relaxation response

Meditation controversy (The Journal News, New York)

Joy Victory, The Journal News: It seems harmless enough: With eyes closed, you sit upright in a quiet room and mentally repeat a word for 10 to 20 minutes – a technique known as Transcendental Meditation. When young children practice it twice a day, according to research provided by the national Committee for Stress-Free Schools, it decreases their blood pressure, improves their grades and lowers their stress levels.

Transcendental Meditation, or TM, is just one of many forms of meditation, a process in which a person narrowly focuses his attention to clear the mind. But some worry that the committee’s claims about TM’s benefits are overblown. Most of the research on TM is skewed toward positive results, critics say, and the TM movement has religious overtones.

Still, at least four schools in the United States have implemented TM into their curriculum, and the committee has been aggressively promoting its program in major cities, including New York City.

In March, the committee held a conference on TM for New York-area school administrators. School-age children demonstrated the technique and researchers shared study results. So far, only private or charter schools are using TM, according to Joseph Boxerman, a TM teacher and media liaison for the committee.

“We will go where we’re welcome,” says Boxerman, who says the school program would be offered free of charge. “It’s a new, emerging trend that’s still below the radar.”

However, outspoken ex-members of the TM movement and other critics would like it to stay that way. They say the mantra, the word that is repeated silently, is a Hindu-based word, and therefore a possible violation of the separation of church and state if used in a school setting. TM critics also are skeptical of the committee’s research about the benefits of TM, which they say is rarely conducted by independent researchers.

“To hear them speak about this, you would think this is the greatest thing since ice cream,” says Barry Markovsky, a researcher of social networks and sociology department head at the University of South Carolina. “It’s a way to foist an actual religion onto unknowing people and a way to turn a profit.”

Committee’s origins

The committee is an offshoot of the Maharishi Vedic Education Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization that promotes the use of TM for all ages. There are dozens of similar groups around the world, funded by followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (also known as “His Holiness”), an Indian mystic who became famous in the 1960s after teaching The Beatles to meditate.

This celebrity connection popularized Mahesh and TM, and by the early 1970s, TM centers had sprung up across the world. Over the years, hundreds of groups influenced by Mahesh’s teachings have taught the same technique, under names like the Spiritual Regeneration Movement and later as the more academic-sounding Science of Creative Intelligence.

Now Mahesh and his supporters have a virtual empire of nonprofit TM teaching centers, real-estate ventures and even accredited universities, such as the Maharishi University of Management in Maharishi Vedic City, Iowa (residents of the city recently approved the name through a vote). There are an estimated 5 million people worldwide who have learned TM, says Bob Roth, a spokesman for the movement.

TM does not come cheap: It costs $2,500 to learn the technique from a qualified teacher, Roth says. That money does not go to Mahesh, however, because he is a monk and lives in poverty, Roth says. Instead, the earnings help create nonprofit centers owned by his supporters.

The inner workings of the various organizations and centers aren’t readily disclosed, and what a person learns during TM training is kept private, Boxerman says.

“The teaching process is a one-to-one experience; that’s the reason we don’t discuss it or publish it in book form,” Boxerman says. “If people try it themselves, they don’t have the experience to know what to do under different circumstances.”

‘Effortless technique’

Boxerman defines TM as “a simple, natural and effortless technique that allows the attention to automatically settle to more subtle levels of the thinking process.”

The movement’s main Web site, www.tm.org, describes it as “the single most effective meditation technique available for gaining deep relaxation, eliminating stress, promoting health, increasing creativity and intelligence, and attaining inner happiness and fulfillment.”

Scientifically, the many forms of meditation, including TM, are thought to elicit a physical sense of relaxation brought about by a calm state of mind, also known as the body’s “relaxation response,” a term coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard Medical School and author of the bestselling book “The Relaxation Response.”

By slowly repeating a word or activity for 10 to 20 minutes, soothing hormones and other chemicals are released by the body, making a person feel rested, according to research by Benson.

While Benson’s method for learning the relaxation response is free to anyone with Web access (www.mbmi.org), followers of Transcendental Meditation must pay for training from a TM teacher or center. (Benson declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Of TM’s many benefits, the Committee for Stress-Free Schools says that stress relief would be the most useful for students, thereby potentially curbing “poor academic achievement, substance abuse, apathy, depression, school violence and teacher burnout,” according to materials provided by the committee.

In a school setting, TM is taught individually, although students do meditate together in large groups. The committee plans to use donated money to teach TM at no cost to taxpayers, but already the National Institutes of Health has given them close to $20 million to study TM in mostly minority communities.

The group also has received more than $100,000 from DaimlerChrysler for the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse, a Detroit charter school that has used Transcendental Meditation since 1997. Besides Talibah, the other schools using TM are in Silver Spring, Md., and Washington, D.C., and at an elementary school on the campus of the Maharishi University of Management in Iowa.

The Research

The Talibah school’s TM program was studied by University of Michigan psychologist Rita Benn, who researches alternative medical therapies. She compared the Talibah students, who meditate twice a day, to a group of similarly-aged students who didn’t meditate. From that, she concluded that TM helped the Talibah students with self-esteem, stress management, depression and anxiety.

However, Benn began her research after the students were already practicing TM, so it’s only possible to conclude that the children were in better mental health than the other group, and not necessarily because of TM.

“Our study is just one small study. We need more studies with larger numbers that show its value before widespread implementation should occur,” Benn said. “Again, that being said, most programs are implemented in schools without solid research behind them.”

The committee, however, feels Benn’s study and other TM research on TM proves its value in schools. The committee’s literature states there are more than 500 studies on TM by “200 independent research institutions worldwide.”

But a large-scale literature review published in 2003 in The Middle European Journal of Medicine found that of 700 studies on TM spanning 40 years, only 10 were conducted in the clinical tradition of using strict control groups, randomization and placebos. Of those 10, four of the studies recruited subjects who had already shown an interest in TM.

