Meditation is a term that refers to a group of techniques where a user trains his or her mind to a mode of consciousness to obtain certain benefits. Examples of meditations include mantra meditation, relaxation response, mindfulness meditation and Zen Buddhist meditation. Majority of the meditation techniques traces their origins as far back during the prehistoric times. The roots of the practice of meditation are strongly linked to religious practices. In the early days, meditation was used as an individual’s way to engage with the spiritual dimension of the universe or to appease the gods or to communicate with a perceived supreme being.
Today in modern society, the adoption of meditation has extended its traditional use outside the scope of religion as people utilize it for health-related purposes. There is still no consensus on the universally accepted definition of meditation within the realm of scientific language, but the world of conventional modern medicine is slowly embracing the concept as an alternative or complementary form of medicine. By definition complementary and alternative medicine refers to a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of the conventional practice of medicine (NIH NCAM, USA).
One of the key principles of meditation is the union of the mind, emotions, and the body that directly affects health. This direction is opposite to the Cartesian model of mind-body separation in the conventional modern medicine. Meditation trains a person to focus attention, and some forms of meditations instruct the person to intimately connect with his or her thoughts, feelings, and sensations and to observe them without any judgment. It is believed that this practice results to a deeper state of calmness, psychological balance and physical relaxation. Meditation can be transformative as a person learns to a more profound way of relating to his or her thoughts and emotions.
More and more people in the U.S. practice meditation. In a national government survey, an increase from 7.6% in 2002 to 9.4% in 2007 of the respondents reported the use of meditation in the past 12 months. This figure roughly translates an increase from 15 million people to 20 million people in a five-year span. People in the U.S. use meditation for a variety of health reasons. As you read on, you will learn what benefits meditation can offer to our health.
- Meditation can address various health problems – Many people are learning to use meditation to combat depression, anxiety, pain, stress, sleep problems, and other physical or emotional symptoms that may be associated with chronic illnesses (such as heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and cancer) and their treatment.
- Meditation has been shown to induce some changes in the body. – Researchers are intrigued at how some types of meditation might work to affect the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system (ANS). Specifically there are two parts of the ANS that are referred to here, which are the sympathetic nervous system, which governs bodily action in times of “fight-or-flight” response during stress periods thereby causing the heart to beat fast and the blood vessels to constrict, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls many organs and muscles during times when the body is in a relaxed state. It is thought that some types of meditation might work by reducing activity in the sympathetic nervous system and increasing activity in the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Meditation has been found to increase brain size. – Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found the first evidence that meditation can alter the physical structure of our brains. Brain scans they conducted reveal that experienced meditators boasted increased thickness in parts of the brain that deal with attention and processing sensory input. Sara Lazar, leader of the study and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School says: “Our data suggest that meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being.” So what could be the implication of this study? Since this type of meditation counteracts the natural thinning of the thinking surface of the brain, scientists are interested to find out if it could play a role in slowing – even reversing – aging.
- Meditation increases happiness, boosts the immune system. – Scientists at the University of Wisconsin reported that people who are newly trained in meditation have shown an increase in electrical activity in the left frontal part of the brain, an area associated with positive emotion and happiness. In the same study, meditators also showed a significant increase in immunity to the flu.
- Mindfulness meditation shows promise in the treatment of fibromyalgia – Fibromyalgia is a medical disorder characterized by chronic widespread pain and allodynia (a heightened and painful response to pressure). Studies carried out by a group of investigators from the University of Basel suggest improvements in general aspects of the patient’s well-being, including quality of life, coping and positive affect, as well as decreased anxiety and depression (ScienceDaily, August 6, 2007).
More empirical studies need to be carried out to verify the results of the positive contributions meditation can give to human health. But the good news is that we are looking at a more positive future with this available technique as a regimen to help ourselves promote wellness.
“Meditation: An Introduction“. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institutes of Health, USA. NCCAM Publication No. D308, updated June 2010. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm
“Meditation found to increase brain size“. Harvard Gazette. Harvard University. 2011. http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2006/02/meditation-found-to-increase-brain-size/
“Meditation and Health”. Wildmind: Buddhist Meditation. http://www.wildmind.org/applied/health
“Mindfulness Meditation: A New Treatment for Fibromylagia?” ScienceDaily, August 6, 2007). http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/08/070805134742.htm
Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org