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The top ten myths about meditation

meditation incense

Buddhist meditation teacher Bodhipaksa debunks the ten most common meditation myths.

Even though meditation is now widely used in sports, medicine, psychiatry, and of course as part of the spiritual practice of millions of people around the world, there are still many misconceptions in circulation about what meditation actually is.

Myth #10. Meditation is relaxation

To say that some people’s conception of meditation is “Think of warm puppies, and let your mind go limp” is an exaggeration, but not much of one. Perhaps because meditation has found a home in stress management classes around the world, many people think that “letting your tensions dissolve away” is the be-all and end-all of a meditation practice. But while it’s important to let go of unnecessary effort while meditating, meditation is still a practice — that is, it involves effort. Sure, we start by letting go of tensions in the body, but that’s only the start.

Myth #9. Meditation is just self-hypnosis

Hypnosis, when used in therapy, involves a patient being guided into having experiences that he or she would have difficulty in attaining unaided — experiences as varied as being content without a cigarette in hand and remembering forgotten events from childhood. Self-hypnosis does the same thing, but the practitioner uses a remembered script or visualization to, say, increase relaxation or to experience greater confidence. There’s actually some overlap between hypnosis and meditation (although some meditation teachers, being suspicious of hypnosis, would deny this). In both disciplines we start with inducing a state of relaxation and then proceed to doing some kind of inner work. In hypnosis and in some forms of meditation that inner work involves visualization or the use of repeated phrases. But many forms of meditation (for example, Zen “just sitting” or Theravadin mindfulness meditation) make no use of such tools. The overlap between hypnosis and meditation is only partial.

Myth #8. There are technological shortcuts

“I want to relax, and I want to do it now!” is the approach taken by many goal-oriented Westerners. And that makes them suckers for promises of quick-fix technological approaches to meditating. The web is full of products that promise you that you’ll meditate like a Zen monk at the touch of a button. Just stick your headphones on and hit play, and let the magical audio technology do the rest! But like myth #10, this overlooks the fact that meditation involves effort. Sure, if you stop running around being stressed for half an hour and listen to some blandly pleasant music you’ll find you’re more relaxed. Why wouldn’t you be? But it’s a mistake to confuse this with real meditation. The “Zen monk” in these ads would surely be puzzled to think that someone listening to a CD for a few minutes had attained the depths of mindfulness and compassion that come from thousands of hours of sitting on a cushion watching your breath.

Myth #7. Transcendental Meditation is the most common kind of meditation

“Oh, so is it Transcendental meditation you do?” I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked that question when people have found out I’m a meditation teacher. Just about everyone has heard of Transcendental Meditation because of famous practitioners like the Beatles and because of controversies about TM being taught in U.S. schools, but TM is very much a minority pursuit — probably because it’s so darned expensive to learn (and the question of where those millions of dollars go is still open). The most common form of meditation in the West is Mindfulness or Insight meditation, which comes from Theradavin Buddhism of South and Southeast Asia. Zen meditation and Tibetan meditation (which often involves visualization) isn’t far behind.

Myth #6. You have to sit in lotus position

In the Asian countries where Buddhist meditation developed people generally sit on the floor and have flexible hips. It’s natural for them to sit cross-legged, and so they sit in a variety of cross-legged postures in order to meditate, the lotus position being one of the most common and stable postures. In the West we sit in chairs from an early age and have stiffer hips. It’s therefore a rare Westerner who can sit in the lotus position to meditate — at least with any degree of comfort. In actual fact it’s possible to sit comfortably to meditate on a chair, a meditation stool, kneeling, or even lying down (although you’ll have trouble staying awake). The most important thing is that you find a posture that’s comfortable for you — and that you don’t beat yourself up about not being able to twist your legs like a pretzel.

Myth #5. In meditation you sit there saying “OM”

Mantra meditation is only one kind of meditation, and “OM” is only one mantra (or part of a mantra). ‘Nuff said.

Myth #4. Meditation is a religious activity

Although meditation comes from various spiritual or religious traditions, it’s not in itself necessarily a religious practice. The most common forms of meditation practice, for example, involve observing the sensations of the breath. What’s religious about that? Sure, there are some forms of meditation that involve using religious words of phrases as objects of concentration (e.g. Transcendental Meditation, Buddhist Mantra meditation, etc.) but many of the most common meditation practices have no religious overtones — which is probably one of the reasons they’re so common.

Myth #3. Meditation is somehow “Eastern”

A lot of people (usually Christians) have told me that they think Buddhist practice is “foreign” because it comes from an Eastern context. Hmm, where does Christianity come from again? Oh yes, the Middle East. But as with Myth #4 (“Meditation is a religious activity”) there’s nothing inherently Eastern, Southern, or Northern about counting your breath or wishing people well. Some Tibetan practices do involve visualizing rather bizarre (to Western eyes) figures, and mantra meditation usually involves repeating Sanskrit words or phrases — but those constitute a minority of meditation practices. Oh, all right, it’s a large minority — but what’s wrong with a little exoticism?

