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Meditation Goes Mainstream

Quiet contemplation gains ground as treatment aids in certain ailments.

Eight people sit in a dimly lit but pleasant basement room listening to the low voice of a social worker urging them to feel their toes. Their eyes are closed. Among them are an elderly mother of nine, a younger woman sobbing quietly, a morbidly obese college student, a middle-age man addicted to opioids, a depressed woman whose son suffered permanent brain injury in Iraq, a jittery teenage girl with scars on her arms, and an older woman slumped low in her chair. All have recently been hospitalized for depression, addiction or other psychiatric illnesses. Now they’re in “day care,” a daily meeting that provides a transition from hospital to home.

Close up on a hand of a person practicing yoga

— L Ancheles/Johnér/Corbis

The social worker is murmuring, “Don’t forget to breathe. Now bring your attention to the soles of your feet. Feel the warmth there, feel your soles everyplace they touch the floor. Breathe.” For the next 10 minutes the social worker will work her way up the body, bit by bit, reminding her charges to breathe.

What are they doing? And why? They are practicing a form of “mindfulness” meditation meant to bring their attention inward and focus their minds on what is real at the moment, ignoring negative “self-talk” such as: “If I weren’t such a loser, I wouldn’t be here in the first place.” The idea is that learning to focus will eventually enable them to stay calm—some call it “centered”—while they deal with the vicissitudes of everyday life.

Meditation gains acceptance

Once upon a time, Americans connected meditation with drug-addled rock stars. Tortured by fame and uncertainty, the performers made well-publicized pilgrimages to India, where they sat in the lotus position at the feet of bearded gurus and chanted nonsense words while their minds went who knows where. To the more earthbound, the whole thing seemed rather suspicious.

Four decades later, from ashrams in India to many of the most respected hospitals in the country, as well as countless homes, community centers, corporations, prisons, and elementary schools, meditation has gone mainstream.

CEOs, assisted-living residents, psychiatric patients, addicts and those looking for more meaning in their lives are learning to breathe deeply and concentrate on the moment. And as scientific studies begin to accumulate, meditation is gaining widespread acceptance in the medical community as a helpful complement to primary treatment for high blood pressure, cardiac problems, pain, anxiety and attention-deficit disorder, among other conditions.

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