Meditation or contemplation involves focusing the mind upon a sound, phrase, prayer, object, visualized image, the breath, ritualized movements, or consciousness in order to increase awareness of the present moment, promote relaxation, reduce stress , and enhance personal or spiritual growth.
Meditation can benefit people who are ill or overwhelmed by stress. It also promotes well-being in healthy people. In general, people who meditate regularly experience less anxiety and depression. They also report more enjoyment and appreciation of life, as well as better social relationships. Meditation produces a state of deep relaxation and a sense of balance, or equanimity. According to Michael J. Baime in Essentials of Complementary and Alternative Medicine , meditation allows one to fully experience intense emotions without losing composure. The consequence of emotional balance is greater insight regarding one's thoughts, feelings, and actions. Insight, in turn, promotes confidence and awareness. Meditation also facilitates a greater sense of calmness, empathy, and acceptance of self and others.
Meditation is sometimes suggested as a complement to medical treatments of disease; in particular, it is an important complementary therapy for both the treatment and prevention of many stress-related conditions. Regular meditation may reduce the number of symptoms experienced by patients with a wide range of illnesses and disorders. Based upon clinical evidence, as well as theory, meditation is seen as an appropriate therapy for panic disorder , generalized anxiety disorder , substance dependence and abuse, ulcers, colitis, chronic pain, psoriasis, and dysthymic disorder—a disorder that involves a steady, depressed mood for at least two years. Moreover, meditation is a valuable adjunct therapy for moderate hypertension (high blood pressure), prevention of cardiac arrest (heart attack), prevention of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), arthritis (including fibromyalgia), cancer, insomnia , migraine, and stroke . It is a complementary therapy for moderating allergies and asthma because it reduces stress, which is prevalent in these conditions. Additionally, meditation may improve function or reduce symptoms of patients with neurologic disorders such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, and epilepsy.
In 1995, the authors of a report to the National Institutes of Health on complementary or alternative medicine reviewed 30 years of research and reports of individuals and health care providers. They concluded that meditation and related methods for the enhancement of relaxation are cost-effective ways to improve health and quality of life.
Meditation appears to be safe for most people. There are, however, case reports and studies noting some adverse effects. For example, 33% to 50% of people who participated in long, silent meditation retreats (two weeks to three months) reported increased tension, anxiety, confusion, and depression. On the other hand, they also reported that meditation was associated with very positive effects. It has been noted, however, that these studies failed to differentiate between serious psychiatric disturbances and normal mood swings. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that meditation may not be appropriate for people with psychotic disorders, major depression, or severe personality disorders . Some researchers point out that the relaxed, trance-like state that characterizes deep meditation is similar to a hypnotic trance. Hence, meditation, as well as hypnosis, may be contraindicated for people who have difficulty giving up control, such as people who are obsessive and compulsive.
Meditation has been practiced for millennia. Historically, meditation or contemplation was intended to develop spiritual understanding, awareness, or gratitude. It also was meant to help the person commune with God, or ultimate reality. The many different religious traditions in the world have given rise to a rich variety of meditative practices. These include the contemplative prayers and chants of Christian religious orders, the Buddhist practice of sitting meditation, and the whirling movements of the Sufi dervishes. Although meditation is an important spiritual practice in many traditions, it can be practiced by anyone to relieve stress and pain regardless of religious or cultural background.
In recent decades, a holistic approach to medicine has become increasingly popular. This approach developed in response to the ideas that health care providers treat whole persons, and that wellness and illness are better understood in terms of the body, mind, and soul. Some refer to this type of medicine as integrative, (that is, the Western biologic model of disease) and notions of appropriate treatment are modified by knowledge garnered from other cultures—especially those of China and India. When foreign ideas are tested in the U.S. both clinically and scientifically, if found to be valid, they are integrated into Western medicine.
With the increasing acceptance of holistic medicine, there has been more interest in the use of alternative or complementary therapies, such as meditation, hypnosis, and progressive relaxation. As a result, training in meditation and meditation sessions are offered in medical clinics and hospitals. Meditation has been used as primary therapy for treating certain diseases and as complementary therapy in a comprehensive treatment plan. Moreover, it has been employed as a means of improving the quality of life of people with debilitating, chronic, or terminal diseases.