Myth #2. Meditation is escapist

To some people, meditation is “running away from problems,” “navel gazing,” “lotus eating,” or “disregarding the world.” Actually, running around being busy and never having time to experience yourself deeply is escapism. When you meditate you’re brought face-to-face in a very direct way with your own anger, delusion, craving, pain, and selfishness. There’s nothing to do in meditation but to experience and work with these things. Also, some forms of meditation — such as lovingkindness and compassion meditation — involve us working at transforming our relationship with the world by cultivating love and empathy for others. Perhaps that’s why so many meditators are involved in social work, psychotherapy, nursing, bereavement counseling, prison work, etc.

Myth #1 Meditation is about letting your mind go blank

Here it is, the all-time number one meditation myth — that meditation is about “making your mind go blank.” Sure, in meditation we aim to reduce the amount of thinking that goes on. Sure, just sit there for a few minutes watching all those pointless and even downright unhelpful thoughts bubbling up nonstop in the mind and you’d start to think that a blank mind would be preferable! But what would it be like to have a blank mind? Would you even be awake? Would you have any consciousness at all? Would you be able to know that your mind was blank? The confusion arises because we identify so much with our verbal thoughts (our inner self-talk) that we think that that’s all our experience is. And if we reduce or even stop our thinking (and that can happen) we assume that the mind must be blank. But a blank mind simply isn’t possible.

No, in meditation we aim to develop mindfulness — that’s mind-full-ness. When we’re mindful the mind is very much not blank. Rather, we’re aware of physical sensations, emotions, thoughts — and of how all those things interact with each other. The mind is so full of our present-moment experience that there’s less room for it to be full of useless thoughts, and instead we’re aware of the incredible richness of our experience — a richness that we overlook entirely when we spend our whole lives lost in thinking.

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Ok, kids, chill out (Montreal Gazette)

Children as young as 10 are picking up Transcendental Meditation, and they’re not the only ones feeling good about it

Stephanie Whittaker: Every morning, as soon as she awakens, 13-year-old Joelle Cazeault sits up in her bed, closes her eyes and performs a ritual unknown to most children. She spends 10 minutes doing Transcendental Meditation.

“I repeat my mantra and it slows my breathing,” says the student at College St. Maurice in Ste. Hyacinthe.

Ditto for the afternoon. Joelle meditates when she gets home from school and, she says, it gives her the alertness and focus she needs to do her homework.

Meditation is a ritual she began three years ago when her parents, who have meditated since the 1970s, enrolled her in a Transcendental Meditation course: “They think it’s important for my life and that it can help me become enlightened.”

Perhaps it is inevitable that baby boomers, the generation that learned to chill out in heightened states of consciousness, want their offspring to experience the same.

Children as young as 10 are learning Transcendental Meditation and are reaping the rewards at school. “I always had good marks but they got even better after I learned to meditate,” says Joelle.

She’s at the forefront of a coming trend. There is a growing push in the U.S. to put “ohm” in schools by making Transcendental Meditation part of the curriculum. The movement is poised to take Canada with it.

A U.S.-based group called Stress-Free Schools has helped set up T.M. programs in 50 schools south of the border and has piqued the interest of educators in Canada.

Six Montreal-area schools want the program.

“My students deserve to have this, and it will transform the whole school,” says Marielle Mayers, an elementary school principal in Ville d’Anjou.

Michele Beausoleil, a Montreal teacher of T.M., is keen to get started: “We’re ready to teach the children, teachers and principals and I’ll work to help the schools find funding from foundations.”

Stress-Free Schools was founded in 2004 by a group of meditating parents in New York City, who were concerned about social problems in their schools.

Two months ago, the organization held a conference at Montreal’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel to explain to educators how teaching T.M. to children as young as 10 can benefit their schools.

Original article no longer available.

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Dissociative bliss becomes addictive

Edmonton Sun, Canada: Joe Kellett knows gurus. He says he was one.

For years, Kellett was a disciple of the transcendental meditation movement, then a teacher. He now runs an anti-TM webpage.

His problem is complicated by the fact that TM is based on – but does not mirror – 2,000-year-old ayurvedic health rituals from India. That gives it credibility, as do studies showing it can be good for your health.

“When TMers say ‘TM is not a religion’ they are talking about the purely mechanical mental technique,” says Kellett. “However, ‘TM the technique’ is never taught without introducing recruits to ‘TM the religion’ during three days of instruction following initiation.

“Mahesh initially came out of India openly as a teacher of spirituality. Then in the early ’70s he abandoned that approach and began disguising his message in the language of scientific analogy. But the core message is still the same under the semantic covers: do TM for long enough and you will become ‘enlightened.’”