“My review concludes it seems that there is a strong placebo effect going on which probably works through the expectations being set up,” responded Peter Canter via e-mail. He is a researcher from the Peninsula Medical School of the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth in the United Kingdom.

The review also stated that many of the authors of the TM studies were connected to one of Mahesh’s universities.

“In effect, they gatekeep who can and who cannot do research on TM,” Canter says.

Yogic flying

For sure, some of Mahesh’s own strange claims have hurt his agenda. In the ’70s, he said meditators could become enlightened enough to float off the ground, in a trance. He dubbed this “yogic flying” and released photos showing meditators aloft. It was soon exposed that the meditators were hopping, not flying.

He also says that if enough meditators meditate or “fly” together, it can affect world events. In 1988, the group issued a press release saying that meditators in Texas were able to affect the path of Hurricane Gilbert, a powerful storm predicted to cause major damage that ended up hitting rural areas of the Gulf Coast.

Followers of TM have dubbed this the “Maharishi Effect,” in which minds meditating together can have an effect on “global consciousness.” The group has built “peace palaces” around the world where they can meditate collectively.

Dr. Gary Kaplan, a transcendental meditator and director of clinical neurophysiology at North Shore University Hospital on Long Island, says research has proven the Maharishi Effect to be possible.

“It’s difficult for the public in general and the scientific community to grasp these concepts because they are not common in the rest of scientific literature,” Kaplan says. “This whole idea of group and environmental effect, it’s been repeated a number of times (in studies.)”

That claim irks skeptics like Markovsky, the sociology researcher at University of South Carolina, who spoke out publicly against the group when he was a professor at the University of Iowa.

“These are obviously cases of selective evidence,” he says, explaining that the group typically takes credit for something when the result is positive. “What bothers me more than anything is the way they use their research as a way to get funding to train new members who become part of the movement.”
Stress relief

It’s the simple stress-reducing effects that the New York committee is primarily interested in, says Sally Rosenfeld, chairwoman of Stress-Free Schools in Westchester and a TM teacher.

She says it is a mental technique, and nothing more.

“What happens when you meditate is the mind quiets or settles down … when the mind settles, the body settles. We call that rest; it’s a very, very deep rest,” Rosenfeld says. “Once that stress is gone, of course what happens is one’s own potential blossoms forth.”

“As life gets more and more stressful, with kids, it’s very hard for them,” Rosenfeld says. “There’s a lot of fear everywhere & in the schools, in the cities. It has gotten completely out of hand. And so many of these young students are on heavy medication (such as antidepressants or Ritalin) and really suffering. … So I think we all decided we would try to get together to get some attention on this subject.”

The power of TM is evident in the Detroit students, she says, which inspired the committee to spread their effort to New York.

About 70 people attended the March educators’ conference on TM in Manhattan, says Janet Hoffman, who heads the New York Committee for Stress-Free Schools. She wouldn’t disclose any names of school administrators in this area that indicated an interest in the TM program.

Hoffman, a TM teacher, says she watched a video of the Detroit students meditating and was amazed.

“When you have 160 kids in a gym, it’s a recipe for disaster,” she says. “But they go in, take their seats, and there’s silence. It’s tangible. It’s palpable.”

Croton-Harmon schools Superintendent Marjorie Castro doubts the program will garner much interest. The district briefly offered yoga as a course, but it was pulled after parents raised concerns that exercises like the “prayer pose” had religious overtones.

“Children in public schools come from so many backgrounds, and that’s a wonderful thing. But you have to be very careful,” she says.

Rosenfeld points out that many activities are potentially religious, such as bowing before a karate teacher. It’s all a matter of perspective, she says, and she rarely hears complaints.

“We have had all sorts of people from different religions,” she says.

An entrepreneur

Cult expert Rick Ross, however, says parents should be extremely wary of the TM movement. The TM movement is cult-like, if not indeed a cult, especially in the way members tend to revere Mahesh, he says.

“The personality-driven nature of TM is what leads people to see it (as a cult),” says Ross, who runs the Rick Ross Institute, a Jersey City, N.J.-based nonprofit organization that studies cults and controversial groups. “People involved with the Maharishi have been so deeply devoted to him.”

While devotion is not inherently dangerous, Ross says, he points out that TM followers have donated millions of dollars to the movement.

“So many people felt that once The Beatles dismissed him (Mahesh), that he wandered off into obscurity,” Ross says. “That is anything but the truth. … He’s always coming up with something – peace bonds, peace palaces. He’s an entrepreneur.”

Ex-TM teacher Don Krieger left the group after his wife was concerned that it was interfering with their Jewish faith. He estimates he spent tens of thousands of dollars as a member attending TM sessions, retreats and teacher training.

He says the mantra is actually a Hindu word, usually the name of a god. (Boxerman refutes this and says it’s a meaningless word, although he couldn’t provide an example, since the mantra is always kept secret by teachers and practitioners.)

More disturbing, Krieger says, is the religious tone of the “induction ceremony” for new meditators.

“It’s a ceremony with incense, camphor and a candle. There’s offerings on a tray and a little altar with a picture of Mahesh’s master (Guru Dev),” says Krieger, who is a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Pittsburgh. “At the end, the teacher gets down on their knees and bows and invites the new meditators to get down on their knees. It’s an act of idolatry … For a religious person, that’s going to be upsetting.”

But many people don’t object, Krieger says. Of the 400 or so people he taught, only two refused to kneel and bow to the picture, he says.

“Only a small percentage will stick with it, but they’re really stuck,” he says. “When you hear the lectures, they give you a whole laundry list of what it does…. If you have any fears, they’re going to get evoked by that lecture. You think, ‘What a relief! My health will be perfect.’ ”
Religious undertones

Bob Roth, a TM spokesman, denied that TM is in any way religious.

