Last year, as many of you will know, my personal and professional reputation was put on trial in Western Australia. My whole life seemed shattered at the time; what had taken me 25 years to build up was taken from me in days - and I had done nothing wrong. My response - more meditation and through the meditation and my writing I got immense clarity and my new direction. It is only when you take the time to stop and take control of your mind that you really see what is important.
Meditation is about learning to control the mind and not allowing it to control you. Although meditation has been practised by most cultures for thousands of years, the first Western study was not until the 1960s at Harvard Medical School. Today, many doctors advise their patients to meditate to reduce stress or blood pressure and to help manage other health problems and meditation classes are widely available. Research has shown the benefits of meditation in reversing the effects of cardiovascular disease and ageing. From what I can glean from the scientific literature, meditation adds about five years to your youth span.
In case you're thinking, "it's not for me", it will benefit everyone and so many chronic health conditions. Meditation shows benefits for many conditions including: anxiety disorders, panic attacks, headaches, back pain, arthritis, cancer pain, other chronic pain conditions, gastro-intestinal problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, hypertension, angina and heart disease, menopausal hot flushes, pre-menstrual syndrome, infertility, and nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy. It has also been used to stabilise blood sugar levels in diabetics and reduce their recovery time after surgery, to reduce the length of labour and discomfort during childbirth, to strengthen the immune system to reduce upper respiratory infections and to help cancer and HIV patients. So you can see it has many benefits for everyone, not just me.
Meditation has been demonstrated to dampen the busy neural activity in the frontal cortex. This probably exerts its therapeutic effects in part by quieting the emotional activity in the internal monologue of the frontal lobes. During meditation, the alpha brainwave activity typically rises during the first few minutes, followed by increases in theta levels. It appears that the level of brainwave change is also associated with the length of time subjects have practised meditation. Theta is the key brain wave that changes during meditation and increases with the number of weeks practised. The slower brain wave patterns such as theta waves indicate reduced arousal level of the cortex meaning you are more in control.
Research shows meditation reduces the level of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Elevated cortisol is closely linked with cardio vascular disease, as well as other forms of chronic illness. In a study, people who meditated had decreased cortisol (the major stress hormone) during and between meditation sessions. These levels remained lower even after the meditation ended compared with people who did not meditate.
Research shows that increasing meditation increases the activity of the left prefrontal cortex. Depressed, stressed or angry people tend to have greater activity on the right side, whereas the left prefrontal cortex is associated with happiness and relaxation. These studies have shown that people who meditate also produce more melatonin, the body's main sleep chemical, than people who do not meditate. Related to this is a study of insomniacs in which 75% were able to sleep after regularly practising meditation. Another byproduct of anxiety and tension is a rise in the level of lactate in the blood. Meditation decreases the level of lactate in the blood, bringing on a feeling of calm.
Other studies have shown that DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone, also known as the youth hormone) is much higher in people who meditate. People who meditate regularly have average DHEA levels of people 10 years younger than they are! Various studies have shown that those people meditating for more than five years had an average biological age 12 years lower than their chronological age.
Meditation also reduces activity in the nervous system. It stimulates the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system; as a result the area of the system responsible for calm energy becomes dominant. When the body runs on calm energy it doesn't tire as quickly. When the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated, a person is able to think more clearly and perform at a comfortable level for longer periods of time. Taking deep breaths and smiling also stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.
The major benefits of stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system include:
* Improved thinking, clarity of mind, creativity and memory;
* Reduced cardiovascular disease;
* Improved sleep;
* Increased sense of relaxation;
* Reduced pain and reduced healing time;
* Reduced stress and anxiety;
* Enhanced psychological wellbeing;
* Enhanced self control, confidence and self esteem; and
* A longer life.
There are also many potential social benefits of meditation. In the 1990s, Professor John S. Hagelin brought 4,000 Transcendental Meditation (TM) practitioners to Washington, DC. He had designed an experiment to test the effects that mass meditation would have on homicide, rape and assault (HRA) crimes in the city district. The idea of the experiment was to reduce crime through reducing social stress, as it is a fact that 44% of Americans suffer from stress-related health problems. Meditation was conducted for 15 to 20 minutes in the morning and again in the evening. The experiment worked on the theory of a collective consciousness in the community, so theoretically there would be a drop in communal stress also. During the course of the experiment HRA crimes dropped by up to 24.6% and overall violent crime rates dropped by 15.6%. It was estimated that if this experiment were continued for the long term, HRA crimes would be reduced by 48%.
Premeditated crime, such as robbery, did not fall during the experiment, but unpremeditated, violent crime was reduced in proportion to the number of people meditating. This study was very thorough and built upon more than 100 previous studies. It's amazing to think we could reduce violent crime if more people meditated. The social benefits would be enormous, not to mention huge savings of taxpayer money. On this topic there are many cases now where meditation is used in prisons and has a dramatic impact on reducing violent and aggressive behaviour of the prisoners. Maybe we should get everyone to do it so we don't have so many prisoners.
Probably most confusing about meditation are the different styles and the claims by some schools that their meditation is the only way (which sounds a bit too much like promoting a religion). Meditation can come in many forms. For example, offering hospital patients the chance to look out on trees and thus connect to nature can be considered a form of meditation. My perspective is that there are many forms of meditation and each has some benefit.
Prayer is probably the best known of all forms of meditation, even if many wouldn't recognise it as such. Every culture has adopted some type of meditation to suit its needs and desires. For example, prayer is usually used to ask for help and guidance, whereas mindfulness meditation is used to release unwanted emotions and focus on the inner light.
The common link between all forms of meditation is the purpose of quieting one's mind. The idea is not to remove stimuli, but to focus concentration upon one healing element. When the mind is at ease and filled with peace and tranquillity it cannot become stressed, worried or depressed; instead, it can become refreshed and rejuvenated.
Dr Peter Dingle PhD is an associate professor and researcher who has researched nutritional toxicology for the past 10 or more years. He is not a medical doctor. After completing his honours in environmental toxicology in 1988, he went on to complete his PhD in the same field in 1994. The information he presents is based on the research he and his students carry out at Murdoch University where he is Associate Professor in Health and the Environment.