You might also have negative consequences. A compendium of 75 studies of TM technique in 2000 found that 63% of practitioners suffered long-term negative mental health consequences from the repeated dissociation – or disconnection – with reality caused by going into a trance-like state.

TM counters that by pointing out it can produce 600 studies showing the benefits to everything from high-blood pressure and stress reduction to slowing the aging of cells, reducing mental fatigue and improving clarity of thought.

Health benefits or drawbacks notwithstanding, Kellett argues, TM teachers were tasked with withholding information from students until they were susceptible enough to accept dogmatic positions related to the maharishi’s own Vedic Hindu background.

“Dissociative ‘bliss’ is often an easily produced substitute for true personal growth,” says Kellett.

“As teachers we memorize almost everything we are to tell students. We were very careful not to tell them too much less they become ‘confused’ by things that they ‘couldn’t yet understand’.

“Only after they had the ‘experience,’ could we start very gradually revealing TM dogma in easy, bite-sized chunks, always after they had just finished meditation and were therefore likely to be still in a dissociative state.”

When he left the group, Kellett took direction from cult deprogrammer Steve Hassan, who established a technique for what he calls “re-establishing reality testing” – taking people who’ve been addicted to the sensation of dissociative bliss and making them critical thinkers again.

“I realized that everything I had believed and experienced was based on the premise that Mahesh was truly an enlightened man with the highest spiritual teaching on the planet,” he says.

“When I abandoned that assumption, the whole thing fell like a house of cards.”

Original article no longer available…

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Stressed Out? (ABC News)

Catherine Valenti, ABC News: Battling stress has become a top priority for many Americans who become frazzled as they try to balance a million responsibilities at once.

Plagued by rising health-care costs and increasing absenteeism due to stress, companies, health clubs and health-care providers all over the country are offering different methods to help people relax and take it easy.

While there are a number of different ways to alleviate stress, most boil down to two approaches, says Dr. Bruce Rabin, medical director of the Healthy Lifestyles Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

One approach is to increase an individual’s ability to cope with stress by raising his or her physical tolerance to it. That can be done through exercise or physical activity that activates the same physiological responses that stress does (such as a higher heart rate and breathing rate), making the person better able to tolerate stress, says Rabin…

The other option, which has been steadily gaining popularity in recent years, is to decrease a person’s perception of stress by training the mind to think about the stressful event in a different way. This can be done through techniques such as guided visualization or meditation, and is recommended by organizations such as the Mind/Body Medical Institute, a Chestnut Hill, Mass.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the study of mind/body interactions.

“What we’re looking at is getting people to understand some of the negative thoughts and behaviors that are impacting their lives and getting them to make changes,” says Marilyn Wilcher, senior vice president at the institute.

Here are some brief descriptions of some widely used methods that have become popular for combating stress in recent years:

Guided Imagery: This technique involves sitting and listening to a tape or an instructor walk you through a guided relaxation exercise. The instruction often includes imagining yourself in a calm environment or a relaxing, faraway place.

Qigong: Qigong comes from two Chinese words: Qi (chi) means energy and gong (kung) means a skill or a practice. Qigong is a technique the combines movement, meditation and visualization. Proponents of Qigong say it can improve your physical and mental health and provide the same physical benefits of meditation, such as reduced stress and lower blood pressure.

Relaxation Response: The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress (e.g., decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension). This technique is used by the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

The technique involves sitting in a comfortable position and repeating a word, sound, phrase, prayer or muscular activity while passively disregarding the everyday thoughts that come into the mind so the practitioner can focus on the object of repetition. The institute suggests doing the response for 10 to 20 minutes at a time.

Transcendental Meditation: Popularized in the West by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, transcendental meditation involves sitting comfortably with the eyes closed for about 15 to 20 minutes, allowing the practitioner’s mind to enter a deeply relaxed state referred to as “Transcendental Consciousness.” The Maharishi Vedic Education Development Corp., which promotes the study of transcendental meditation, says the practice can increase a person’s creativity and productivity, improve health and reduce violence, among other benefits.

Yoga: A series of physical postures that connect the movement of the body with the breath. The poses are designed to purify the body, increase flexibility, calm the mind and provide physical strength and stamina required for long periods of meditation. There are many different kinds of yoga that range from more relaxing to more physically demanding, so people interested in practicing should find out beforehand what style of yoga is best for them.

Writing it Down: One technique recommended by Rabin involves taking 15 minutes to write down everything that’s bothering you. Don’t read what you’re writing or take time to proofread it, just write everything down, says Rabin. At the end of the 15 minutes, simply rip up the paper and throw it away. “It’s amazing the calming effect” this technique has, he says.

Read the rest of the article…

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Transcendental meditation can help heart (News 8 Austin, Texas)

News 8 Austin, Texas: Dr Brian Olshansky, a cardiac electrophysiologist at the University of Iowa, promotes a healthy diet, regular exercise, and the Transcendental Meditation Programme (TM) to help take control of one’s health and prevent cardiovascular disease. Dr Olshansky is currently treating a group of people who have heart disease with alternative therapies, including TM, yoga, breathing exercises, herbal preparations, and a predominantly vegetarian diet. It is a joy for Global Good News service to feature this news, which indicates the success of the life-supporting programmes Maharishi has designed to bring fulfilment to the field of health.

