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Meditation as Medicine on the Rise

  • By EPHRAT LIVNI N E W   Y O R K, July 5 Shot 2017-07-15 at 9.33.58 AM

    Many moons ago, a wandering Nepalese prince sat under a tree, vowing not to rise until he attained enlightenment.

    After a long night of deep meditation, Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha, saw the light and declared that suffering is subjective, and can be reduced through self-awareness.

    Today, 2500 years later, a growing number of American doctors and healthcare workers are teaching people who are ill how to apply Buddha’s epiphany to their lives.

    In hospitals, businesses and community centers around the country, meditation is increasingly being offered as a method of stress reduction, and to help patients better cope with the physical pain and mental strain associated with many medical conditions, including heart disease and HIV infection.

    Recent research shows meditation’s soothing effects can be detected in arterial walls and in the brain. Once considered outside the mainstream, today more insurers are paying for meditation, both as a form of medication and as preventive medicine.

    Learning to ‘Disidentify’

    “Meditation is the act of disidentifying from inner thought flow and concentrating on calming and healing,” explains Robert Thurman, Ph.D., a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University in New York and the first American to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Through meditation, doctors help patients detach from their pain and anxieties and cultivate a connection between the mind and the body, he says.

    While there are many kinds of meditation, the mindfulness approach, used widely in hospitals around the country, focuses primarily on breathing. Practices vary, but the basic idea involves sitting comfortably, with eyes closed, spine straight and attention focused on breathing.

    Practitioners aim to maintain a detached, calm awareness of their thoughts and sensations. Through mindfulness, experts say, meditators learn to pay attention to the present and cultivate clarity of mind, equanimity and wisdom.

    Minor Mindfulness Miracles

    All of which may sound very abstract. Unless, points out Jeff Brantley, Ph.D, Director of the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C., you are a patient who is suffering.

    “We had one patient, a 40-year-old woman with metastatic breast cancer who was enrolled in the 8-week MBSR program. At her exit interview she said that before the course began 5 minutes wouldn’t go by without her worrying about what would become of her and her young family and now, after the class, she can concentrate on other things for more than hour at a time, even days,” Brantley says, calling the results “a minor miracle.”

    The Duke program is one of at least 70 such mind-body based courses modeled on the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Stress Reduction Clinic, in Worcester, Mass., created in 1979 by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Taught mainly in hospitals around the country, mindfulness training is typically run as an 8-week-long outpatient program to complement other medical treatments.

    The aim, according to a website dedicated to Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, is to assist people in taking better care of themselves “through a gentle but rigorous daily discipline of meditation and relaxation.”

    Doctors refer patients to mindfulness programs for any number of diseases and disorders, including heart disease, anxiety and panic, job or family stress, chronic pain, cancer, HIV infection, AIDS, headaches, sleep disturbances, type A behavior, high blood pressure, fatigue and skin disorders.

    In keeping with the growing interest in preventative medicine, some insurance companies, such as Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Massachusetts and a number of insurers in what Thurman calls “the more enlightened states like Oregon and California,” are now paying for all or part of these programs.

    Research for Coverage

    While the National Institutes of Health says it is too soon to quantify the medical benefits of meditation, Anita Greene, spokeswoman for the Institute’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine division, concedes, “It is a therapy worthy of further scientific investigation to refute or support the health claims being made.”

    In fact, in 1999, the NIH granted Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, $8 million during a five-year period to study the effects of meditation in African Americans with cardiovascular diseases.

    Researchers at Maharishi say that relaxing and reducing stress through transcendental meditation may reduce artery blockage and the risk of heart attack and stroke, according to a study released in the March issue of the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke (see related story).

    Another recent pilot study, published in the May 15 issue of NeuroReport, by Sara Lazar, Ph.D., a Harvard research fellow in psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, suggests meditation activates specific regions of the brain that may influence heart and breathing rates. Using a brain imaging technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, Lazar measured blood flow changes in experienced meditators.

    “What we found were striking changes. There was significant decrease in blood flow and activity in specific areas of the brain,” says the study’s senior author Dr. Herbert Benson, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Mass.

    The usual, fight-or-flight brain response liberates adrenalin and is stressful to the body, he explains, but during meditation the brain acts to quiet the body through concentrated breathing or word repetition, evoking a relaxation response that minimizes the harmful effects of stress.

    “It does away with the whole separation of mind and body and gives further proof to insurers that [meditation] is cost effective,” he says. Ultimately, Benson predicts, medicine will be akin to a three-legged stool, leaning on pharmaceuticals, surgeries and procedures, and self-care, which includes, meditation, nutrition, exercise and health management.

    A Tool for Transformation

    But, Thurman points out, meditation is for more than just health benefits: It is a tool for seeking inner transformation. Meditation practices in the health field are secular, however.