When people are dying, they often cope with enduring pain, anxiety and fear, and end-of-life spiritual concerns. Meditation can be a way for the patient with terminal illness to self-manage pain and anxiety. This can partially reduce the amount of drugs required for effective pain control. People who are dying sometimes reject narcotics in an effort to preserve their consciousness and their communication with people who are important to them. Meditation is a means of preserving consciousness and life as the dying patient knows it. Also, meditation
In general, there are two main types of meditation: concentration, and mindful meditation. Concentration meditation involves focusing one's attention on the breath, an imagined or real image, ritualized movements (as in Tai chi, yoga , or qigong), or on a sound, word, or phrase that is repeated silently or aloud (mantra). In the Christian tradition, chanting and saying the rosary are forms of meditation. (A rosary is a string of beads used to keep track of the prayers recited.) One purpose of concentration meditation is to fully experience the present moment with serenity. The benefit of being fully present is that worries and anxieties fade, and a feeling of peace ensues. It is the feeling of peace that has physiological benefits, and has been referred to as the relaxation response. When thoughts or emotions arise, the person gently directs his or her mind back to the original focus of concentration.
In comparison, mindfulness meditation involves becoming aware of the entire field of attention. There is an awareness of all thoughts, feelings, perceptions or sensations as they arise from moment to moment. Mindfulness meditation is enhanced by the person's ability to quiet the mind and to accept all that is perceived with composure. Many approaches to meditation are a blend of concentration and mindfulness.
Meditation may involve a quiet, relatively motionless seated posture or it may involve ritualized movement. Sitting meditation is generally done in an upright position, either in a chair or cross-legged on a cushion or mat on the floor. The spine is straight, yet relaxed. The eyes may be closed or open and gazing softly into the distance or at an object. Depending on the tradition, the person may be concentrating on the sensation of the movement of the breath; counting breaths; silently repeating a mantra; chanting a prayer; visualizing a peaceful and meaningful place; focusing awareness on the center of the body; or increasing awareness of all sensory experiences.
Movement meditation may be spontaneous and free form or it may involve highly structured, choreographed, repetitive patterns, as in the practice of Tai chi or qigong. (Tai chi and qigong are ancient Chinese forms of meditation with movement; both are believed to promote health by preserving or restoring the life force, or qi.) Movement meditation is particularly helpful for those people who find it difficult to remain still.
Meditation in health care settings
The use of meditation in health care settings often involves one of the following: transcendental meditation (TM); methods developed by Dr. Herbert Benson to elicit the relaxation response; or adaptations of the program of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Transcendental meditation (TM) has its origins in the Vedic tradition of India and was introduced to the West by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. TM has been taught to several million people and is one of the most widely practiced forms of meditation in the West. Much of what is known about the physiology of meditation is based on studies of TM. In transcendental meditation, the person sits with closed eyes and concentrates on a single syllable or word (mantra) for 20 minutes, twice a day. When thoughts or feelings arise, the attention is brought back to the mantra. According to Charles Alexander, a TM researcher, the experience of TM involves a calming of thoughts and ordinary wakefulness, which is transcended and replaced by fully aware consciousness.
Eliciting the relaxation response involves a similar form of mental focusing. Dr. Herbert Benson, one of the first Western doctors to conduct research on the effects of meditation, developed his approach after observing the profound health benefits of a state of bodily calm (the relaxation response). In order to elicit this response, he teaches patients to repeat a word, sound, prayer, phrase, or activity (including swimming, jogging, yoga, or even knitting) for 10 to 20 minutes, twice a day. Patients also are taught not to pay attention to distracting thoughts and to return their focus to the original repetition. What is repeated is up to the individual. For example, instead of Sanskrit terms, the person may choose something personally meaningful, such as a phrase from a Christian or Jewish prayer.