“I find people who don’t practice TM tell me that what I’m doing is religious,” Roth says. “They say it has roots in Hinduism. It predates that.”

Ex-member Joe Kellett, who related the same indoctrination process as Krieger, said leaders of the movement are able to recruit new members because the teachings and practice are essentially forms of hypnotism and self-hypnotism.

“Basically, the reason you become relaxed is because you were given a suggestion to be relaxed. You’re in a trance, and if you’re susceptible, you will carry out the suggestion,” says Kellett, a computer consultant in Castro Valley, Calif.

Kellett runs www.suggestibility.org, a Web site critical of TM, which he hopes will explain the unknown elements of the movement – like the side effects of TM – to people interested in learning the technique.

Kellett says some people are unable to fully come out of the trance after they meditate, leaving them groggy, tired and nauseous.

Krieger knows this firsthand. After meditating, he says he often struggled to stay awake, although he was getting enough sleep. (He was meditating throughout the day, rather than just twice a day.)

“They tell you it’s your fault, or that you’re ‘unstressing.’ They’re not described as negative side effects,” Krieger says.

Based on his experience, Krieger is completely against TM in schools.

“I certainly wouldn’t recommend TM to anybody, or expose their children to it,” he says. “I consider the organization to be a predatory cult … although it’s not the most malignant cult.”

Boxerman fully denies the allegations that TM is a cult, and is skeptical of Web sites that criticize TM.

“It’s not a cult,” he says. “It’s a scientifically verifiable technique where you do the practice and get the results. (The critics) are people who have crazy ideas, and that’s their responsibility. I don’t myself keep track of the Web sites that are critical of TM, but whatever their makeup is, they have misunderstood what is being represented. There’s no question it’s not a cult.”

Original article no longer available.

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Meditation Has a Place in Helping Patients Improve Health, Doctors Say

Good housekeeping: In the middle of the night, Dale Lechtman wakes up, all kinds of thoughts crowding sleep out of her mind. But Lechtman uses meditation to handle insomnia. Lying in bed, she focuses on breathing. She takes in air deeply. Then, she expels it through her nose and mouth slowly, as though she were trying to make a feather float on her breath.

In the middle of the night, Dale Lechtman wakes up, all kinds of thoughts crowding sleep out of her mind. But Lechtman uses meditation to handle insomnia.

Lying in bed, she focuses on breathing. She takes in air deeply. Then, she expels it through her nose and mouth slowly, as though she were trying to make a feather float on her breath.

Thoughts relentlessly pound at her mind’s door, but in time, they are no match for Lechtman’s skills. They disintegrate harmlessly into darkness, and finally, the 62-year old nurse from Westminster, Calif., is relaxed enough to resume sleeping.

Lechtman has found that secular meditation – the deliberate quieting and focusing of the mind and body – can be beneficial to her health.

As patients and doctors seek answers other than medications to treat illnesses, some are finding that meditation can be strong medicine.

More doctors have opened their minds to the idea of meditation as complementary therapy as more studies emerge linking better health and meditation, said Dr. Roger Walsh, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Irvine. Walsh has published research on meditation and teaches the practice as an elective to medical students.

Among the latest findings:

-A pilot study led by Walsh suggested that meditation is useful in understanding the effects of anti-depressants and might be useful as maintenance therapy for depression.

Researchers found that meditation – like anti-depressants – fostered a state of equanimity.

This is the ability to tolerate and not be disturbed by potentially provocative or stimulating thoughts, events, encounters or experiences. The study appeared recently in the Journal of Mental and Nervous Disorders.

-A study presented at a recent American Heart Association meeting found that transcendental meditation, or TM, reduced the severity of risk factors in metabolic syndrome.

This syndrome is a collection of conditions that lead to heart disease, such as high blood pressure and increased blood-sugar levels.

People who practiced TM significantly decreased their levels of blood pressure, blood sugar and insulin, said Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, study author and medical director of the Preventive and Rehabilitative Cardiac Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Merz continues to study the effect of meditation on heart disease.

-Preliminary results of a study on meditation and binge-eating disorder showed that meditation can help people “reconnect” with their mind and body to understand when to eat and when to stop.

Mindfulness meditation can help those with the disorder gain control over their eating habits, said Jean Kristeller, professor of psychology and director of the Center for the Study of Health, Religion and Spirituality at Indiana State University in Terra Haute, Ind.

This research joins an increasing body of knowledge based on science rather than on religious beliefs, whether rooted in Buddhism or Christianity. Religious elements can be present in meditation, but it’s also possible to practice meditation without them.

Some meditators in hospital settings say the turning point for meditation in medical practice came after 1975, when Harvard University researcher Dr. Herbert Benson first wrote about the value of meditation in treating illnesses in the book “The Relaxation Response.”

Meditation already is an essential part of the Dr. Dean Ornish program for reversing heart disease, which impressed Lechtman and her husband, Max.

This year, the Lechtmans took weekly beginner meditation classes taught by Martha Jensen at UCI Medical Center in Orange. In these classes, Jensen teaches a range of meditation techniques in sets of four weekly sessions.

Meditation practitioner Cheryl Medicine Song-Procaccini also introduces participants to various meditation techniques in monthly classes at the Cordelia Knott Center for Wellness in Orange, which is affiliated with the oncology and breast centers of St. Joseph Hospital.

At Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, Calif., meditation is part of a stress-management program offered by the hospital’s cardiac rehab services.

People with medical conditions such as cancer or heart diseases take the classes, as well as those who want to deal with stress, according to Jensen and Procaccini.

“Everything we learn in the meditation chair we can use in everyday life,” Procaccini said. “As we strengthen our concentration, we become less reactive to what’s happening to everything outside of ourselves.”

