Certainly anything that helps us fight stress is a welcome tool. But what else might meditation be doing for us? Since researchers like Herbert Benson, M.D. began amassing data, many studies have shown that indeed meditation has not only a mental but a profound physiological effect on the body.
Studies have shown that, in addition to helping reduce anxiety issues, meditation can help reverse heart disease, the number-one killer in the U.S. It can reduce pain and enhance the body’s immune system, enabling it to better fight disease.
More new research offers additional encouragement. In a study published last year in the journal Stroke, 60 African-Americans with atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, practiced meditation for six to nine months. (African-Americans are twice as likely to die from cardiovascular disease as are whites.) The meditators showed a marked decrease in the thickness of their artery walls, while the non-meditators actually showed an increase. The change for the meditation group could potentially bring about an 11 percent decrease in the risk of heart attack and an 8 percent to 15 percent decrease in the risk of stroke.
A second study, published last year in Psychosomatic Medicine, taught a randomized group of 90 cancer patients mindful meditation (another type of practice). After seven weeks, those who had meditated reported that they were significantly less depressed, anxious, angry and confused than the control group, which hadn’t practiced meditation. The meditators also had more energy and fewer heart and gastrointestinal problems than did the other group.
Other recent research has looked at precisely what happens during meditation that allows it to cause these positive physical changes. Researchers at the Maharishi School of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, found that meditation has a pervasive effect on stress. They looked at a group of people who had meditated for four months and found that they produced less of the stress hormone cortisol. They were therefore better able to adapt to stress in their lives, no matter what their circumstances were.
Diana Adile Kirschner, Ph.D., a Philadelphia-area clinical psychologist, sometimes refers her clients to learn meditation and has seen firsthand how helpful it can be. “Not only is meditation an absolutely marvellous way to release stress, it works wonders when it comes to dealing with anxiety issues and it helps people better relate to one another,” she says. “I can tell when clients are following through with meditation. For instance, I had a couple who consistently bickered. After they started meditating, they came in less angry, more self-reflective and more loving.”
So why aren’t more people taking up the practice? “Because it puts us in the middle of ourselves, which is not always where we want to be,” suggests Thomson. “Often, we want to fix things rather than accept them the way they are. Many of us feel as though we can’t afford the time and energy to meditate, when in fact we can’t afford not to.”
Epstein and several other experts feel that meditation’s effectiveness has to do with putting aside attachment to one’s ego. As he says, “When you look directly at a star at night, it’s difficult to see. But when you look away slightly, it comes into focus. I find it to be the same way with the ego and meditating. When one zeroes in on a sense of self through a practice of meditation, the self-important ego paradoxically becomes elusive. You become more aware that you are interconnected with other beings, and you can better put your own worries into their proper perspective.”
A group of elderly Chinese maintain their connection by meeting every daybreak in the village common in Monterey Park, California. They swoop their arms and stretch their torsos in graceful harmony, and then stand absolutely still, simply meditating. Only puffs of warm air flow from their nostrils. All of them look vibrant and relatively young, when in fact they are well into their years.
While western scientists are still exploring exactly how and why meditation works, we already know that it has both physiological and psychological benefits. And many therapists consider it a valid complement to more traditional therapies. So perhaps we should simply take Thomson’s advice and the Tibetans’ lead and do what makes us feel better in the end.