Over the holidays, Jackie, my best friend went to India for a week long silent meditation retreat. While it’s certainly not my idea fun, she came back rejuvenated and recharged. She said the experience was so transformational that she has already signed up for another retreat in June! Even the sceptic in me is beginning to feel that there may be something more in this meditation practice than I had given it credit for.
Often thought of as a hippy-dippy practice aimed at transcendence, meditation is coming into its own as a stress-reduction technique for even the most type-A kind of people.
Jackie had shrugged off her high blood pressure most of her life, but after her life-changing meditation retreat in January, she kicked off a personal makeover. She read books on happiness, started psychotherapy, and got more exercise. She swears she felt more relaxed — and her blood pressure returned to normal!
Science or fiction?
Apparently, Jackie is not alone in her experience. Studies do show that meditation not only lowers blood pressure but also can amp up your immune system — although the mechanism isn’t clear — while improving your ability to concentrate.
Scientists say that meditators benefit from changes in their brains. The researchers report that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. The findings will appear in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.
M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes.
It has been hard to pinpoint the benefits of meditation, but a 2009 study suggests that meditation may reduce blood pressure in patients with coronary heart disease. And a 2007 study found that meditators have longer attention spans.
In a 2008 study published in the journal PloS One, researchers found that when meditators heard the sounds of people suffering, they had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures, a part of the brain tied to empathy, than people who did not meditate.
Meditation and Stress
Most people who seek meditation out do so as a form of solace from stress. And it seems that meditation is indeed the answer! In fact, stress reduction could be the key to meditation’s beneficial effect on health. Since stress is a contributor to major modern killers, it stands to reason that a reduction in stress will lead to an improvement in overall health. While studies have shown improvement for fibromyalgia and even psoriasis in patients who meditate, the overall benefits may be even more far-reaching , impacting many other types of diseases as well.
Studies indicated that meditation improved both physical and emotional responses to stress. In the study, people who meditated regularly for six weeks showed less activation of their immune systems and less emotional distress when they were put in a stressful situation.
How to meditate? But how do we newbies to the world of meditation embark on this age old technique?
Those who meditate can choose among a wide range of practices, both religious and secular. What they have in common are a narrowing of focus that shuts out the external world and usually a stilling of the body.
In fact there are dozens of techniques and disciplines available, from saying a mantra to staring at a candle flame to counting breaths. Keep trying until something feels right. Places to check out are: community centres even local temples and local colleges; they’re often affordable at such places.
While I have not plucked up enough courage for a week long silent retreat in India yet, I am certainly sold on the benefits of meditation. One hour of silent sitting a day is certainly a small price to pay for better health and a calmer mind. In fact, in this day and age of over stimulation, it may not be a bad thing to shut oneself off from the external world and reconnect with our senses, if not for health, at least for our sanity.