The health benefits of meditation

The health benefits of meditation

I have had the good fortune to live, for nearly a quarter of a century, in a community of meditators. We live in a large city, in our own apartments, but we are not isolated; some 200 of us live within a two-mile radius of the Centre where we meditate together. My life has reaped many benefits from my frequent contacts with other meditators, but this is the subject for another day. My focus for today is more mundane — health, both physical and mental.

One of the first things that struck me when I moved into the neighborhood was the youthful appearance of many of my fellow meditators. I assumed, at first, that they were simply what they seemed – young. As I began to have conversations with my new neighbors, though, I discovered that a lot of them were a decade or two older than they looked.

In part, this can be chalked up to the philosophy of our spiritual Teacher, Sri Chinmoy. He spoke often about the importance of keeping our body, as the “temple” of our soul, in good condition. He requested that his students run or do equivalent exercise for at least half an hour every day in addition to their meditation practise.  He founded the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team, which, in each of the 25 or so countries in which there is a branch, to this day encourages people to participate in races, ranging from weekly two-mile races all the way to the incredible (but very real) 3,100-mile race, held in Queens, New York every summer.

What does the literature say?

Recently I began to wonder whether, in addition to the contribution of Sri Chinmoy’s unique emphasis on self-transcendence, meditation itself might make an important contribution to health. I decided to take a look at the scientific literature, and found that there are, indeed, a number of ways in which meditation has beneficial effects on both physical and mental health.

Regular meditation results in lowered blood pressure, according to a meta-analysis (a statistical technique that combines results from multiple studies) of nine randomized, controlled trials (one of the most powerful types of research design).1  Insomniacs will be interested to learn that there are quite a few studies showing that regular meditation leads to better sleep.2

Since the cold and flu season is starting in the Northern hemisphere, it is timely to learn that one study shows that regular meditators have fewer winter colds than others; and a second finds that meditators produce more antibodies in response to the flu vaccine than others.3

In line with my original observation of the youthful appearance of many of Sri Chinmoy’s students, there has even been some biomedical research showing that meditation may slow the rate of cellular ageing.4

A fascinating piece of research used the MRI technique to examine the brains of 16 meditators and 17 non-meditators.5 This study, conducted jointly by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the U.S. and the Bender Institute of Neuroimaging in Germany, found that meditators, compared to non-meditators who had been matched on demographic characteristics, had increased gray matter in the left hippocampus, which controls learning, memory and emotional control.  Although the study size is small, and it is possible that factors other than meditation are what really made the difference for the meditators, the findings are at least highly suggestive, and we can probably look forward to future attempts to explore them further.

Meditation and mental health

Let us now turn to the effects of meditation on mental health. I approach this area with some trepidation for several reasons. First of all, there are many definitions of mental health and I do not want to begin to get into that. Second, some would argue that spiritual progress and mental health are closely allied. But, third, we probably all know experienced meditators for whose mental health we would not want to vouch (of course, we didn’t know these people before they started to meditate). Nevertheless, I find that there is a large body of evidence showing that meditation has positive effects on several different aspects of mental health.

Regular meditation is related to having “positive emotions,” in other words, feeling good, happy or cheerful, according to at least two striking findings. One of these studies focused on feelings of well-being; the second, a randomized controlled study, measured changes in brain electrical activity before, immediately after, and then four months after an eight-week course in the practice of meditation, and found significant increases in left-sided anterior brain activation, a pattern previously associated with positive affect, among the meditators. ((Brown, K.W. & Ryan, R.M., The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003, 84( 4) 822-848.

Davidson, R.J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J. et al., Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation, Psychosomatic Medicine, 2003, 65, 654-570.))

The reverse is also true: meditators feel less anxiety and depression than non-meditators. This is a particularly strong finding because it is supported by three different meta-analyses.6

Meditators have also been shown by several studies to be more satisfied than others with their relationships.7

Attention regulation, or the ability to focus, has also been shown to be strengthened by meditation.8

In conclusion, there is a considerable body of evidence showing that regular meditation will yield physical and mental health benefits that most people would agree justify the time and energy required to learn and practice it.