Although the results of the study are not yet finalized, News 8 Austin reported that Olshansky plans to follow up with a larger study if the results are positive.

The article described the Transcendental Meditation Technique as ‘a simple mental technique that involves deep relaxation and rest. It is usually practiced twice a day, while sitting comfortably with the eyes closed.’ The article cited the recently published study wherein patients practising TM lowered both their systolic and diastolic blood pressure numbers by an average of nearly four points by performing only two 15-minute sessions each day.

Olshansky said that currently health and heart problems are national epidemics and that although doctors perform cardiac surgery only as a last resort, at least 250,000 people die each year from the operation or from drug interactions. He wants people to avoid getting to that point by utilizing simple lifestyle changes, and techniques such as TM, proper diet, and exercise.

Original article no longer available…

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Meditate and cut crime (Trinidad and Tobago Express)

Trinidad and Tobago Express: Will the citizens of the country ever enjoy a crime-free environment? Will this world ever find peace?

These are some of the questions that drove the Brahma Kumaris Raja Yoga Centre to publicly launch World Peace Hour recently at its Chaguanas branch.

The centre hopes to spread, through prayer and meditation, a peaceful attitude that will help reduce crime.

Attendees included co-ordinator of the Divali Nagar, Deokinanan Sharma, and feature speaker, Assistant Commissioner of Police for South and Central, Dennis Graham.

Most people do not take seriously thoughts on meditation, much less as a way to bring more order to society.

But can meditation have a tangible effect on crime? At the Raja Yoga Centre, people of all races and religion are taught the art of meditation – free of charge.

Such is the commitment of those at the centre to share mental peace.

With centres all around the world and many members who are part of the scientific community, the Raja Yogas have conducted several experiments over the years to test the effects of meditation.

In June 1999, the Social Indicators Research journal reported one of the most dramatic sociological experiments ever undertaken.

Intense group meditation was done over an eight-week period in Washington, DC, during the summer of 1993.

Researchers, before the experiment, had predicted a reduction in crime of at least 20 per cent.

Findings later showed that violent crime-including rapes, murders and assaults-had decreased by 23 per cent during the June 7 to July 30 experimental period.

The odds of this result are two in one billion.

The study was led by John Hagelin, Director of the Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa.

The demonstration had involved nearly 4,000 practitioners of Transcendental Meditation from 81 countries.

Hagelin stated: “Previous research had shown that these meditation techniques create a state of deep relaxation and coherence in the individual and simultaneously appear to produce an effect that spreads into the environment, influencing people who are not practising the techniques and who have no knowledge of the experiments themselves”.

Hagelin, an eminent physicist, drew terminology from quantum field theories to refer to the results of meditation as “a field effect of consciousness”.

“It’s analogous to the way that a magnet creates an invisible field that causes iron filings to organise themselves into an orderly pattern,” Hagelin said.

He also said that meditation has been shown to create high levels of coherence and orderliness in individual practitioners.

This “orderliness” appears to spill over into society and can be measured directly through the positive changes that occur.

Dr Ann Hughes, a professor of Sociology and Government at the University of the District of Columbia, later said of the experiment: “What we are looking at here is a new paradigm of viewing crime and violence. Hughes was part of a 27-member project review board composed of independent scientists and civic leaders who approved the research protocol and monitored and the process.

Sr Jasmine, co-ordinator of the centre, said that the most powerful instrument known to man is the power of thought.

“Crime begins as a thought,” Sr Jasmine said.

Changing these thought forms before they begin a definite way, she said, begins curbing crime.

“Our world is crying out for peace and thirsting for love.

“The call of time is here for each of us to make a meaningful contribution,” Sr Jasmine urged.

“Our once-sweet and loving T&T is fast becoming unconscious and filled with fear, hopelessness and sorrow.”

Assistant Commissioner of Police in South, Dennis Graham, said that the institutions of family, religion and education also hold a great responsibility in the prevention of crime in this country.

He referred to the biblical saying: “Train up a child when he is young that he may not depart from it when he is old.”

“There is an increasing dependency on the Government to provide services that should be provided by the family,” Graham said.

“If the family fails, other institutions will fail,” Graham said.

“The police cannot do our jobs successfully without the intervention of these institutions. We must join hands and hearts.”

He said that most officers are trained to simply deal with a crime on hand without taking a deeper look into the criminal mind.

He is a firm believer in prevention, and cited the disparities in the social and economic classes as being one of the root causes of crime.

“The disparity between the upper of the upper class and the lower of the class are wide.

Those of the lower of the lower class sometimes seek to attain the things of the upper of the upper class by illegal means.”