It’s important for beginners to be exposed to different types of meditation to find one that’s right for them, Jensen said.

One person may find walking meditation effective, while another may prefer to use a mandala, a symbol upon which one concentrates. Some choose to chant a mantra or repeat a prayer or word, such as peace or calm.

A common mistake some novices make is to try a type of meditation and not like it, then give up without experimenting with other ways.

Not surprisingly, time – not motivation – is the biggest obstacle to maintaining the practice of meditation, said Dr. Wadie Najm, associate professor of family medicine at UCI. Longtime practitioners recommend meditating twice a day for 20 minutes each time. “It’s not as quick as taking medication,” said Najm, who has recommended meditation to some patients. It requires a time commitment, much as exercise does.

Sometimes, meditation helps the body and mind so much that patients can reduce their dosage of medications, such as drugs to reduce blood pressure or stress and anxiety, Najm said. In a few cases, meditation has proved so effective that it picks up where medication leaves off.

To maintain the state of equanimity that sometimes results from meditation, meditators have to “Meditation is not about getting rid of difficult experiences or feelings. It’s about learning to cope continue practicing throughout life. Even longtime meditators are never completely rid of intrusive thoughts and distractions, but with practice, are better able to deal with them, Walsh said.

“The biggest myth is that if one learns to meditate, one will never feel upset,” Procaccini said. with them. We learn to develop a more accepting outlook, with less resistance to life.”

HOW TO MEDITATE

There are many ways to meditate. Here is one to try. If you are unable to complete this for 20 minutes, do not worry. Relax and do as much as you can:

Choose a quiet place.

Sit, as if on a throne, with dignity and stability. Allow breath to move gently through your body. Let each breath be like a sigh, bringing calmness and relaxation.

Be aware of what feels closed and constricted in your body, mind and heart. With each breath, let space open up those closed-in feelings. Let your mind expand into space. Open your mind, emotions and senses. Note whatever feelings, images, sensations and emotions come to you.

Each time a thought carries you away, return to your sense of connection with the Earth. Feel as if you were sitting on a throne in the heart of your world. Appreciate moments of stability and peace. Reflect on how emotions, feelings and stories appear and disappear. Focus on your body and rest for a moment in the equanimity and peace.

Sit this way for 10 minutes.

Slowly stand up and take a few steps, walking with the same awareness as when you were sitting.

-Source: “The Meditation Year,” by Jane Hope (Storey Books)

LEARN MORE

“Meditation for Optimum Health,” by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Dr. Andrew Weil (Sounds True): This two-CD set is a first-timer’s guide to the principles and practice of meditation. Call (800) 333-9185

“The Relaxation Response,” by Dr. Herbert Benson (Quill): The classic primer on the link between meditation and health. Not a guide on how to meditate.

“The Meditation Year,” by Jane Hope (Storey Books): A beautifully rendered seasonal guide that describes various ways to meditate.

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Healing thoughts

Elizabeth Large, Baltimore Sun: A funny thing happened to meditation on the way to the 21st century. It got demystified, and in the process became acceptable to mainstream America.

You won’t hear people talking about Nirvana much with today’s Westernized meditation, and there’s hardly a crystal in sight. Instead scientists are studying Buddhist monks with electroencephalographs and magnetic resonance imaging. Health care professionals are recommending meditation when drugs and other therapies don’t work, and sometimes when they do — they may call it a “relaxation technique,” to avoid the m-word.

Meditation, a discipline nearly as old as human life and a mainstay of Eastern spirituality, has gained reluctant acceptance as a treatment for everything from high blood pressure to attention deficit disorder. By sitting quietly and concentrating on a word, breath or image, meditators can put themselves into a state of deep relaxation. Recent scientific studies have shown the process may boost the immune system, control pain and lower stress.

“Its effectiveness has been fairly well-established with controlled research,” says Glenn Schiraldi, who is on the stress management faculty of the University of Maryland, College Park Department of Public and Community Health. Schiraldi meditates 10 or 15 minutes every morning. “It creates changes in the body opposite in every way to stress, and it’s intrinsically pleasant to do.”

Several months ago, an unusual conference took place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Tibetan Buddhist monks and their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, met with leading U.S. neuroscientists and behavioral researchers to plan future studies. The conference sold out to an audience of 1,200 (most of them scientists) and had a waiting list of 1,600.

“Meditation works,” a cover story in Time magazine proclaimed this summer, detailing the scientific research that shows it can profoundly affect the body and actually reshape the brain. Millions of Americans seem to agree. As alternative medical treatments go, meditation seems to have the most clear-cut benefits, the kind that can be demonstrated in the lab (although the article also poked fun at the process, expressing the ambivalence many Americans still feel about it).

While it’s true that meditation is being stripped of the mystical trappings that make Westerners uneasy — the chanting, incense and Sanskrit mantras (a repeated word or phrase to quiet the mind) — people who start practicing for health reasons often end up finding the spirituality of meditation on their own. Reaching Nirvana might be even better than, say, controlling migraines.

A few months ago, Bob Parrott, a 49-year-old car salesman who lives in Abingdon, Md., was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer. He started to meditate daily, using a bargain-table book he picked up at a Barnes & Noble as a guide. When he talks about the benefits of meditating, he doesn’t mention pain or stress, or the fact that he’s able to tolerate the radiation treatments better.

“The system has helped me live in the here and now,” he says. “I’m not wearing any of my hats. I’m not a car salesman. Not a husband. Not a father. The discovery of a deeper self erases a lot of the fear of mortality.”

The short-term positive effects of meditation on the nervous system have been generally accepted in the United States ever since the best seller “Relaxation Response” by a Harvard cardiologist, Herbert Benson, was published in 1975. The latest science suggests meditation can have long-term health benefits, maybe even life-extending ones. Sophisticated scans have shown it can actually rewire the brain.

