Out of pure curiosity, I tried it—and loved it because when you meditate, you very quickly discover this sense of marked inner calm. And when you are not meditating—the other 23 hours and 20 minutes—you feel more alert and less bothered by the small insignificant irritations of life,” writes Richard A. Friedman, director of the Psychopharmacology Clinic at the US’ Weill Cornell Medical College, in an email interview.
Meditation as a spiritual practice has been around for thousands of years, and over the past two decades there has been a growing interest in using it to improve mental performance, emotional balance and physical well-being. The word for meditation in Tibetan is gom and the meaning is best conveyed as “cultivating intimacy with the full spectrum repertoire of what it means to be human”. Medical research is beginning to show us that this ancient practice can improve both mental and physical health parameters.
“There is good empirical data that meditation lowers the heart rate, blood pressure, and promotes more coherence in electrical activity in the brain. This is to say that just by entering into a meditative state, one can induce measurable physical effects (that are beneficial),” says Dr Friedman.
Researchers are beginning to get an inkling of how meditation produces these profound effects. At Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, researchers discovered that meditation reduces the brain’s electrical activity, literally “quietening it”. This reduction correlates with a reduction in the number of thoughts experienced and the researchers argue that this is what produces the calming effect that meditators experience and relish.
Psychosocial stress is a known risk factor for all lifestyle diseases, including heart disease, depression, diabetes, hypertension and various cancers, and practising meditation can limit their progression. A US study, published in November 2012 in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality And Outcomes, found that meditation helped reduce the risk of all heart disease-related events, including heart attacks, strokes and death, by 48%.
George Chrousos, professor and chairman of the First Department of Pediatrics at the University of Athens School of Medicine in Greece, agrees with the findings. He says on email, “Chronic stress plays two very major damaging roles in the body.” First, through classic hormones such as catecholamine and cortisol, it elevates arterial blood pressure, causing fat accumulation and glucose intolerance while it changes the body composition, decreasing muscle and bone mass and increasing fat deposits, especially in the abdomen. Second, stress increases inflammatory cytokine secretion (cytokines are hormones of the immune system) by stimulating the immune cells and increasing body fat, which itself produces pro-inflammatory molecules.
In a nutshell, stress makes us fat, increases our blood pressure and predisposes us to diabetes and heart attacks. Dr Chrousos, who has conducted research on stress-related illness at the US’ National Institutes of Health, adds that meditation, by calming the brain and stabilizing emotions, helps combat the effects of chronic stress, allowing the body to stave off disease.
To initiate a meditation practice, it is worth paying heed to the advice of Madhav Nagarkar, a meditation teacher based in Pune. “All we have to do is assign the mind a mantra and ask it to focus on the breath to enjoy the benefits of meditation. Just as a naughty child will jump from seat to seat in a classroom till you assign him a seat and ask him to sit in it, similarly the mind needs the mantra and the breath to focus on. Only once quiet can the mind start its journey towards experiencing pure consciousness.”
Chant a simple “Om” with each inhalation and each exhalation of breath, and choose a fixed space and time of meditation that is free of mental distraction, he says. “Noise is a major impediment to a meditation practice, even music is disruptive.”
“Awareness constitutes the foundation of all and its cultivation supports all. As meditation increases awareness, meditation is the greatest single tool we can use to improve our lives and the lives of others,” says Kevin Selig, a practising Tibetan Buddhist monk based in Bali, on email.
I’m working on making it a daily practice.
Sujata Kelkar Shetty, PhD, writes on public health issues
and is a research scientist trained at the National Institutes of
Health in Bethesda, US.