The Clinical and Social Benefits of Meditation
Meditation has a very long history, and was practised centuries before the Buddha had his enlightenment while meditating under the Bo tree about 500 years BC. Since then, meditation has become the spiritual engine for many religious beliefs and spiritual practices. However, although meditation was used in Christian practices, it was never a popular method for transforming the mind. It usually consisted of contemplative techniques, rather than the methods for stilling the mind which were used in India.
Meditation techniques can be roughly divided into those in which the mind is focused exclusively on either an external or an internal object, and those which allow the mind to run freely while the meditator simply watches the thoughts arise. Until the late 1950s meditation was little practised in the West. A huge scientific and social change in the attitude towards it occurred when the Maharishi was instructed by his teacher, Shri Gurudeva, to come to the West and teach an easy-to-practise form of mantra meditation, transcendental meditation. When the Maharishi first came to this country he was hosted by the Study Society and it was they who helped to arrange his large introductory meeting at the Albert Hall. He recruited the ‘Beatles’ who then made the technique popular. In 1961 during a visit to the Maharishi’s ashram in India, the leader of the Study Society, Dr F.C. Roles, was introduced to His Holiness Shantanand Saraswati, the head of the Shankaracharya tradition in Northern India. This tradition, founded 2,500 years ago, was the source of the method of meditation taught by the Maharishi.
The meditation is a form of Raja Yoga – mantra meditation - during the practice of which the individual is drawn deep into himself, stilling the mind and experiencing wider states of consciousness. It is energising, calming and mentally cleansing. Candidates are asked to attend an introductory meeting, then the initiation and finally checking to make sure they are practising the technique correctly. It is now 50 years since permission to teach the meditation was given to the Society, and during that time many hundreds of people have been initiated. This work is continuing in the Study Society and is seen as being of great benefit not only to those who practise the technique, but to society as a whole.
The consequence of the Maharishi’s introduction of meditation to the West has been profound. The Maharishi International University has provided for scientific examination a ready pool of subjects who meditate. In the 1950s and ’60s there was a slow trickle of peer-reviewed scientific papers on the effects of meditation on the body.
As public awareness and particularly scientific awareness grew, different types of meditation were studied and the number of papers began to increase. From the diagram below it can be seen that in the first decade of this century this early trickle had become a waterfall: over 1,100 papers were published, and it is likely that almost twice this number will be published in this second decade. The Society is very proud to have been in the vanguard of this movement.
Meditation has now come of age and science has shown that it produces brain changes. There is a growth in the area which controls emotional responses. This helps the meditating subjects to calm and cope more effectively with the stresses of life. In 2005, an MRI study reported in Neuroreport:5 that brain regions associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing were thicker in meditation participants than matched controls, including the prefrontal cortex and the right anterior insula. These areas are responsible for decision control and emotional control. Between-group differences in prefrontal cortical thickness were most pronounced in older participants, suggesting that meditation might offset age-related cortical thinning. Finally, the thickness of these two regions correlated with meditation experience. These data provide the first structural evidence for experience-dependent cortical plasticity associated with meditation practice. Since then numerous studies have shown beneficial meditation-related brain changes.
However although the brain changes are impressive, these on their own are not sufficient. Meditation has been studied in a wide number of medical conditions and found to be helpful. The first papers to show the benefit of mindfulness meditation came from a Massachusetts group led by Dr. Kabot Zin. He treated a number of patients with anxiety states with mindfulness meditation. His surprising finding was that, compared to relaxation, mindfulness meditation led to a remission of symptoms for many years, whereas relaxation training had only short-term effects. The medical insurance companies were the keen to endorse the treatment. This has led to mindfuless meditation now being a highly popular method of treatment; PubMed, the American database of peer reviewed world literature, shows about 700 papers of mindfulness studies.
Meditation has been used in the treatment of many psychological and medical conditions, including high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and vascular difficulties, Alzheimer’s dementia, anxiety states and depression. Meditation has come of age in the medical and social fields. There is still a need for ordinary people to learn meditation so that they can use its calming and empowering effects when under stress. The Society is very proud of its tradition of making meditation available to anyone who asks for it. They have a commitment to continue to do so.
Dr Peter Fenwick
Chair of The Study Society.