You don’t need any special equipment to practice, although a whole industry has sprung up in the last few years selling cushions, clothes, audio and videotapes, books and focusing aids like meditation crystals. You don’t have to wait for an appointment or worry about whether your health insurance will pay for it. And you don’t have to be a New Age kook.

Lisa Sanders, a Towson, Md., graduate student whose field is human resources development, has been practicing for the last three years. Three or four evenings a week she goes into her bedroom, puts on a compact disc of meditation music she bought at Best Buy, sits with her legs crossed and meditates for 15 or 20 minutes.

“I relax, I get a new start on whatever I’m into, it calms me down,” she says.

If scientists were recording the 23-year-old’s EEGs as she focuses on her breathing, shuts out the outside world and enters a meditative state, they would find that the activity in the areas of her brain that process sensory information slows down. Conscious thought decreases and relaxation increases.

In a small but intriguing study, Richard Davidson, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, found that “mindfulness meditation” — focusing on the present moment and appreciating it fully — seems to increase activity in the area of the brain associated with lower anxiety and a more optimistic outlook in general, a result that lasts after the meditation practice ends. His research team also studied immune function by giving participants in the study flu shots. Two months later those who meditated had developed significantly more antibodies to the vaccine than the control group.

So why isn’t everyone meditating? For one thing, it isn’t easy. Getting your mind to focus on the present and become quiet isn’t something Westerners are comfortable doing – oms or no oms. Meditating takes patience and perseverance. Buddhists call it “meditation practice” for a reason. To get good at it, you have to do it daily.

But meditation does have a major advantage over other alternative medicines. Doctors and hospitals are comfortable suggesting patients try it because the only downside is feeling foolish or getting bored. No one is sticking needles in patients or manipulating their spines. They aren’t taking herbal supplements not regulated by the FDA. Even the sickest patients don’t require supervision, just a little gentle instruction and an open mind.

“There are a thousand ways to meditate,” says stress management expert Glenn Schiraldi. You don’t have to sit cross-legged or empty your mind of conscious thought.

And there are a thousand different reasons to meditate. Tibetan Buddhists believe that you can connect with your “true, happy nature” by meditating — all the things that make humans good. Other schools of thought feel meditation can put you in touch with divine nature, or God. Most cultures have used meditation in some form, including Aborigines and American Indians.

You may want to try meditating simply as a relaxation technique, because you’re feeling stressed out or you’re not sleeping well. Whatever your reason, getting started is the easy part.

Here’s how:

  • Get some help. It might be a book or a tape or the Internet, but another person is best. “We all have misconceptions when we start out,” says Chris Kreeger, a meditation instructor at the Shambhala Center in Baltimore. For instance, he says, “It’s not about not having thoughts. It’s more about not being attached to them.”
  • Find a place to practice. It should be quiet, and you should be comfortable there. “Setting up a place cues us,” says Baltimore psychologist Elaine Yamada. “It tells our bodies this is the time to be in that quiet way.”
  • Make a commitment to practice on a daily basis, even if only for a few minutes.
  • Close or half close your eyes and pick a word or a phrase to say over and over. Its rhythm will help you focus. It could be in the form of a prayer if that appeals to you, such as one of Kreeger’s suggestions, “Be still and know that I am God.” Or it could be a syllable like “om.” “Any phrase that resonates with you will do,” says Yamada.
  • Or pay attention to your breath. Concentrate on the sensation of breathing to the exclusion of everything else.
  • Let any thoughts that intrude float away like a leaf on the river. With practice, distracting thoughts will subside.

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Quiet the mind, heal the body

Hilary E. MacGregor, LA Times: Inside a church community room, beginning meditators close their eyes, straighten their spines in their folding metal chairs and try to rein in, for just 10 minutes, the thoughts that race like wild horses through their minds.

A woman in the back row yawns. The woman next to her fidgets. Another student sneaks a peek.

“My mind still wanders,” Jeremy Morelock, 33, says of the Buddhist meditation class he has attended for three months in search of stress relief and spiritual growth. “I have these imaginary conversations with people, and then I think, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa … concentrate!’ “

Regular meditation practice is supposed to quiet the mind and allow the body to tap into its own innate healing mechanisms. Yogis and monks have preached the powers of meditation for thousands of years, and the counterculture generation of the ’60s embraced transcendental meditation — a still-thriving form of internal mantra-chanting — as a method to alter consciousness.

But many people today are taking up meditation for reasons that have little or nothing to do with spiritual enlightenment and a lot to do with improving their health. Scientists are using MRI and other advanced technologies to study the physiological changes that occur in meditating Buddhist monks. These researchers are starting to demonstrate, with the type of laboratory science that can influence even skeptical physicians, what those who engage in this ancient practice have believed for many centuries: Meditation works.

A growing body of research has shown that meditation has clear benefits. Now, doctors and other health-care professionals are recommending meditation as a way to treat a variety of ills, from depression to high blood pressure and hyperactivity. In some cases, meditation — or as it’s sometimes called, “relaxation techniques” — is prescribed when other treatments, such as prescription drugs, haven’t worked, or as a complement to drug therapy. Recent research has shown that meditation can help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as reduce pain and enhance the body’s immune system.

Meditation is free, accessible and portable. It has no negative side effects — a fact that makes doctors feel comfortable recommending it. Meditation requires only that you be able to sit quietly for 10 minutes or more, while focusing on your breath or a word or phrase. Anyone can do it. And while millions of Americans already are meditating in some fashion, many more would likely benefit.

“I believe that meditation is the most important thing a person can do for their health,” said Dr. David Simon, medical director and chief executive of the Chopra Center at La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., the wellness clinic founded by New Age author and physician, Dr. Deepak Chopra. “The most powerful pharmacy on Earth is not Savon or Rite Aid, but the human body,” Simon said.