He said that one of the main purposes of education is to socialise children through the use of a country’s culture and values.

Graham also felt that spirituality needs to be taught to younger people.

“We must pray daily,” the policeman said.

“Children need to be taught that people are more important than material things. Some have virtually abdicated these values.”

He said, though, that there has been a noticeable drop in criminal activity from where he sits, since the provision of more patrol vehicles to the police force.

He pointed out that the once pandemic kidnapping trend has abated.

The centre will continue to hold World Peace Hour on every third Sunday of the month and all are invited to attend.

Original article no longer available

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Delving into alternative care (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Susanne Quick, Journal Sentinal, Milwaukee: Johnnie Thomas spent 22 years trying to get teenagers to behave.

As a building superintendent for a dormitory first run by the YMCA, now by Marquette University, he saw more than his share of late-night shenanigans.

It took a toll, and in 1994, he underwent open-heart surgery. While recovering from the triple bypass, he re-evaluated his lifestyle – his food choices, his exercise regimen. But with an aloof doctor, and little in the way of support from home, he didn’t make much headway.

Then, two years ago, Thomas saw a late-night advertisement on TV – an ad that called for African-Americans with cardiovascular trouble to participate in a study at the Medical College of Wisconsin. The idea was to test the cardiovascular effects of Transcendental Meditation – a patented form of meditation owned and promoted by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian guru made popular during the 1960s by the Beatles.

Thomas figured, “Why not?”

He has been meditating every day since then, and according to Thomas, his new doctors – those not involved in the study – are thrilled with the results.

“They say, keep doing whatever it is you are doing,” he said. “And I do.”

A generation ago, even a few years ago, a heart patient learning about meditation from a leading medical center would have been unthinkable.

No more.

More than a third of Americans use some form of complementary or alternative medicine – treatments or regimens used in conjunction with, or as an alternative to, standard Western medicine.

The number of people using these non-standard treatments almost doubles if prayer is included, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine – a branch of the National Institutes of Health. And even though many treatments haven’t had much scientific testing, doctors, insurance companies and health centers are paying attention.

The Medical College’s meditation study, which has been funded for four years by NIH’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine center, has recently been extended for another four years. And it is similar to many others being conducted across the country.

The center has a 2004 budget of $117.7 million, double what it was just five years ago. And that’s less than half of NIH’s total annual spending on complementary and alternative medicine. Other money goes to agencies such as the National Institute on Aging and the National Cancer Institute. It funds such research as Transcendental Meditation and distance healing – defined as a “mental intention on behalf of one person, to benefit another at a distance” – as well as more “conventional” alternative treatments such as acupuncture and massage.

“Our goal is to find out what works, what doesn’t work, and what is safe and is not safe, and to share that information with consumers, practitioners, and policy-makers,” said Margaret Chesney, deputy director of the center. If the center finds something valid, doctors can start using it.

The result is that traditional research centers such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Johns Hopkins and Columbia University are competing for federal grants to study alternative medicine with places such as Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. To date, Maharishi University has received more than $20 million in government support.

Beyond the government investment, alternative medicine centers have started appearing in mainstream medical centers and managed care facilities across the country.

In the Milwaukee area, Aurora, Covenant and Columbia St. Mary’s all have supported and managed “complementary care” facilities in their health systems. Covenant’s Center for Complementary Medicine in Mequon, for example, offers acupuncture and massage, as well as a full-time trainer who advises patients on a more balanced and holistic lifestyle.

“We knew patients were seeing chiropractors as well as their surgeons and physicians,” said Nancy Conway, director of complementary medicine at Aurora, which has similar centers.

What better way to manage their patients’ care than to get both types of practitioners under the same roof, she said.

Where is this headed?

The question no one has been able to answer is where all this is headed.

Government-funded health agencies would like to systematically either legitimize or debunk the numerous alternative treatments available. Chesney said the center reviews every proposal with the same scientific and critical rigor – irrespective of the politics, religion or spiritual practice associated with it.

But to conventional Western doctors, it’s one thing if a mainstream research center such as UW-Madison or Johns Hopkins says an alternative practice such as acupuncture is valid. It’s another if the research is from Maharishi University.Will family doctors really feel comfortable referring patients with high blood pressure to the nearest Transcendental Meditation clinic – where they will be asked to write a $2,500 check?

What is more likely – and what is already happening, regardless of the NIH studies – is that some doctors are referring patients to alternative practitioners within their own medical facilities.

And then there’s the question of insurance. So far, insurance companies have been reluctant to cover many alternative and complementary treatments, said Aurora’s Conway.

Some insurers will cover visits to chiropractors or offer discounts for acupuncture and chiropractic care. But for other kinds of complementary and alternative care – the more fringe practices such as homeopathy and chelation therapy- there is little in the way of coverage, Conway said.

