Meditation calms mind, helps heal body

By Harry Jackson Jr., ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH, Oct 2, 2006

St. Louis, MO (USA) -- Jim McLaughlin has lived his life as a practical man. He's a business consultant who served 10 years in the U.S. Navy, has never used illegal drugs, has been married 32 years and has two children, both professionals.

Buddhist meditation wasn't on his radar when he started trying to tame some of the chaos in his mind. But in his late 50s, he was diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder.

"I've had it all my life. I just never realized it," he says. "It's why I needed to flit like a butterfly from thing to thing to thing.

"I needed something to quiet all those voices in my head. I was having problems keeping my business going. There were feelings of unworthiness …"

Three years ago, he heard a scientist, Daniel Goleman, on a public radio talk show discussing a practice called mindfulness meditation. He spoke not in religious terms, but like a scientist talking about a new discovery. McLaughlin read Goleman's book "Destructive Emotions" and decided to try meditation.

Today, three years after joining the St. Louis Insight Meditation Group, Goleman says meditation has changed his life. He practices meditation about 30 minutes a day, four to five days a week.

"It's not a religion," he says. "I'm Episcopalian and have no reason to change my belief in Jesus Christ. I just wanted to control the noise in my head."

Modern meditation

Meditation, the practice of controlling your focus to feel better, has been a mystic art since before recorded history. Every culture in the world has practiced some form of meditation and still does.

But in the past 40 years, meditation has inched its way into Western mainstream health care, and for good reason.

Research shows that it counteracts chronic stress, a condition many scientists believe underlies most illnesses. Federally supported studies are looking into meditation as a means to improve heart health, relieve symptoms of diseases and improve the brain's long- and short-term health.

The National Centers for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a division of the National Institutes of Health, reports that more than 15.3 million people practiced some form of meditation in 2002 as a means to ease some form of illness. Others practice for simple relaxation.

And that number is rising.

The reason is simple, says Stephen Bodian, author of "Meditation for Dummies," a bestseller in its second edition. Meditation helps people who feel bad to feel good, and people who feel good to feel better.

"The goal is happiness," Bodian says. "What kind of a therapeutic effect does happiness have? Isn't that what we go to therapy for? Happiness is the ultimate cure."

Bodian points to research showing that meditation can change the brain for the better. That includes increasing the emotional set point -- that natural mood that people wrestle with all of their lives. Some people are naturally down; some are naturally up. Meditation can improve that permanently, Bodian says.

Well-being brought on by meditation, he adds, is shown to lower blood pressure, improve the immune system and promote intense relaxation.

The science

The most telling research comes from the Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior in Wisconsin. A team led by neuroscientist Richard Davidson performed brain scans on a master meditator and found that his brain activity surpassed that of a professional athlete during intense competition.

While scientists still don't know exactly how meditation works, the research shows that it does work and can change the brain for the better.

For one thing, meditation appears to generate a biochemical anti-stress reaction that counteracts the biochemical stress reaction.

During meditation, the body produces nitric oxide, the chemical used by pharmaceutical companies to lower blood pressure. (That's not to be confused with nitrous oxide, which dentists use as an anesthetic or revelers use to liven up parties.) Nitric oxide lowers blood pressure by dilating blood vessels to take pressure off the heart.

"That's been shown … that when you meditate, or do yoga or tai chi or other methods, they actually reduce the blood pressure," says Jeffrey Dusek, a psychobiologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School and an associate research director at the Mind/Body Institute in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

"Meditation, relaxation response training, may be doing the same thing the pharmaceuticals are doing, changing the body's capacity to release nitric oxide. So we think we're onto the biological mechanism of how (meditation) is working."

NCCAM-sponsored research recognizes two major forms of meditation -- mindfulness meditation, in which one focuses by becoming aware of the moment, and Transcendental Meditation, in which a mantra is repeated.

Which form to use is a matter of choice, Dusek says. Researchers found no vast difference between the results of mindfulness or TM.

"But it's something everyone should do over their lives," he says.

The human stress reaction evolved to help our caveman ancestors survive life-threatening situations. Nowadays, modern people react to administrative stress the same way they did to toothy, four-legged predators.

"In our day, the mind is perceiving threats where there

aren't any," says Bridget Rolens, who teaches mindfulness meditation with the St. Louis Insight Meditation Group. "So the mind perceives the way my supervisor acts as a threat to my security.

"My body tenses up. But fighting or fleeing doesn't get rid of my boss's personality, so the threat is never gone. We end up with chronic stress, and chronic stress is a factor in (numerous diseases)."

The mainstream

Ryan Niemiec, a clinical psychologist and behavioral health consultant with the St. Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute, uses mindfulness meditation in his practice. He also works with physicians to help integrate meditation into their treatments.

"Since mindfulness is about bringing one's awareness to your present experiences -- sensations, thoughts, emotions, health and health habits -- it brings an approach for people working with themselves, becoming more aware of problems occurring in the body or in the mind," he says.

Mindfulness first teaches them how much they're not paying attention to, he says.

"Become aware of the opposite first, become aware of … what some practitioners call automatic pilot, to go through the motions of life, where we move like automatons, not aware of what's going on," he says.

"Then show people they can make a shift in whatever they're doing -- driving, eating, talking, eating, getting ready for sleep -- if they can bring their attention fully into the moment with the sensory experience, with their thoughts, with their feelings, so they can be wherever they are.

"It's all about being rather than doing."

A simple mindfulness meditation

  • Find a quiet and comfortable place to sit.
  • Use good posture; don't slump.
  • Close your eyes and inhale deeply, letting the air fill the whole of your lungs. Some call this belly breathing.
  • Focus on your breathing. As your mind wanders, bring it back by focusing on your breathing. Be gentle with yourself. Your mind will wander to the past and try to
    predict the future. That's natural. Simply bring your focus back to your breathing.
  • As you breathe, let your mind check your shoulders, one or both, to detect tension. Release the tension and continue your breathing.
  • Do the same with your arms, your chest, your stomach, your legs.
  • Return your mind to your breathing and run through the breathing and body parts again.
  • After five to 30 minutes, open your eyes, take a few deep breaths and return to your day.