With so much evidence, why aren’t more people doing it?

As with many lifestyle changes, most notably diet and exercise, getting started and sticking with meditation can be difficult. Meditation takes time and discipline. Desperately seeking health or sanity, many stressed-out people yearn for some quiet time amid the chaotic frenzy of their daily lives. Finding 10 uninterrupted minutes and a quiet place to sit down and shut your eyes can be a stumbling block. It’s problematic to zone out in a cubicle at work, or at a restaurant during lunch. And home life can be hectic in these wired and wireless times.

No one knows for sure how many of those who begin meditating continue the practice. Gen Kelsang Lekma, a Buddhist nun who has taught meditation for a decade in Los Angeles, said the dropout rate is fairly high: Only about half the students who begin a typical 13-class series will complete it, she estimates, and perhaps two out of 10 students who begin meditating will still be doing so after a couple of years.

Students abandon the practice for a variety of reasons, Lekma said. Some don’t like it or can’t get the hang of it, and others lack the discipline to practice it regularly, usually daily. Some students are attracted to meditation out of a desire to learn something about Buddhist philosophy, but eventually lose interest.

How a person comes to meditation may also have an impact on his or her willingness to stick with it. For example, an increasing number of physicians are recommending meditation as a form of therapy to patients with heart disease, high blood pressure and even infertility. Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard University professor and president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Chestnut Hill, Mass., said that in his clinical experience, about 60% to 70% of those who begin a meditation-type practice primarily for medical reasons (sometimes at the recommendation of their doctor) adopt the teachings.

Proponents of the practice — from Buddhists to cardiologists — are trying to help more people work meditation into their daily lives. So what are the most effective approaches for starting meditation and ensuring you’ll stick with it?

The first step is to make the commitment, experts said. Learn about why it works physiologically and how it might benefit your health.

Published more than 25 years ago, Benson’s pioneering book, “The Relaxation Response,” showed how 10 minutes of meditative technique a day could increase concentration and counteract the harmful effects of stress, such as high blood pressure and strokes.

Considered by many to be the father of meditation in this country, Benson uses the phrase “relaxation response” to refer broadly to various meditation-type techniques — including prayer, qi gong, yoga and tai chi — that quiet the brain. The practices also counter the “fight-or-flight” response, which is triggered in stressful situations, and the accompanying secretion of norepinephrine, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland that, along with epinephrine, increases metabolism, blood pressure, mental activity and heart rate.

Newcomers need to stick with meditation long enough to make it a habit. Taking a meditation class or attending a meditation retreat can be a shortcut to feeling the positive effects of meditation faster and establishing a routine, experts said.

“Most people find it very difficult to begin a meditation practice on their own,” said Lekma, 37, resident teacher at the Echo Park Buddhist temple. “When you meditate with others, you get some kind of group dynamic going. When you get some people who are experienced, you kind of feed off it.”

Experts caution, however, that meditation won’t produce the immediate “hit,” such as reduced stress or increased energy, that a workout in the gym or other brisk exercise will do. Meditation takes time to learn, and even people who have been doing it for years still have times when their minds wander.

“The first few times you feel like an idiot doing it,” said Dr. Lee Lipsenthal, medical director of the Dr. Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease and Lifestyle Advantage in Sausalito, Calif., who has meditated for 20 years and recommends meditation, along with diet and exercise changes, to patients with heart disease. “You are feeling anxious, your head is spinning, you are thinking you could be doing X, Y and Z, until you get the hang of it. That takes nearly six weeks of daily practice.”

Experts also stress the importance of new students choosing a meditation technique that conforms to their own belief system. This should make it easier to stick to the discipline over the long run. For a Catholic, it could be saying Hail Marys. For a Jew, it could be davening. For others, it could mean simply repeating a mantra-type phrase like “peace, love.” Finally, it is important to be patient and start slowly. Lekma, the Buddhist nun, suggests starting with tiny steps, such as a single weekly session with others, followed by a small personal commitment that you could stick to — for example, five to 10 minutes a day.

“People come in with a lot of enthusiasm, but have unrealistic expectations,” Lekma said. “Instead of taking very small steps they say, ‘I want to run a marathon.’ First you have to run half a block.”

A study recently conducted at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles showed how quickly those small steps can make a difference. The study, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and presented at the American Heart Assn. scientific sessions in Orlando, Fla., in November, found that patients with coronary heart disease who practiced transcendental meditation for the first time showed a significant improvement in their blood pressure and insulin resistance (pre-diabetes).

The 16-week study, conducted by Dr. Bairey Merz, of Cedars-Sinai, with Dr. Robert Schneider, director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, is the first to demonstrate this blood pressure effect in heart patients. Meditation was able to produce a benefit roughly equivalent to the use of one type of blood pressure medication, the researchers found.

Mario Farnier, 53, a biomedical researcher, was recovering from a 1999 heart attack when he was admitted to the hospital last August with chest pains and underwent an angioplasty procedure. He enrolled in the meditation study and, by the study’s end, had improved enough that his doctors were able to cut one of his medications by half.

“I must say, I felt good at the time of the study,” Farnier said. He continued meditating with others until the group study ended, but has found it more difficult to continue a regular practice on his own. He still meditates occasionally, shutting his office door for quiet, but finds it harder to make time to meditate than for the regular running workouts he has done for decades. “The more you think you need it, the less time you have to do it,” he said. “If the pressure is there I can’t do it. I say I’ll do it later, but by the end of the day I never do it.”

Most beginners say they continue to need help to carry on the practice. At a crowded Wednesday night meditation class at the Khandakapala Buddhist Center in Los Angeles, Dave Hernandez, a self-employed artist, sat cross-legged on a burgundy cushion and worked to tame his restless mind. “I tried meditating on my own,” he said. “But it’s just like a rocket ship taking off when you are meditating with other people. It’s really high. That high place is just harder to get to when you are on your own.”

