Mariko Thompson, L.A. Daily News: David Perrin couldn’t let go of his anxious thoughts. If he dealt with a cranky guest at the hotel where he works, the encounter weighed on him for the rest of the day.
Now when that happens, he just says, “Om.”
The 29-year-old Glendale resident took up the ancient practice of meditation six months ago. By stilling the turbulent thoughts that preyed on his mind, Perrin took control of his emotions and discovered a sense of balance.
“I’m not as reactionary as I used to be,’ says Perrin, who studies meditation at the Khandakapala Buddhist Center in Silver Lake. “I’d blame the other person for making me feel upset. Now I’m much more calm and have more patience.’
Meditation still elicits its share of navel-gazing wisecracks and Zen-master jokes (just ask former Lakers coach Phil Jackson). But these days, meditation is seen as more than a spiritual tool. In a 24-7 society where stress overload has become a natural state, a mini-vacation for the mind might be just what the doctor ordered.
“It’s about time, don’t you think?’ says Dr. Gary Davidson, an oncologist who leads meditation classes at Northridge Hospital Medical Center. “Ever since Descartes split the mind and body, we’ve been trying to put them back together.’
Tools for tranquillity
Chronic stress has been linked to increased risk for hypertension, heart disease and other illnesses. Since most of us can’t retreat to a cave or a monastery, managing stress — not avoiding stress — has become the mantra. Most people try meditation, yoga or tai chi on their own, not from a doctor’s recommendation. Dr. Ka-Kit Hui, director of the UCLA Center for East West Medicine, would like that to change.
Hui says there’s plenty of evidence to show that mind-body therapies such as meditation are beneficial and should be recommended alongside conventional treatments. For example, a patient with hypertension who meditates might be able to take a lower dose of medicine, he says.
“Anything that increases our ability to handle different types of stress in our lives will be beneficial,’ Hui says.
Dr. Jeffrey Brantley of Duke University Medical Center credits Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson for laying the scientific foundation for mind-body medicine. Back in the 1970s, Benson studied the effects of meditation on the body, including heart rate and blood pressure. He coined the term “relaxation response,’ a deep, restful state that serves as a counterbalance to the adrenalin rush known as the fight-or-flight response.
Benson, who founded the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard, provided evidence on how meditation affects the body. Now scientific research is giving clues as to why meditation affects the body, says Brantley, a psychiatrist and director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine.
A preliminary study in 2003 at the University of Wisconsin Medical School compared brain activity in participants who meditated to those in a control group. The meditation group showed an increase in electrical activity in the left frontal region of the brain. According to the researchers led by psychiatry professor Richard Davidson, this area of the brain is associated with low anxiety levels and positive emotional states.
In other words, the reason meditation makes people feel good may be based in biology.
Time to practice
Like learning to play the piano or golf, meditation takes dedication and practice. Beginners may not experience an immediate calming effect as they sit with their eyes closed. Some people experience discomfort at first because the flood of thoughts becomes more intense. By being still, the person is simply more aware of the anxious thoughts, says Brantley, author of “Calming Your Anxious Mind.’
“It’s the natural fruit of paying attention,’ he says. “We tell people who come to our program that the first few weeks might be more stressful.’
Gen Kelsang Lekma, a Buddhist nun who teaches meditation at Khandakapala Buddhist Center, compares the novice’s experience to a radio blaring in the background. The noise has been there all along. With practice, the student learns to switch off the radio.
For the true student of meditation, calming the mind represents only the first step of the spiritual journey. But it’s a crucial one.
“We realize how many thoughts we have — and it’s a shock,’ she says. “We have to know we have the thoughts before we can let them go.’