Meditation is going mainstream. Today, 10 million Americans—more than twice as many as a decade ago—practice some form of meditation, according to TIME magazine (Stein 2003). And with contemporary medical experts claiming that regular practice of this ancient activity improves well-being and health, the trend may well continue. But what is meditation; why is it gaining popularity and credibility; and can it be a partner to a physical fitness program? Let’s look at the roots of meditation, some common misconceptions about its purpose, a few examples of meditation styles, and the benefits of practice.
East Asian philosophers have studied the science of mind, consciousness and emotions for thousands of years. Hindu texts dating back more than 4,000 years describe meditation. Buddhist monks formalized ritual meditation about 2,500 years ago. And by 200 AD, Christian monks were meditating to draw closer to God.
In Buddhist philosophy, the ultimate purpose of meditation is to liberate the mind from attachment to things it cannot control, such as external circumstances or strong internal emotions. The liberated, or “enlightened,” practitioner no longer needlessly follows desires or clings to experiences, but instead maintains a calmness of mind and sense of inner balance. This mental discipline is honed through years of practice and is challenged daily by life’s experiences.
Meditation, because of its East Asian roots, is often shrouded in mystery. But contemporary scientists and, increasingly, practitioners themselves are breaking down these barriers. According to Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, “You don’t have to become a Buddhist or adopt any particular religious faith [to meditate]. Everybody has the potential to lead a peaceful, meaningful life” (Gyatso 2003).
While it is true that anyone can meditate, misconceptions about meditation abound. Meditation is not therapy, although it can have healing effects (see “Benefits of Meditation” on page 92). Meditation is not religion, although a regular practice is an adjunct to the Buddhist way of life. And meditation is not stress management, even though it can help practitioners achieve relaxation.
Richard J. Davidson, PhD, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, are leading researchers on the physiological effects of meditation—in particular, mindfulness meditation. They note that a mindfulness practice “is not aimed at achieving a state of clinical relaxation, but more at the cultivation of insight and understanding . . . via the cultivation of a moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental but highly discerning awareness.” Relaxation may be a byproduct, they point out, but it is not the goal. Meditation is “rather for greater awareness, self-knowledge, equanimity and self-compassion. It is hardly a trip to a luxury spa” (Davidson & Kabat-Zinn 2004).
Meditation is an approach to training the mind, similar to the way that fitness is an approach to training the body. Someone who lacks knowledge of the tools and methods of fitness may think her lack of strength or endurance is inevitable, rather than an aspect of life that can change through consistent training and a healthy lifestyle. Likewise, a person with an untrained mind may think the power that his thoughts and emotions wield over his life is inevitable, rather than seeing it as something that can change through meditation.
Long-term meditators come to see that thoughts and emotions are drifting by, much like clouds in the sky. And little by little, as practitioners become less invested in their mindless chatter, they can live with a more open awareness of present experience. With this awareness, they tend to react less impulsively to life’s pressures and are able to respond to them with greater equanimity.
Many methods of meditation exist. As Davidson explained to The New York Times, “In Buddhist tradition, meditation is a word that is equivalent to a word like sports in the U.S. It’s a family of activity, not a single thing” (Hall 2003). Different meditative practices require different mental skills. It’s extremely difficult for a beginner to sit for hours and think of nothing or have an “empty mind.” Only a master, after many years of disciplined practice, can approach such mental clarity. In general, the easiest way to begin meditating is by focusing on the breath. This would be an example of one of the most common approaches to meditation: concentration.
A concentrative practice involves focusing on a single point. This could entail watching the breath, repeating a single word or mantra, staring at a candle flame, listening to a repetitive gong or counting beads on a rosary. Since focusing the mind is challenging, a beginner might meditate for only a few minutes and then work up to longer durations. In this form of meditation, the practitioner simply refocuses her awareness on the chosen object of attention each time she notices her mind wandering. Rather than pursuing random thoughts, she simply lets them go. Through this process, her ability to concentrate improves.