“With the rising costs of health care,” both insurance companies and consumers are finding themselves on the same side of the table, said Sam Benjamin, corporate medical director for integrative health strategies at Humana. They both want cost-effective medicine.

Indeed, if insurance companies can inform and educate people about complementary medicine – a lot of it low-cost with few side effects – then both parties will be better off, Benjamin said.

There just isn’t a lot of incentive right now for insurance companies to pay for alternative medicine, he said. The last thing they want to do is cover more kinds of medical treatments. And again, there’s the question of endorsing fringe organizations. If insurance companies started paying for Transcendental Meditation, for instance, would they unwittingly be promoting Maharishi’s program for achieving world peace through yogic flying?

Mixed reactions in doctors

All this interest in new forms of health care – and the money following it – has drawn a mixed reaction from doctors on the front lines.

Many physicians say they embrace alternative and complementary approaches to medical care, or at least don’t reject them. Steven Pinzer, a spokesman for Aurora Health Care, contended that skeptical primary care physicians, at least at Aurora, don’t exist.

But others said doctors are choosing not to speak out for fear of appearing close-minded, or inviting disfavor from their health care network.

And then there is Stephen Barrett, a retired Allentown, Pa., psychiatrist and director of Quackwatch Inc. – a medical fraud watchdog group. Barrett calls alternative medicine “rubbish.”

Barrett said that while it may sound as if a lot of people are using non-traditional forms of medicine, it’s just not true. Remove prayer and the use of herbal supplements, and the number drops to about 18%. Practices such as biofeedback and Ayurveda, which is a form of holistic medicine, have received a fair amount of publicity but attract only 0.1% of the American population, he said.

“The fringe stuff is just not being used all that widely,” he said.

Barrett also wonders whether more physicians are not voicing their skepticism because they don’t know much about what’s going on outside their own specific fields and have enough on their plates without inviting conflict.

Benjamin agreed.

“Believe me, I don’t mean to criticize doctors – I am one,” he said. But they are so overworked and have so little time, most are unable to keep on top of the latest research in their own field, much less the latest on massage therapy and acupuncture.

“This is a failure on the part of medical schools” and health care organizations, which should be training their physicians in these methods and giving them the time to learn, he said.

Barrett was a little more critical: “They don’t know enough. They don’t want to get caught in a fix. And they are afraid of getting sued.”

Gaining acceptance

Nevertheless, there does seem to be a level of acceptance in the medical world.

Many specialists, such as heart doctors and cancer physicians, appear to be relatively open to newfangled (or very old-fangled, depending upon how you see it) treatments.

This is particularly true for cancer doctors, who for years have incorporated an array of treatments to help their patients.

“I think oncologists are an interesting group,” said James Stewart, a medical oncologist at UW Hospital. “We take a multidisciplinary approach to disease, a holistic approach, which is pretty traditional in cancer clinics.”

From diet and exercise to psychological care, oncologists have been aware that a patient who feels better about herself – who feels she has some control in the outcome of her care – will have a better experience.

“If I had my wishes, all my patients wouldn’t smoke. They’d exercise. And they’d be an ideal body weight,” he said. “I guarantee they’d feel better.”

But when he can’t get them to follow this advice – and they show interest in other treatments – he’s willing to refer them.

He’s quick to point out these treatments are complementary – not alternatives to the standard front lines of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. And, he reiterated, the patient has to ask for it.

“There are definitely charlatans out there, people who take advantage of those with chronic, life-threatening diseases for which there are no easy cures,” he said. “And it’s those few who can give everybody a bad name.”

What Stewart and Ellen Hartenbach, another oncologist at UW, try to do is make sure they and their patients keep talking to each other.

Others hesitate

For doctors such as Jon Keevil, a cardiologist at UW, the open approach that his oncology colleagues have shown is not entirely comfortable.

He thinks heart specialists may be a bit less holistic than oncologists and primary care physicians – although he does have a dietitian in his clinic and regularly discusses the benefits of exercise and a good diet with his patients.

“When it comes right down to it, when a person suffers a heart attack, we don’t take over everything else” in the body, he said.

Indeed, discussing alternative and complementary approaches may be somewhat inappropriate coming from a specialist such as himself, he said. “That’s really what their primary care doctor is there for.”

That where David Rakel comes in.

Rakel is a primary care physician in Madison, and director of UW’s Integrative Medicine clinic, so he’s open – almost by the definition of his job – to new methods of health care.

But he thinks “adding more tools to the tool bag” is not the answer.

Instead, he said, there needs to be “a change in the way we approach the patient.”

From the minute patients walk into the room, the focus should be on listening to their story, and hearing what the patients have to say – instead of peppering them with questions to cram them into a preconceived diagnostic box.

Studies have shown that within 18 seconds of patients’ descriptions of their ailments, they are interrupted. And other research has indicated that only a handful of patients actually understand what their doctors tell them, or know what to do when they leave their doctor’s office.

