Practical, yes, practical aspect of meditation (Akron Beacon Journal, Ohio)

Diane Evans, Beacon Journal: Dear Readers,

We will host a live online chat on the subject of meditation on Oct. 12 from 7 to 8 p.m. at the Beacon Journal’s Web site at www.ohio.com. All are invited to participate, and no special preparations are required.

The goal is to develop a better understanding of what meditation is, and how to practice it.

Our guests at the chat will be Howard Hall of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine; Bhikkhuni Sudhamma, a Buddhist nun who will log on from a monastery in South Carolina; and Joan Fox, director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. Hall has published research findings relating to mind training in healing. Fox is a meditation practitioner with a research interest in the physiological changes that take place in the body as a result of meditation.

You will have the opportunity to ask questions and chat with our guests as you like.

We’re approaching our live online chat on meditation on Oct. 12, and leading up to that, I’ve written a lot about this subject, both in the newspaper and on our forum discussion page on the Beacon Journal’s Web site at www.ohio.com.

I don’t know why, but all a sudden, something about this whole subject reminds me of childbirth. Like childbirth, meditation is hard to explain to someone who has never experienced it. There are aspects that we don’t quite understand, yet people have been doing it since the beginning of time. There is nothing new about meditation.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with a famous researcher in the field of meditation: Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School. As founding president of Boston’s Mind/Body Medical Institute, Benson has written more than 170 scientific papers and seven books relating to the physiological effects of meditation on the body.

His best-selling book, titled The Relaxation Response, discusses what happens when a person relaxes. Blood pressure goes down, for example, and breathing and heart rates slow.

What I liked most about our conversation is that Benson stripped away the high-minded mysticism surrounding meditation and talked about the practical side — including the idea that some people may practice forms of meditation without even knowing it.

Instead of trying to paraphrase his comments, I’m just going to give you the conversation, almost in its entirety:

Q: Dr. Benson, how would you explain meditation?

A: First, let’s take a step back to stress.

When we’re under stress — and by that, I mean any situation that requires behavioral change — we evoke what we call a fight-or-flight response. That means we increase heart rate, rate of breathing, metabolism, blood pressure and the flow of blood to our limbs.

All these physiological changes prepare us for running or for fighting. But we don’t run, and we don’t fight. But these hormones are there, not being used as they should, and this leads to anxiety, depression, anger and hostility, high blood pressure, cardiac irregularity, insomnia. It doesn’t cause pain, but it makes pain worse. Over 60 percent of visits to doctors are due to stress and these mind/body reactions.

Q: So how do we know about stress reduction?

A: Opposite the fight-or-flight response, we have within us something called the relaxation response.

But two steps are necessary to bring it about. The first is a repetition. That repetition can be a word, a sound, a prayer, a phrase or even a repetitive motion.

The second step is when other thoughts come to mind, you return to the repetition. There are scores of techniques that can bring about the relaxation response.

Q: What’s an example of a repetition?

A: For example, the rosary in Catholicism. Or it could be jogging, knitting, crocheting, yoga or the Lamaze breathing exercises.

All that is different is the sound or the phrase. Every culture has the same steps. So there is nothing unique about meditation. The essence is just to break the train of everyday thought.

Q: Does that mean somehow transcending where we’re at now?

A: Forget transcending. It’s not so much transcending as it is shutting off. You’re allowing your body to revert to an innate, quieting capacity.

Religious people will say it’s God-given. Nonreligious people will say it came from evolution.

Either way, we’ve got this capacity within ourselves, and there is no reason to look East. The West has its own traditions. East or West, we have it within us. And what we have within us is the relaxation response. If we can get that across to people, it would be wonderful.

Q: What doesn’t get across?

A: Some people think it’s Eastern, that it’s foreign, that it’s not in their belief system. It doesn’t matter. You choose your own words or sounds or phrases.

Q: What does the research on meditation tell us?

A:. I’ve been studying this for more than 35 years. What we have discovered is that there are distinct bodily changes when the relaxation response has been brought forth — decreased heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing, and slower brain waves. The activity in the brain is quieted.

Q: How long does the effect last?

A: It lasts as long as you do it, but then there is a carry-over effect throughout a 24 hour period.

To the extent any disease or disorder is caused or made worse by stress, bringing forth the relaxation response is an effective therapy. This inborn capacity we have to counteract stress is effective in counteracting stress-related disorders.

If you do this once or twice a day for 10 or 20 minutes, you you become more efficient. Excessive stress causes inefficiency.

To read more about meditation, go to our forum discussion at the Beacon Journal’s Web site at www.ohio.com. Just click on “Diane Evans” in the blue shaded section, then click where it says “Forums Link: Book Club Forums Discussion.”

This week’s newsletter, which is posted, discusses meditation from the perspective of a friend of mine, Ravi Kulasekere, who practices Buddhist meditation. Kulasekere is a physicist who formerly worked at Goodyear and is now employed at the University of Michigan Health System.

Diane Evans is a Beacon Journal columnist. You can reach her by mail at the Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640, by e-mail at livingwell@thebeaconjournal.com or by phone at 330-996-3587.

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