No lotus position needed: Neuroscience pushes meditation into the mainstream

Jeff Strickler, Sioux City Journal: When the Rev. Ron Moor began meditating 30 years ago, he did so in secret.

“When I started, meditation was a dirty word,” said Moor, pastor of Spirit United Church in Minneapolis. “[Evangelist] Jimmy Swaggart called it ‘the work of the devil.’ Because of its basis in Eastern religions, fundamentalists considered it satanic. Now those same fundamentalists are embracing it. And every class I teach includes at least a brief meditation.”

The faith community isn’t alone in changing its attitude. Businesses, schools and hospitals not only have become more accepting of meditation, but many offer classes on it. Meditating has gone mainstream.

Why? “Because it works,” Moor said.

Adherents have been saying that for centuries, of course, but now there’s a difference: Scientists can prove it.

Propelled by technological breakthroughs in neuroscience enabling researchers to monitor brain activity, the medical community is awash in studies showing that meditating has beneficial physical effects on the brain. Those studies are being joined by others demonstrating that advantages include everything from raising the effectiveness of flu vaccines to lowering rejection rates for organ transplants.

“Meditation has become a huge topic” in medical circles, said Dr. Selma Sroka, medical director of the Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) Alternative Medicine Clinic. “The health benefits are so strong that if nothing else, people should learn the relaxation techniques.”

The practice is being embraced by an audience that isn’t interested in its religious contexts, typically Buddhist or Hindu, but is fascinated by its mechanics and techniques. Sroka compared the West’s co-opting of meditation to what happened to yoga, which came to this country as a spiritual discipline and has morphed into a form of physical fitness.

Some would-be meditators opt simply to ignore the religious element, said Mark Nunberg, co-founder of Common Ground Meditation Center in Minneapolis. Although his center is a Buddhist organization, at least half the people who enroll in classes are there just for instruction in meditation …

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