When you hear the word “meditate” you may think of Buddhist monks sitting cross-legged in a temple somewhere in Tibet. Though this is the stereotypical image that comes to mind when you think of meditation, it is a practice that has been sweeping across the Western world for several decades. Though there is conclusive evidence that meditation is beneficial both physiologically and psychologically, many people still believe that meditation’s only benefit is that it is relaxing. This is hardly the case.
(Photo at Left: Mahayana Buddhist monk burning himself in protest of the South Vietnam government outside of Saigon in 1963. http://photosthatchangedtheworld.com/burning-monk/)

Buddhist monks have practiced many forms of meditation for centuries that have only recently hit the mainstream. An early pioneer in meditation research is Dr. Herbert Benson, the president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School (Foreman, 2003). In 1967, Benson tested 36 transcendental meditators and analyzed their heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, and rectal temperature and found that during meditation, they used 17% less oxygen, their heart rates decreased by three beats per minute, and their theta brain wave activity increased (Stein, 2003). In the 1970s, Benson published his best seller, The Relaxation Response, in which he suggested that meditators were able to counteract the fight-or-flight response induced by everyday stress and achieve a calmer state of wellbeing. Several years later, Benson teamed up with Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry, Dr. Gregg Jacobs, and they found from EEGs that meditators basically blocked information from entering their parietal lobes, causing them to lose their sense of orientation in time and space (Stein, 2003). Benson also measured blood flow in the brains of Sikhs who were able to meditate even with the loud clanking of an fMRI machine, and he found that blood flow was decreased overall except in specific areas where blood flow was increased, like the limbic system, the emotion and memory center that controls heart rate, respiratory rate, and metabolism as well (Stein, 2003). Similar testing by Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison found that activity in the prefrontal cortex shifts from the right to the left hemisphere during meditation, resulting in a shift from fight-or-flight mode to a state of acceptance and contentment (Stein, 2003).

There are many different kinds of meditation, ranging from the simple version of Relaxation Response to transcendental meditation to forms such as gtum-mo, practiced in eight-hour sessions by Tibetan monks who are able to raise their body temperature high enough to dry soaking wet sheets draped over their bodies in temperatures as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit. (Watch the video clip below.)

The Tibetan Mummy

Excerpt from History Channel’s documentary on the Tibetan Mummy. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjNVkPy-CEU).

Though the benefits from each specific type of meditation differ slightly, it has been used to treat physiological symptoms in patients suffering from heart disease, AIDS, cancer, and infertility (Stein, 2003). Researchers have also reported that transcendental meditation was beneficial for patients suffering from bronchial asthma and those with auditory problems (Trotter, 1973). Along with its physical benefits, meditation has been proven to help psychological ailments such as depression, hyperactivity, ADD, claustrophobia, and perfuse perspiration (Stein, 2003; Trotter, 1973). Doctors are actually advising patients to meditate because so many scientific studies are proving that meditation is effective, especially for stress-related conditions (Stein, 2003). Not only does meditation benefit patients suffering from psychological and physiological pain, but it has also been shown to aid in stopping drug users’ addiction to certain drugs. Meditators, unlike drug users, do not become habituated to meditation and therefore do not need to increase their “dose” with each “use” (Trotter, 1973). Benson conducted a study with almost 2,000 subjects and found that after 21 months of practicing transcendental meditation, practically 96% of the subjects who had been trafficking in drugs quit entirely (Trotter, 1973). The drugs under consideration were marijuana, LSD, opiates, amphetamines, barbiturates, alcohol, and tobacco (Trotter, 1973).

Meditation does not serve only to relax the body, but also to rewire the brain and change the way in which it functions. Its many physiological and psychological benefits makes it curious as to why anyone wouldn’t be interested in this amazing practice. I know I can’t wait to learn more than I have already! Happy meditating!


Works Cited:

Foreman, Judy. A Look at the Science Behind Meditation. The Boston Globe, April 22, 2003. http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-7779781.html

Stein, Joel; Jerklie, David B.; Park, Alice; Van Biema, David; Cullota, Karen Ann; McDowell, Jeanne. Just Say Om. Time, August 4, 2003. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1005349-1,00.html

Trotter, Robert J (1973). Transcendental Meditation. Science News, 104: 376-378. http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/3958535.pdf
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Prof G said...

Is there video fotage of monks making those wet sheets steam? Can they also fry eggs on their foreheads?

Sharon-S said...

Interesting read, although a heart rate reduction of 3 (plus or minus some uncertainty) is nothing to get excited about. However, the drug user data is quite compelling.