Meditation as Medicine on the Rise

Many moons ago, a wandering Nepalese prince sat under a tree, vowing not to rise until he attained enlightenment.

After a long night of deep meditation, Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha, saw the light and declared that suffering is subjective, and can be reduced through self-awareness.

Today, 2500 years later, a growing number of American doctors and healthcare workers are teaching people who are ill how to apply Buddha’s epiphany to their lives.

In hospitals, businesses and community centers around the country, meditation is increasingly being offered as a method of stress reduction, and to help patients better cope with the physical pain and mental strain associated with many medical conditions, including heart disease and HIV infection.

Recent research shows meditation’s soothing effects can be detected in arterial walls and in the brain. Once considered outside the mainstream, today more insurers are paying for meditation, both as a form of medication and as preventive medicine.

Learning to ‘Disidentify’

“Meditation is the act of disidentifying from inner thought flow and concentrating on calming and healing,” explains Robert Thurman, Ph.D., a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University in New York and the first American to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Through meditation, doctors help patients detach from their pain and anxieties and cultivate a connection between the mind and the body, he says.

While there are many kinds of meditation, the mindfulness approach, used widely in hospitals around the country, focuses primarily on breathing. Practices vary, but the basic idea involves sitting comfortably, with eyes closed, spine straight and attention focused on breathing.

Practitioners aim to maintain a detached, calm awareness of their thoughts and sensations. Through mindfulness, experts say, meditators learn to pay attention to the present and cultivate clarity of mind, equanimity and wisdom.

Minor Mindfulness Miracles

All of which may sound very abstract. Unless, points out Jeff Brantley, Ph.D, Director of the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C., you are a patient who is suffering.

“We had one patient, a 40-year-old woman with metastatic breast cancer who was enrolled in the 8-week MBSR program. At her exit interview she said that before the course began 5 minutes wouldn’t go by without her worrying about what would become of her and her young family and now, after the class, she can concentrate on other things for more than hour at a time, even days,” Brantley says, calling the results “a minor miracle.”

The Duke program is one of at least 70 such mind-body based courses modeled on the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Stress Reduction Clinic, in Worcester, Mass., created in 1979 by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Taught mainly in hospitals around the country, mindfulness training is typically run as an 8-week-long outpatient program to complement other medical treatments.

The aim, according to a website dedicated to Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, is to assist people in taking better care of themselves “through a gentle but rigorous daily discipline of meditation and relaxation.”

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