The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a division of the National Institutes of Health, released statistics in December showing that 9.4 percent of adults surveyed had used some form of meditation in the previous year, and that almost 13 percent had practiced deep breathing, which is often a part of meditation. Those numbers are up significantly from a similar survey in 2002. The people who used some form of complementary or alternative medicine such as meditation tended to be older, better educated and more prosperous.
Of the dozens of variations practiced today, the type of meditation most widely used within the U.S. health care system is called “mindfulness-based stress reduction.” Both a theory and a type of meditation, it was developed in the 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat-Zinn’s research, teaching and books are largely responsible for the current widespread use of the practice.
Why is meditation so popular? “Because it works,” says 68-year-old Susan Stone, a longtime meditator and a visiting instructor with the University of Virginia’s department of medicine.
Stone practices and teaches mindfulness meditation. The idea is to learn to be aware of the present moment and rid the mind of distracting clutter such as: “Why did my daughter seem angry yesterday?” “Is this meeting ever going to be over?” “I’ll never be able to play the piano like that.”
Stone says mindfulness training involves learning how to unhook from disruptive thoughts so we can make choices about where we want to direct our attention. She emphasizes that part of meditation practice is learning kindness, to oneself and to others.
Experts say that meditation is not meant to create psychedelic revelations or trips to another mental universe. And it has nothing to do with cults and is separate from religious faith, although prayer itself is a form of meditation.
From Buddhist monks to medical journals
Purposeful, quiet contemplation is an ancient practice. Some 2,500 years ago, Buddhist monks organized their contemplation into a specific form that continues today, sitting quietly, breathing deeply and concentrating the mind by chanting aloud, or silently, a single word. Using techniques similar to mindfulness meditation, Buddhist or transcendental meditators seek enlightenment through awareness, human kindness and personal acceptance that radiates outward.