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Putting Meditation Under the Microscope (Hartford Courant)

Hartford Courant: Marietta Sabetta decided that the way to make a stand against her moderately high blood pressure was to sit still.

The 52-year-old Seymour woman asked her doctor if she could try lowering her blood pressure by taking a meditation class at Griffin Hospital.

On most Wednesday evenings since last March, she has followed instructor Lauren Liberti through a series of mindfulness exercises, beginning with simple yoga positions and leading to a meditation session that might, on a given night, involve simply focusing on the breath.

“My doctor thought it was a great idea,” Sabetta said. “It feels comfortable and peaceful, and it’s very, very strengthening emotionally.”

And her blood pressure? It’s down to normal, she says, thanks to meditation.

It’s been more than three decades since Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University and his colleagues found that meditation induces a calming state that is the opposite of the revved-up, heart-pounding “fight or flight” reaction to stress. Because everyone agreed that stress was bad, hard evidence that meditation fought stress established meditation as a healthful practice.

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Since then, meditation has moved from the ashram to the living room. Time magazine recently reported that about 10 million Americans say they practice some form of meditation. While meditation — from guided imagery to mindfulness exercises — is widely used in health care, researchers now are looking beyond meditation’s stress-relieving virtues to see how it may help rewire the brain’s circuitry and treat or prevent a host of specific ailments.

Richard J. Davidson, a research professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin and director of the university’s Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior, is one of the leaders in this still-embryonic field. He said it is growing rapidly, thanks to recent advances in brain imaging and brain science.

“It’s an approach rooted much more [than in the past] in the neuroscience research tradition,” he said. “It is research that emphasizes the emotional benefits of meditation and corresponding changes in brain and peripheral biology that may be associated with the cultivation of certain kinds of positive emotions that meditation is said to increase.”

Davidson was the lead author of a recent, much-publicized study that measured brain activity in subjects before, immediately after and four months after they completed an eight-week training program in mindfulness meditation. A group of 25 meditators, taught to cultivate deep awareness of thoughts and feelings, showed heightened brain activity in an area associated with “positive effect,” or happiness, compared with a group of 18 non-meditators. After the study, both groups got flu shots. The meditators produced up to 25 percent more antibodies to influenza. The results suggest that the brain changes might be related to a boost in the immune system.

Davidson and his colleagues also have been using brain-imaging technology to examine the brains of some of the world’s most experienced meditators — Tibetan Buddhist monks, who are being studied with the blessing of the Dalai Lama. (Davidson helped organize a Sept. 13 meeting between leading scientists and the Dalai Lama at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)

The work has not yet been published, but Davidson wrote last year that one monk showed intense activity in a part of the brain associated with happiness, scoring higher than nearly 200 other individuals who had been observed.

Other studies being conducted across the country are examining how various forms of meditation might help treat or prevent a number of illnesses. These include, for example, heart disease in specific populations, binge eating and recurrent abdominal pain. Other projects are evaluating meditation as a way to improve the quality of life for patients with cancer and various stages of HIV and to reduce seniors’ susceptibility to shingles.

Much of the research is being sponsored by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, said the field is expanding, thanks, in part, to the role of the NIH. Katz said the NIH has determined that practices like meditation need to be backed up with credible science, “which means that you have [scientific] outcomes that can hold their head up in public,” he said. Good science, said Katz, also makes believers of health plans, which can fold proven practices into the services they will provide to members.

Doctors who now encourage patients to meditate acknowledge that it’s often trickier than prescribing drugs.

Dr. Stephen Sinatra, a Manchester cardiologist, said that he’s not that fussy about what kind of meditation his patients take up, as long as it suits them. For example, if they’re Catholic, he’ll ask if they are adverse to prayer. “If they say, `No,’ I tell them to just say `Hail Mary, full of grace’ over and over again,” he said.

One of his patients, Jilline Miceli, 64, formerly of South Windsor and now of Bonita Springs, Fla., was diagnosed with congestive heart failure three years ago and became a heart transplant candidate in 2001. She credits meditation — along with drug treatment, yoga and her family’s and friends’ prayers — with helping to get her off the transplant list.

Dr. Karen Prestwood, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, regularly teaches a mind-body skills group at the health center that meets for two hours a week for 10 weeks. She uses both what she calls passive forms of meditation — such as mindfully noticing thoughts that arise — and active forms, like “chaotic breathing,” which involves breathing techniques and body movement.

Lucille Meinsler of Hartford, an administrative program coordinator in the health center’s psychiatry department, took the class that began last March. Meinsler settled on using a compact disc with a narrated, guided meditation. “I found it was too hard to sit there and think,” she said of silent meditation. But her guided meditation practice — which she tries to do every other day — has helped curb sleeplessness brought on by menopause. She finds it also helps her focus in her waking life.

Prestwood observes that plenty of patients have no interest in meditation. “They would rather take a pill,” she said.

Ultimately, whether meditation is prescribed, and if so, what kind, may be dictated both by the patient’s preferences and also by the particular ailment. Davidson of the University of Wisconsin said future research may show that a particular form of meditation works best to help treat or prevent a given illness. Benson, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard who also is founding president of the Mind-Body Medical Institute, said he believes that all effective forms of meditation induce what he calls the relaxation response, characterized by lowered blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and metabolism.

“That is simply a doorway that clears the mind,” he said, noting that the relaxation response is the starting point for advanced meditative states that may be able to address specific health problems.

Davidson cautions that the in-depth study of meditation is new. It’s too early to make any claims about physical healing. The research underway isn’t simply about proving how healthful meditation is. Some techniques, when tried out against certain maladies or as an adjunct to other therapies, will undoubtedly fail. And there is the danger, as with any self-care practice, that patients may blame themselves for not meditating well enough if their disease gets worse.