Something from my own personal experience…

However, just to gild the lily, I would like to close with a quotation on meditation by the person who taught me more about meditation than anyone else – Sri Chinmoy, author of The Jewels of Happiness. Sri Chinmoy was a master meditator, who taught meditation to thousands of students during his 43 years of life in the West. His accomplishments, to mention only a few, include: over 1,600 books published; over 22 marathons and five ultra-marathons run; over 140,000 works of art painted; and over 21,000 songs composed. He attributed his ability to achieve these almost unbelievable accomplishments to his meditation. This is what he had to say about meditation:

“Meditation means conscious self-expansion. Meditation means one’s conscious awareness of the Transcendental reality. Meditation means the recognition or the discovery of one’s own true self. It is through meditation that we transcend limitation, bondage and imperfection…Meditation is dynamism on the inner planes of consciousness. If we want to achieve anything, either in our inner life or our outer life, then the help of meditation is of paramount importance.”9

 

Some small disclaimers:

I would like to add to my review of the literature a few disclaimers, required by my conscience as a trained and well-published research scientist:

1) Although all of the studies cited were published in peer-reviewed journals (that means that they were vetted – carefully read, subjected to critical scrutiny, and found worthy by knowledgeable scientists in their fields), I did not personally attempt to analyze the validity of any study cited, nor to do an exhaustive review of any of the findings discussed. Thus, I cannot claim that this is a totally scientific literature review.

2) There are many, many, many different approaches to meditation.  However, all of the meditation approaches that I am aware of aim at quieting the mind or consciously focusing attention on the mind. In this review I have included all studies of ‘meditation’, without regard to the particular approach that was used in each individual study. It would have been more cautious to conclude that each finding presented applies only to the meditation approach used in that study, but in my opinion, that line of analysis is too limiting.

  1. Anderson, J.W., Liu C., Kryscio, R.J., Blood pressure response to Transcendental Meditation: A meta-analysis, American Journal of Hypertension, 2008, 12 (3), 310-316. []
  2. Nagendra, R. P., Maruthai, N., & Kutty, B.M., Meditation and its regulatory role on sleep, Frontiers in Neurology, 18 April 2012, 3 (54). – This is a literature review of other studies on the subject. []
  3. Barrett, B., Hayney, M.S., Muller, D. et al., Meditation or exercise for preventing acute respiratory infections: A randomized controlled trial, Annals of Family Medicine, 2012, 10 (4), 337-346.

    Davidson, R.J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J. et al., Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation, Psychosomatic Medicine, 2003, 65, 654-570. []

  4. Epel, E., Daubenmier, J., Moskowitz, J.T. et al., Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2009, 1172, 34-53. []

  5. Hölzel, B.K. et al., Differential engagement of anterior cingulate and adjacent medical frontal cortex in adept meditators and non-meditators, Neuroscience Letters, 2007, 421: 16-21. []
  6. Hofmann, S.G., Sawyer, A.T., Witt, A.A. & Oh, D., The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2010, 78 (2), 169-183. Note that mindfulness-based therapy is not psychotherapy, but rather, an eight-week course teaching and practicing the basics of the mindfulness approach to meditation.

    Chiesa, A. & Serretti, A., Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: A review and meta-analysis, Journal of alternative and complementary medicine, 2009, at (5), 593-600.

    Vollestad, J., Nielsen, M.B. & Nielsen, G.H., Mindfulness and acceptance-based interventions for anxiety disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis, British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 2012, 51 (3), 239-60. This meta-analysis included only studies of clinical samples of persons diagnosed with anxiety disorders. []

  7. Wachs, K. & Cordova, J. V., Mindful relating: Exploring mindfulness and emotion repertoires in intimate relationships, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 2007, 33 (4), 464-481.

    Barnes, S., Brown, K.W., Krusemark, E. et al., The role of mindfulness in romantic relationship satisfaction and responses to relationship stress, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 2007, 33 (4), 482-500.

    Dekeyser, M., Raes, F., Leijssen, M., et al., Mindfulness skills and interpersonal behavior, Personality and Individual Differences, 2008, 44 (5), 1235-1245. []

  8. Lutz, A., Slagter, H.A., Dunne, J., & Davidson, R.J., Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2008, 12: 163-169 []
  9. Sri Chinmoy, Meditation: God’s Duty and Man’s Beauty, New York: Agni Press, 1974, pp. 1-2. []
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