Mindfulness meditation stems from traditional Buddhist meditation practices. Psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn has been instrumental in bringing this form of meditation into medical settings. In formal mindfulness practice, the person sits with eyes closed, focusing the attention on the sensations and movement of the breath for approximately 45 to 60 minutes, at least once a day. Informal mindfulness practice involves bringing awareness to every activity in daily life. Wandering thoughts or distracting feelings are simply noticed, without resistance or reaction. The essence of mindfulness meditation is not that on which the individual is focusing, but rather the quality of dispassionate awareness the person brings to each moment. According to Kabat-Zinn, the purpose of mindfulness meditation is to become aware of one's body and mind in the present moment. Discerning observation differentiates mindfulness from other types of meditation. The MBSR program consists of a series of classes involving meditation, movement, and group participation. There are over 240 MBSR programs offered in health care settings around the world.
Meditation is not considered a medical procedure or intervention by most insurers; therefore, if there is a cost associated with training, patients pay for it themselves. Frequently, religious groups or meditation centers offer meditation instruction free of charge or for a nominal donation. Hospitals may offer MBSR classes to their patients for a reduced fee, and to the general public for a somewhat higher fee.
The scientific study of the physiological effects of meditation began in the early 1960s. These studies demonstrated that meditation affects metabolism, the endocrine system, the central nervous system, and the autonomic nervous system. In particular, there is a slowing of cardiac and respiratory rates, a decrease in blood pressure, and an increase in alpha brain waves. These effects are typical of reduced anxiety.
There is a growing body of evidence supporting the medical benefits of meditation. For example, meditation is particularly effective as a treatment for chronic pain. Researchers have found that meditation reduces symptoms of pain and reliance on drugs used to control pain. For example, in one four-year follow-up study, the majority of patients in an MBSR program reported improvement in the experience of pain as a result of participation in the program.
For many years, meditation has been recommended as a treatment for high blood pressure; however, there is a debate over the effectiveness of meditation compared with medical treatment. Although most studies show a reduction in blood pressure as a result of meditation, medication is relatively more effective.
Meditation may be an effective treatment for coronary artery disease (CAD). For example, a study of 21 patients practicing TM for eight months increased their tolerance of exercise and their capacity for work. Also, meditation is an important part of Dr. Dean Ornish's program for the prevention or reversal of CAD. His program involves a low-fat vegetarian diet, moderate exercise (for example, walking 30 minutes per day), and techniques for reducing stress, including meditation.
Researchers have found that meditation is effective in the treatment of chemical dependency. Gelderloos and others reviewed 24 studies and concluded that TM is helpful in programs that target smoking behavior and drug and alcohol abuse.
The scientific evidence also suggests that meditation is particularly helpful in treating anxiety-related disorders and in reducing symptoms of anxiety triggered by stress. For example, researchers conducted a study in 1998 of 37 patients with psoriasis—a chronic, stress-related skin condition. They found that patients who practiced mindfulness meditation and who received standard ultraviolet light treatment experienced a more rapid clearing of their skin condition than the control subjects. Another study found that meditation moderated the symptoms of fibromyalgia (a chronic condition where people suffer diffuse muscular pain at several sites on the body); over half of the patients reported significant improvement. Meditation was one of several stress management techniques used in a small study of HIV-positive men. The study showed improvements in immune function and psychological well-being.
In sum, holistic practitioners speak about the body's capacity for healing itself; since meditation leads to a peaceful, relaxed state with measurable physiological benefits. Healing is facilitated presumably by moderating the state of arousal generated by chronic stress. There is a variety of stress-reducing techniques available, such as hypnosis, progressive relaxation, biofeedback , guided imagery, and aerobic exercise. Health consumers are encouraged to investigate the various techniques and seek referrals to good physicians, therapists, or stress counselors who are willing to design a flexible program that meets their needs.
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Insight Meditation Society. 1230 Pleasant, St. Barre, MA >01005. (978) 355-4378. <http://www.dharma.org> .
Mind/Body Medical Institute. 110 Francis Street, Boston, MA >02215. (617) 632-9530. <http://www.mbmi.org> .
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. >NCCAM Clearinghouse, P.O. Box 7923, Gaithersburg, MD 20898. (888) 644-6226. <http://www.nccam.nih.gov> .
Linda Chrisman Tanja Bekhuis, Ph.D.
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