“We really need to match a therapy to an individual,” said Rakel, taking into account that individual’s “biopsychosocial and spiritual influences.”

That means spending time with patients.

If adding 15 more minutes to a patient’s visit is what’s required, than that’s what should happen, Rakel said. And if that’s considered complementary or alternative, then so be it, he said.

“Integrative medicine encourages empowerment. It facilitates the body in a way that it is best able to heal itself,” he said.

So where does acupuncture, massage therapy and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi come in?

With any treatment, he said, “you have to take into account the potential harm, cost, the patient’s belief system and the evidence-based science,” he said.

“What’s legitimate for one person may not be for another,” he said. “The goal is how we can help a human being.”

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Windham family finds peace in meditation (Union Leader, New Hampshire)

Carol Robidoux, Union Leader, New Hampshire: Gloria Norris Schwartz discovered Transcendental Meditation – TM – five years ago after a mostly fruitless search for a natural remedy for healing and stress.

Since then she and her husband Jeffrey, a mathematical scientist, and their two sons, 13 and 11, have trained in the technique described by TM enthusiasts as the opposite of concentration, completely effortless and totally life-changing.

How true for the Schwartz family.

They meditate regularly and follow a TM-recommended natural health program. And as soon as they can sell their home in Windham, they’re moving to Maharishi Vedic City, Iowa, a new city built three years ago in the middle of farm country just beyond the Maharishi University of Management – a college founded in 1974 by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Yes, guru to the Beatles during the late 1960s.

“I can’t wait to get there. As soon as I heard about it I had to see it. We’ve been there twice – I loved it,” Schwartz, 50, said.

Although they arrived in New Hampshire from the Washington, D.C., area already practicing TM, Schwartz wanted to connect with a TM teacher here.

She met Sherry Levesque, director of Manchester’s TM Program Center and part of the faculty at Maharishi Vedic University in Antrim, which last year took over the campus of the defunct Nathaniel Hawthorne College. The organization is looking to build a meditation “Peace Palace” in the Manchester area, as well.

Tonight Levesque will offer an introductory TM lecture at Manchester City Library auditorium at 7 p.m. Levesque said her presentation, “The TM Program: Opening a New World of Knowledge, Health and Quality of Life,” is based on data proving the physical and mental benefits of TM from more than 600 scientific studies at more than 200 credible universities and research centers, including Harvard Medical School, Stanford University and UCLA.

Goal: World peace

Levesque cites benefits ranging from enhanced creativity, memory and alpha wave brain function (key to taming attention deficit disorders), to solving blood pressure, cholesterol, anxiety and stress-related ailments.

“TM provides the mind with the ability to transcend to a place TMers refer to as the ‘universal unified field of intelligence’ – called the unified field, in ultra modern physics,” Levesque said.

Albert Einstein was among those great thinkers who first explored the so-called Theory Of Everything (TOE) in the context of the universe.

Only now are physicists catching up with Einstein and applying TOE to the current controversial buzz in the scientific community, “String Theory” by Columbia University physicist Brian Greene.

But make no mistake: TM is a trademarked, worldwide non-profit educational organization based solely on the sacred teachings of “His Holiness” the Maharishi. It relies heavily on repetition of a mantra. And the goal is nothing short of world peace.

“What Maharishi says in the language of science – we call it Natural Law – in layman’s terms might be called the will of God. In whatever language you use, peace should be the way of the world,” Levesque said.

“For the cost of a B-2 bomber, we could set up a group of 40,000 people in India to meditate and act as peace keepers by creating a major effect on the unified field,” Levesque said.

A $2,500 check

Anyone interested in learning TM must participate in three preliminary lectures – two group and a one-on-one with a certified instructor. After that, a $2,500 check buys you a lifetime of instruction at any trademarked Maharishi Vedic center around the globe.

“The fee may sound high, but it’s a standard fee, and actually, it’s the best bargain in America,” Levesque said.

Schwartz has borrowed money in order to pay that much, times four, and agrees with Levesque that it’s a wise investment in her family’s future.

“What does a person pay for a course in college? What do you pay for a one-week vacation for a family of four? How much is a laptop computer and some software and, in a few years, it’s obsolete?,” Schwartz said.

Townies vs. gurus

Meanwhile, in Vedic City, Iowa, it’s hard to say whether the city that chants together achieves world peace together. But it seemed like a logical question for Jefferson County Iowa Sheriff Jerry Droz.

“This whole county is low crime, has been for years – since before they got here,” Droz said. “Everybody there is involved in TM.” Although he’s never tried it, some of his best friends are TM’ers.

He said Vedic City has caused a rift between some Iowa natives and their new mystical neighbors.

“It’s become the ‘Townies’ and ‘Gurus,’ a ‘we’ and ‘them’ situation, when it should be ‘us.’ Although the factions are getting a little less, you can understand it. When something new comes into your neighborhood you wouldn’t like it,” Droz said.