“I think there are going to be certain kinds of diseases that are completely unresponsive to anything you do with your mind,” he said, adding that certain kinds of cancer are probably among those illnesses. “This needs to be approached extremely carefully and with the utmost responsibility.”

Meditation classes are offered in area community centers, adult education programs, yoga studios, schools and through many religiously affiliated groups and centers.

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The fine art of doing nothing

Simran Bhargava, Financial Express, India: Sit back, close your eyes and relax. Allow any thoughts that surface to pass through your mind like clouds floating in the sky. Simply watch them come and go, without getting hooked into them.

This simple act of doing — well, nothing at all — is one of the most potent tools yet discovered to banish stress from your life. Doing a little bit of “nothing” every day can, over time, change the texture of your life. It can also significantly bring down blood pressure and according to some doctors, reverse cardiac disease.

Meditation is such a humble little technique that for years no one took it seriously at all. Much too flaky, hardcore medical practitioners said, leave it to the yogi types.

Since then, meditation has come a long way. After politely refusing to study the impact of Transcendental Meditation on blood pressure in 1968, the Harvard Medical School, as well as dozens of other medical schools, now include alternative medicine — also known as integrative medicine — in their curricula.

More recently, Dr Dean Ornish’s landmark research found that diet and lifestyle changes-including daily meditation-could actually reverse heart disease. So significant was this study that for the first time US insurance companies agreed to cover costs of patients learning these lifestyle strategies: this was good business because a high percentage of patients who were candidates for angioplasty and bypass surgeries were actually able to avoid it.

And last month, Time magazine’s annual issue on the latest advances in health and science put “How your mind can heal your body” on its cover. It quotes well-known US cardiologist Dr Mehmet Oz who, although trained in western scientific techniques, now also relies heavily on the ancient eastern technique of meditation to help steer patients toward recovery. Why? “Because it works,” he says.

And so something 2,500 years old is new again. Signed and delivered with a seal of approval from some of the highest medical authorities on the planet.

How did meditation become mainstream? Perhaps our suffering — rampant heart disease, hypertension, strokes — caught our attention, with every man over 35 now carrying around with him the very real fear that such an event could happen to him at any time. Perhaps it was just too many people facing too much stress. Perhaps it was the growing voices of meditation converts all around that couldn’t be ignored any longer. And so, many people, including doctors who wouldn’t have earlier given it a second look, said: “Okay, let’s give it a try.”

And what do you know, it works.

Meditation is simply a route to stillness, a way to create a calm centre in a chaotic universe. It is an antidote to the feeling of being overloaded. If mental stress can lead to irritability, anxiety, heart trouble, hypertension, then holding the reverse feeling in the system — mental calm — would lead to wellness. Makes sense doesn’t it?

Too much stress floods the body with the stress hormone cortisol which, unrelieved, can turn toxic — and dangerous. The old ways of dealing with stress didn’t seem to work because the mental noises followed everywhere. To work, to a party, even into sleep. You could take a vacation to get away from chronic stress — only to find that wherever you go, there you are. Alongwith all the excess baggage in your head.

Meditation is a way to regularly defuse the steam. There are many ways to meditate: from Buddha’s 2,500 year old Vipassana to Mahesh Yogi’s TM to Osho’s active meditations to the Mindfulness practices of Thich Naht Hanh to the whirling of the Sufi dervishes which symbolise a still centre in a turning universe.

It doesn’t matter which vehicle you board to reach a stillpoint. All work on the same principle of emptying the mind of its overload: the noises within become a blur — and slowly fall away, leaving a feeling of inner quiet.

According to the Harvard doctor and hypertension expert Herbert Benson triggering the relaxation response in the body is remarkably simple. All it requires is four factors: One, a quiet environment. Two, a short word or mantra which you repeat over and over to row you back to centre when your mind wanders. Three, a passive attitude, which is the most critical element for meditation. And four, a comfortable position. Start with a few minutes and build up to about 20 minutes a day. That’s it.

Several people find sitting still difficult and practitioners say that the mistake they make is trying too hard to shut out the mental chatter. The key is to accept it — to let all thoughts simply pass through the mind. It means also reversing the old programming of “Don’t just sit there, do something” to the new one of “Don’t just do something, sit there.”

Meditation isn’t a quick fix. Its effects are long-term. If you do it regularly, you may begin to notice subtle changes. Earlier an inner restlessness went with you everywhere, now perhaps an inner calm does. Maybe you react with less annoyance at what other people do. Perhaps you sleep better. Perhaps you have sudden clarity on a problem that had you befuddled before. Perhaps there is a lot to be done and you do it — calmly.

And perhaps the doctor straps a blood pressure monitor on your arm and says: “Surprise, normal.”

That’s pretty life-changing.

The spiritual recovery programmes like Alcoholics Anonymous — which have helped millions — suggest regular time for both, prayer and meditation. They say prayer is asking whatever higher power you believe in for help. And meditation is listening quietly for the answers. You may be surprised at some of the answers you get while meditating.

Others say you should ideally meditate for half an hour everyday. And when you can’t find the time to do it, you should do it for an hour. That’s usually a signal that you are overloaded and need to de-stress.

Chances are that, by now, pretty much everyone is convinced of the benefits of meditation. The more important question is: How many actually do it ? Knowing counts for nothing, doing for everything.

The most important words I ever heard on the subject were from a meditation teacher who said that this simple practice is so powerful, that done regularly, it can change your life. You close your eyes and sit still and nothing seems to have changed. But each time you meditate, it’s like putting a drop of blue into a glass of clear water. You don’t even notice it in the beginning.

And then one day the water turns blue.

Simran Bhargava has been a writer and editor for several years. She writes a weekly column on the business of life.

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