    “We get everyone from born-again Christians to avowed atheists. We tell people we are not trying to make anyone into anything,” Duke’s Brantley reassures. No matter what their religious persuasion, he says, patients find an increased awareness and appreciation of their lives.

    Registered nurse Shirley Gilloti, a San Rafael, Calif., health educator and mindfulness training teacher agrees, “I tell people to try to bring more mindfulness to saying their rosary if that’s what they do.”

5 thoughts on “Meditation as Medicine on the Rise”

  1. Prema Jyoti says:

    This has been extracted from “Handbook of Meditation” by Sneh Chakraburtty of Chittachit Publications.
    Spiritual Yogic Practices are Scientific
    Science confirms that yogic knowledge is about subtle energy (shakti) that has both physical and psychic properties. This energy empowers awareness and when it transforms through yogic exercises it expands humankind’s conscious dimension. This is not a philosophical idea: Kundalini is Shakti the perfect intense form of psychic energy, which lies dormant within everyone.
    Phenomena of telepathy, psychic healing, psychokinesis (moving matter by mind power), dowsing, telegnosis (psychic reading of history and association of objects), and other paranormal events, are receiving attention from the science community. They have been trying to understand the relationship of energy and consciousness. Bioelectronics, paraphysics, biomedical sciences, and psychotronics are all listed as sciences of parapsychology and are based on the existence of the power of Shakti.
    Zdenek Rejdak (1934-2004), a Czech psychologist and scientist worked with Swami Satyananda (1923-2009) and conducted experiments in the early seventies at the Bihar School of Yoga. Later, in Japan at the fifth annual conference of the International! Association for Religion and Parapsychology in 1976, Dr. Rejdak defined psychotronics. He described the field of parapsychology as, “the science which, in an interdisciplinary fashion, studies the distant interactions between living organisms and their environment, internal and external, and the energetic processes underlying these expressions to supplement and widen man’s understanding of the laws of nature.” They noted psychic energy affected a whole range of laboratory equipment, from voltmeters to Geiger counters to magnetometers but its effect encompassed both scientific and spiritual domains.
    Modern science has been able to discover that psychic energy is a real and physically based. Though it does not fall into the known categories of modern science, its effects can be experienced and recorded repeatedly. No one doubts its existence. What it is and how it works, its relationship to body and mind and its potential use, as an evolutionary tool, needs further research from scientists who will find guidelines, perspectives and experiences from dedicated yogis.