One of the persistent controversies surrounding TM is its connection to Hinduism through mantras, and the cult-like influence of the Maharishi over his followers. Some say it undermines traditional Biblical teachings on the absolute truth of Christian doctrine.

Droz said he would be reluctant to say what he thinks, but offered this anecdote.

“When Maharishi said all the toilets had to face East, everyone changed their homes around. All the buildings have to be facing East. Why? That’s what he said to do. There are several things they have to do, because he says so,” Droz said. “Sure, we’ve had people disgruntled with the program, but the bottom line is, you can’t please everybody.”

A ‘destructive cult’

But Andrew Skolnick, a former editor for the Journal of the American Medical Association and current director of the Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health, a newly formed New York-based organization dedicated to debunking overblown alternative medicine and health theories, is not so diplomatic.

He says TM is nothing but BS.

“It’s widely considered by cult experts to be a destructive cult, in that its followers believe in a divine-like quality or powers of their leader and they accept his teachings, which are blatantly absurd, self-contradictory and harmful,” Skolnick said. “And it costs a fortune.”

He said the Maharishi’s rationale is based on his interpretations of Hindu mysticism wrapped in scientific jargon.

“What he did in the 1950s was he started to rewrite his Hindu theology, replacing it with scientific words. And that’s enough for the ‘believer,’ who will not try to see the consistencies or inconsistencies for himself,” Skolnick said.

“You go take a basic TM course that teaches you to meditate. Then you come back for ‘checking’ and they say you can’t advance in TM without the checking sessions. And it’s during those sessions you’re baited for costly courses. Then, slowly, they reel you in,” Skolnick said.

That kind of criticism does not sway Schwartz against her decision to move her family West, to Vedic City. She’s heard it all, and said her commitment to TM was made for exactly the opposite reason.

“I wanted something that wasn’t going to interfere with whatever religious path I was taking, and that’s exactly what you get with TM. So many of these other methods of relaxation and healing are either all spiritual or all scientific. This is both,” said Schwartz. “And at the same time, it’s not like a religion, like you have to subscribe to a particular belief system. It’s just a technique.”

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Meditation and the art of capital-raising (Stuff, New Zealand)

The New Zealand Maharishi Foundation, which seeks to spread peace and harmony through transcendental meditation, wants Kiwi businessfolk to contribute $15 million for a “peace palace” in central Auckland.

The Auckland Peace Palace would be the first of eight planned for New Zealand’s cities and one of 3000 sought globally by the five million devotees of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, made famous by The Beatles in 1968. Since 2000, three of the 3000 have been built – all in the US.

Among those lending their names (but not necessarily their money) to plans for Auckland’s palace are former New York marathon winner and healthcare product manufacturer Allison Roe, Auckland District Health Board mental health director Dr Nick Argyle, McKay Shipping chief executive Craig Harris, former Young & Rubicam boss Peter Scutts, Auckland property developer Greg Liggins and New Zealand Institute of Management Canterbury divisional head Reg Garters.

Foundation PR adviser Tony Edmonds said many senior business people involved in the project are regular meditators.

“But they don’t necessarily want to talk about it because if they do, people start humming the theme to The X-Files and rolling their eyes because they don’t understand . . . But now it’s time to talk about it.”

One supporter of the plan is former PSM Holdings chief executive, North Harbour coach and All Black selector Peter Thorburn. He said he turned to transcendental meditation more than a decade ago following the death of his wife.

He dropped it later in the ’90s but picked it up again about six months ago after a stressful tour coaching in England.

“It helps me to relax. It makes a real difference to your general sense of well-being.”

Not involved in the palace plans, though a supporter of the concept, is Michael Hill of jewellery retailer Michael Hill International. He says with meditation, the mind can “unleash unbelievably powerful inner thoughts, particularly business decisions: where one wants to go and what one wants to do with one’s life, all becomes clear.”

Hill remains sceptical about Maharishi followers’ claim that meditation can reduce violent crime, ethnic tensions and even terrorism. Devotees believe that, if enough people meditate in a community, social tensions ease and crime rates fall.

To achieve this Auckland’s Peace Palace must attract regular twice-daily meditators numbering more than the square root of 1% of the city’s population, or about 100 people.

To sceptics it’s far-fetched, but New Zealand Maharishi Foundation directors Graeme Lodge and Martin Jelley – son of Arch Jelley, coach of Kiwi runner John Walker – reel off results from 600 scientific studies they say back the claims.

The palace’s $15m price tag includes about $5m for buying the land and constructing the building, while the rest is earmarked to help pay for 100 to 200 professional meditators. Getting the necessary seed funding for the project should not be the problem, rather, finding the land, Lodge said. This should be finalised this year, so building can begin next year.

Internationally, those who have dabbled with transcendental meditation include, famously, The Beatles and actor Clint Eastwood; movie director David Lynch, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, physicist John Hagelin, comedic actor Andy Kaufman and former US vice president Al Gore.

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