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.
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.
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.
About the time the Beatles went to visit their guru in India in the late 1960s, American cardiologist Herbert Benson, M.D., was noticing that his patients often had high blood pressure during their regular checkups.
He suspected, and later showed through studies, that the cause was not primary hypertension but the stress of the office visit itself. The cure was changing patients’ thought patterns through what he called the relaxation response. Benson used various kinds of meditative practices—including deep breathing, walking, tai chi and yoga—to elicit the relaxation.
Shortly after that, Kabat-Zinn became interested in the connection between mind and body, and in particular how stress affects health. His mindfulness-based stress reduction is now taught in prisons, schools, hospitals and corporations, and practiced by athletes and cardiac patients, people suffering from pain or anxiety, and kids with attention-deficit disorder, among others.
Both Benson and Kabat-Zinn have been central in developing a scientific underpinning for their theories. But despite the growing stack of studies showing benefits for a diverse group of physical and mental ailments, many critics remain skeptical. In 2007 the University of Alberta, under contract with the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, analyzed many of these studies and found that the state of the research was “beset with uncertainty.”
Richard J. Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin and researcher of meditation and the brain, points out that major work in the field is just beginning. An experienced meditator himself, Davidson has done important research showing that the effects of meditation can be seen on magnetic resonance images of the brain, and that MRIs of people who have meditated regularly over many years indicate that these people can slip easily into a state of effortless concentration. The idea that meditation can change the brain is an important step toward showing how and exactly what it changes.
Another study, published in a 2006 Archives of Internal Medicine, found that transcendental meditation can improve blood pressure, insulin resistance and heart rate variability, all factors in heart disease. Transcendental meditation involves silently repeating a word or short phrase to focus attention and calm the mind.
Small studies have also indicated meditation is useful in treating congestive heart failure, depression, chronic pain, psoriasis, anxiety and addiction.
And Davidson speculates that by meditating, older people may develop increased “attentional skills” that could compensate for deficits in memory, but he stresses that this theory is still conjecture.
Sheila Jowsey, M.D., a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., has enough clinical observations to be convinced of meditation’s value to some patients. She has encouraged the practice in organ transplant patients, who are very ill and usually frustrated or depressed by the wait for life-saving organs.
Jowsey says those patients who have been training in meditation and then return for medical appointments weeks later respond favorably. “They report decreased anxiety and an improved quality of life,” Jowsey says. Like many other health care professionals experimenting with meditation, Jowsey would like to see more research, but the improvement she’s seeing in her patients is enough for now.
Try it for yourself
There are multiple ways to practice mindful meditation, including tai chi and yoga. Here are a few.
- Sit or lie comfortably, noticing the breath as it goes into the lungs and following it with your mind as it goes out. Then “watch” any thoughts that float into the mind, acknowledge them (“Oh yeah, there’s the worry about paying the electric bill.”) and let them float on by without making any judgment. This is difficult for everybody, especially at first. Forgive yourself.
- Walking meditation. “Watch” your breath as it goes in and out and be aware of each footfall, counting the steps if you want to. Again, notice your thoughts but don’t latch onto them.
- Body scan. Always breathing deeply, sit or lie comfortably and bring awareness to the tips of the toes. Work your awareness gradually, inch by inch, to the top of your head. This can take 10 minutes or longer. Again, watch your thoughts. Acknowledge stray ones, then let them go.
Jon Kabat-Zinn. Any, but particularly Wherever You Go, There You Are (Hyperion, 2005).
Thich Nhat Hahn. Especially Be Free Where You Are (Parallax Press). Hahn is a foremost Buddhist teacher and meditator, and his books are full of kindness and good ideas.
See also guided meditation CDs from Kabat-Zinn.
Kabat-Zinn’s Center for Mindfulness has information on stress reduction and meditation.
The Mayo Clinic has a video that guides viewers through a meditation session.
Linda Greider writes about health issues. She lives in Washington, D.C.