    It is a scientific fact that electrical activity in the sensory-motor nervous system (SMS) moves into the brain (afferent) through the parasympathetic ida channel and out of the brain (efferent), through the pingala channel. Yogis say the sense nerves, gyanindriyas, are governed by ida, and motor nerves karmendriyas, are governed by pingala. These nerves are concerned with perception and with activity in the world.
    Yogi-scientists confirm the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is divided into the outward directed, stress handling, energy utilizing, pingala dominant, sympathetic nervous system. The inwardly directed, rest handling, energy conserving, ida dominant, is the parasympathetic nervous system. These two systems control and regulate all automatic body processes: heart, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, liver and kidney and so on.
    Central nervous system (CNS) consists of the brain and spinal cord and contains the controls for the SMS and ANS. The brain is a huge complex computer, which stores and integrates information and puts our decisions into action in a co-ordinated and orchestrated performance. Within the infinite circuitry of the brain lives more potential than one can realize in one lifetime, but techniques of yoga clear and strengthen these circuits with regular practice.
    This is what yogis say about the existence of the circuitry for nadis and chakras within the CNS. We can tap, purify, strengthen and reconnect these circuits by means of the various yogic techniques. These efforts can transform the mind/ body complex. This complex roles on the power of the three basic types of energy- ida, pingala and sushumna. Many yogic techniques are specifically aimed at balancing the ida/pingala flow and increasing our awareness.
    The brain has two major systems which must work together in harmony so as not to lose the essentials of human existence. The nadis must be balanced for ideal functioning of the sushumna to work, and for maximum human potential. Unfortunately, few of us are balanced. When imbalance between the nadis is minor it is almost unnoticeable. It displays in personality, behaviour, relationships and, in ways that are often baffling and can make lives of others miserable.
    Howard Gardener studied severely damaged right brains (ida) and found them robot-like, lacking essential human understanding. Without the right brain there is loss of understanding and their sentences are lost, in bizarre arguments. It shows the right brain is not only important for normal understanding, but also holds the key for intuition and higher experience. Eugene D’Aquili, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, points out that circuits which underlie higher mental states, lie within the right brain, ida, and are powered by the emotions.
    He drew up a neurological explanation for “the intuitive perception of God.” It is seeing ‘reality’ as a unified whole and experiencing it as a feeling of oneness with the world. He proposed the feeling was a product of the parietal-occipital lobe on the right, “non-dominant” side of the brain. ‘Time’ is then experienced as standing still when there is complete unity of self with the cosmos. This right brain role and experience is long-lasting and totally transforms people’s lives so they find new motivation and a healthier, more fulfilling perspective of their relationship with life.
    This research indicates one must make efforts to develop the right brain, for experiencing higher states of consciousness. Yogis state to balance right and left brain, ida and pingala must be balanced with the sushumna and the united channels (brahmanadi) merge with the agnya chakra. The Oneness displays as the Supermind. Regrettably, most mortals waver according to one’s inner biological rhythms. In a normal receptive mode they move from left to right brain, (through right to left nostril) when the biorhythm is active every 90 to 180 minutes.
    From the ayurvedic view when this ‘natural’ rhythmic swaying becomes arrhythmic swinging, it shows an imbalance. According to yoga, when both sad and happy hemispheres are balanced, a new state arises which unites logic and intuition, transforms emotions and enables each to empower a greater range of neurological activity. It is logical there is always a need for gaining equilibrium. Its resultant state of a better experience comes from both sides of the brain. The supermind has a sudden and powerful flash of intuition, piercing insights into the mysteries of the universe.
    This state of being shows right brain harnessing the left brain to build the conviction that matter is electron-photon of wave-energy. Though yoga holds the techniques by which one can rebalance, reintegrate, regenerate and rejuvenate the human body/mind complex by bringing about balance in the nadis, even then many remain unaware of the knowledge.
    Raymond Klein and Roseanne Armitage of the Department of Psychology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia found task performance of left and right brain come in cycles. For 90 minutes, subjects do well on right brain tasks and then switch over to doing well in left brain related tasks. This matches with the 90-minute rise and fall in nostril dominance. The findings are agreeing with the yogic theory there is an intimate relationship between the breath, the brain and their cyclical activity.
    If an individual is unhealthy brain cycles become abnormal in rhythm, duration and quality of function, or in some other way. Ayurvedic Yogis have diagnosed dysfunction of brain rhythm by examining the flow of air in the nostrils. They even to this day assert there is a strong link between not just the nostrils and the brain but between the eyes, ears, and all body organs. These techniques of diagnosis allowed them to treat by asserting control over the nadis, the brain and all body processes.
    Shambhavi mudra and trataka are two of the most powerful techniques of kundalini yoga, designed to awaken ajna chakra by balancing ida and pingala with the sushumna. If this is so, yogic techniques can balance the brain hemispheres also. Research from split brains is revealing that this is so. Research shows when one is gloomy one tends to gaze to the left, affecting the right hemisphere. Happiness causes the opposite to occur.
    This research indicates there is a definite relationship between eye position and hemispheric dominance. It also indicates that shambhavi mudra and trataka balance brain hemisphere activity when the eyes are held steady at the centre of the forehead, crossed in shambhavi and straight ahead in trataka. When practicing these techniques there is a feeling of a powerful stimulation and pressure within the centre of the head, with ajna chakra activation. The subjective experience is of simultaneous extroversion and introversion. Shambhavi is the more powerful technique because it induces an almost immediate effect. Centralized focusing of awareness affects both nadis simultaneously.
    Even more convincing evidence of yoga’s ability to control the nadis in the brain has emerged in our ability to control the brain by the nostrils. David Shannahoff-Khalso of the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in the USA has shown that even a simple breathing exercise can alter short-term brain hemisphere dominance at will. This study shows a relationship between brain activity, the nasal cycle and ability to control our personality. Shannahoff-Khalso found, “The nose is an instrument for altering cortical activity.”

    1. Prema Jyoti says:

      All exercises of yoga focusing on the ‘breath’ are scientific ways to transcend the five senses and reach the inner senses of the physical senses

    2. Sneh says:

      Thank you for your thoughts

  2. Sneh Chakraburtty says:

    When humans end their relationship with the demands of their five senses and have accomplished all deeds through their physical faculties of being, they give up all wants and use their body for premeditated deliberate acts, like yoga, designed to achieve a transformation of one’s inner state.
    This is ‘sādhana.’ It is for recognizing and identifying the principle of the soul – one’s own divinity of godly existence.
    Ātmā is Soul ‘self’; it is not intelligibly understandable to the five senses.
    It is attained by one who has a squeaky clean inner constitution of mind-intellect-personality (chitta).
    This spotless inner constitution once cleansed transforms itself through the brightness of the Knowledge of Truth.
    Once enlightened and it purifies the inner constitution of a meditative person.
    Only then does the soul reveal itself as Divinity to the purified chitta, in meditation.
    That is godly existence!

  3. Meenakshi Bhaga says:

    Lots to think about.
    Thank you for this

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