing evidence for its multitude of health benefits — even after new evidence about the brain’s neuroplasticity showed that permanent brain changes in response to the experience of meditation insure that these benefits will endure.
PAIN: Volunteers at Wake Forest University who practiced mindfulness meditations 20 minutes daily for four days changed their response to pain, which was caused by a hot plate of metal held against their calves. The unpleasantness was reduced by 57 percent and the intensity by 40 percent. Brain scans showed that activity in the specific region of the cortex linked to the affected calf had diminished by so much it was barely detectable; conversely, activity increased in regions of the brain that modulate — and can reduce pain sensations.
IMMUNITY: At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 150 participants over age 50 — 80 percent women — were randomly assigned to one of three groups. For eight weeks, two groups did either mindfulness meditation training or brisk daily exercise, while a control group did neither. Compared to the controls, the meditators missed 76 percent fewer days of work and the exercisers missed 48 percent fewer — for both groups, the severity of colds and flu was decreased.
DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY: In an overview of 47 studies involving a total of 3,515 participants, mindfulness meditation helped manage both — although not always better than exercise. In one study of depression, mindfulness reduced by 47 percent the risk of relapse in patients who had experienced three or more bouts of depression.
COMPASSION: At Northeastern University, of 20 people took a mindfulness meditation class, 50 percent gave up their seats to a woman on crutches compared to 16 percent of non-meditators. Meditation is “fast becoming a fashionable tool for improving your mind” said study leader Professor David DeSteno, to improve leadership, productivity and individual performance (on SATs, at work) — though he notes that these attributes are often thought to conflict with compassion.
Over the past two decades, I was advised by several medical professionals that mindfulness and meditation could allay mild PTSD left over from my childhood, which sometimes made me anxious or jumpy. After hearing the same advice the third or fourth time, I felt stupid ignoring it once again. I purchased a workbook for “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” (MBSR) that comes with a CD—but abandoned both after one or two efforts.
Next, I signed up for the MBSR course, which has been offered since its development more than 30 years ago at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who calls his program: Buddhist meditation but secular, “without the Buddhism.” To date, this course has helped tens of thousands, mostly people in high-risk, high-stress professions like firefighters and soldiers. Knowing that many of my classmates had enrolled for medical reasons made me feel I was among fellow skeptics.
MBSR classes typically meet for eight sessions of two and a half hours each, plus six hours one weekend day. My course, offered through the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, cost almost $500. Both the time and the money helped motivate me to get to class and to do my homework: daily meditation. (For those who cannot imagine devoting eight weeks or $500 to meditating, the Wake Forest volunteers experienced less pain after practicing mindfulness meditation for only 20 minutes a day over four days.)
What made these meditations doable for me was practicing in class, maybe because of doing it with a group, plus the CD that came with the class workbook — the same one I had purchased previously. The CD’s 21 guided meditations vary in length, from short ones under four minutes to longer ones of 30 or longer. I have not yet made it to the tracks of over 45 minutes. The CD also includes various kinds of meditation: sitting, lying, standing, yoga, breathing and one called the “body scan.”
Mindfulness meditation encourages focus on the breath — in and out — and attention to everything that arises, from a sore back to annoying thoughts. (For sitting meditations, you can choose any mode you want, including a chair.) You are encouraged to notice each thought, and then to notice how quickly each one passes by. Chronic depression sufferers are helped by allowing the stream of negative thoughts to flow quickly in and then quickly out of consciousness. Focus and attention — to breath and thoughts, also sometimes to sounds, sensations and movement — make this meditation different from most other kinds that focus on getting rid of extraneous thoughts and clearing the mind.
Not until after about five or six weeks had passed did I begin to feel a difference, around the time of our six-hour “all-day.” For me, a plan for all-day anything, with a group of people, mostly in one room, sounds unbearable. Maybe because we were discouraged from chatting, the hours passed calmly and quickly. At the lunch break, it was suggested that we walk outdoors, remaining silent if possible. Joining this phalanx of 20 or so zombie-like adults walking the busy Saturday streets of downtown Bethesda took me to a new level of I-can-do-this.
Slowly I got better at keeping track of random items, those to pack for a trip or those I needed to bring up in unexpected phone calls from my hard-to-reach sons. Time seemed to move a little more slowly — similar to the sensation of watching an impending disaster, like a baseball heading for a glass window: the ball appears to move in slower motion and greater detail than normally. As time slowed down, I felt as if I were slowing down — just a bit — instead of racing around.
When I tired of the slightly unctuous voice on the CD, I tried sitting quietly with a timer. To my surprise, 20 minutes sped by. Although I have slacked off since the class ended, on most days I find time if only for a short meditation. My next goal: to feel I’ve earned the right to say, if only to my closest friends, “I meditate.”
— Mary Carpenter