In contrast, as suggested earlier, mindfulness meditation encourages the practitioner to observe wandering thoughts as they drift through the mind. The intention is not to get involved with the thoughts or to judge them, but simply to be aware of each mental note as it arises. Through this process, the practitioner sees how his thoughts and feelings tend to move in particular patterns. Over time, he becomes more familiar with the impermanence of emotional states and with the human tendency to quickly judge experience as “good” or “bad” (“pleasant” or “unpleasant”). With practice, an inner balance develops.
This balance comes at a price, however. As Davidson and Kabat-Zinn emphasize, “A good deal of the time, the practice of mindfulness may mean being with and observing states of mind and body that are extremely painful . . . , including fear, loneliness, anger, bodily discomfort, impatience, boredom and the like. These are to be experienced as best as one can with the same nonjudgmental attitude as pleasant or neutral experiences” (Davidson & Kabat-Zinn 2004).
In some schools of meditation, students practice a combination of concentration and mindfulness. Many disciplines call for stillness—to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the teacher.
There are various other types of meditation. For example, a daily practice among Buddhist monks focuses directly on the cultivation of compassion. This involves envisioning negative events and recasting them in a positive light by transforming them through compassion. There are also moving meditations, such as tai chi, chi kung and meditation walks.
If relaxation is not the goal of meditation, it is often one result of it. Back in the 1970s, Herbert Benson, MD, a researcher at Harvard University Medical School, coined the term the relaxation response after conducting research on people who practiced transcendental meditation. The relaxation response, in Benson’s words, is “an opposite, involuntary response that causes a reduction in the activity of the sympathetic nervous system.”
Since then, studies on the relaxation response have documented the following short-term benefits to the nervous system:
- lower blood pressure
- improved blood circulation
- lower heart rate
- less perspiration
- slower respiratory rate
- less anxiety
- lower blood cortisol levels
- more feelings of well-being
- less stress
- improved deep relaxation
Contemporary researchers are now exploring whether consistent meditation practice yields long-term benefits. The results of a randomized, controlled study led by Davidson and Kabat-Zinn appeared in the July–August 2003 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine (Davidson et al. 2003). In this study, they compared the brain activity of controls with that of healthy employees who underwent 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation training. Every participant received a flu vaccine after the 8 weeks. Brain activity was tested before, immediately after and 4 months after the program, and subjects had blood drawn 4 and 8 weeks after vaccination. The researchers noted demonstrable positive effects on brain and immune function among the meditators. Compared to the controls, they showed significant increases in left-frontal brain activation, a pattern associated with positive mood. In addition, all meditation subjects had significantly higher levels of influenza antibody titers than the controls. What’s more, the size of increase in left-sided brain activity predicted the magnitude of the increase in antibodies. Davidson and Kabat-Zinn noted that the study had limitations (its small size, for one) and that further research was needed.
A more recent study used magnetic resonance imaging to compare brain activity in long-time Buddhist monks and subjects new to meditation (Lutz et al. 2004). Their task was to meditate on compassion, generating a feeling of loving kindness toward all beings. The novices received instruction on how to do the meditation. The research team included Davidson, who reported that the novice meditators “showed a slight increase in gamma activity [high-frequency brain activity], but most monks showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature.” In the meditating monks, activity in the left prefrontal cortex (site of positive emotions) swamped activity in the right prefrontal cortex (home to negative emotions). Notably, even when the monks were not meditating, the ratio of their left to right brain activity was higher than the ratio in nontrained subjects.
While it is now clear that consistent meditation practice provides both short-term and long-term benefits to health and well-being, it is worth repeating that the purpose of meditation is not to achieve benefits. To put it as an Eastern philosopher might say, the goal of meditation is no goal. It is simply to be present.
As fitness professionals, we are gradually connecting the dots between the health of the body and the health of the mind. Inner peace and balance are as important to well-being and health as the exercises we do or the food we eat. Science is now substantiating the ancient wisdom that we have the capacity to manifest both outer and inner health. Meditation provides us—and our clients—with an opportunity to create a healthier, more peaceful and more balanced self—and, in this way, to benefit the world.