Meditation has increasingly come under the scrutiny of Western medicine – and seems to be holding up remarkably well.
Scientific studies have confirmed its effectiveness at helping various medical conditions.
Today, it's not unusual for hospitals and health-care practitioners to use meditation as one method of treatment to reduce complications associated with increased stress. One of the adverse side effects of stress on the body is a compromised immune system. Increasingly, there is a growing trend in conventional medicine to recognize that mental and emotional aspects of a person's life, indeed, contributes to many types of illnesses.
Among Western researchers who pioneered the health benefits of meditation is Dr. Herbert Benson, now of the Mind-Body Medical Institute, an facitility that's not only association with several Boston are hospital, but also with Harvard University. He reports that meditation produces very real physical changes in a person's body.
Dr. Benson says that these changes are biochemical in nature and include alterations in metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, brain chemistry and respiration. Collectively he calls these changes the "relaxation response."
Zen meditation, according to Dr. James Austin, a neurophysiologist at the University of Colorado, explains that Zen meditation rewires the circuits of the brain. He explains this in his book Zen and the Brain. Amazingly he theories have been confirmed with the latest imaging techniques that study the electrical activity of the brain during the practice of this.
Other studies concur with these experts. In fact, a study printed in the prestigious American Medical Association's Journal called Hypertension, showed that meditation was just as effective as prescription drugs at controlling high blood pressure – and didn't have the adverse side effects of the medication.
Chronic pain reduced by more than 50%. That's what a study performed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, M.D., of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts found. Not only did the participants in this study reduce their pain, but at the same time, they were increasing their ability to perform daily activities. And there was an additional benefit for those in this study who meditted. They experienced marked improvements of their moods – long term improvements. Even after four years following the completion of the eight-week training course the participants underwent, they were still reporting better overall moods.
Science has also confirmed meditation's amazing positive benefits on insomnia. According to a study performed by Dr. Gregg Jacobs, a psychologist with Harvard University, 75% of long-term insomniacs, trained in elements of relaxation and meditation, can now fall asleelp within 20 minutes of climbing into bed.
The connection between stress and heart disease has beenn recognized for years. But now, meditation is being seen as a way to help those who have developed health problems, even those who have experienced a heart attack. In a five-year study of individuals who suffer from heart disease, Dr. James Blumenthal of Duke University discovered that those who used meditation to manage their stress reduced their risk of having a second heart attack by an astounding 74% compared to those patients who used only prescription medications. In fact, in this regard, reducing mental stress is even better than getting physical exercise for these people.
Legends have grown around Eastern Yogis who become so adept in the practice that they appear impervious to cold weather. These individuals survive most notably in the higher elevations as the legend goes in sub-zero weather with nothing but a light covering.
Among the most notable of these was Milarepa a Tibetan Buddhist monk whose name derives from this exact ability. Born Mila, meaning "good news", his mentor adds the "repa" meaning cotton. Milarepa had the ability – which seems amazing to many Westerners – of keeping his body at a fixed temperature that he only needed a cotton cloth even in the coldest of times.
Of course, Western science has always been skeptical of such claims, but recently, technology has been able to get a good picture of what happens to the brain when it engages in meditation.
The brain is, science now knows, an electrochemical organ and it uses electromagnetic energy to work. It appears that as a person engages in the practice of meditation, the wave activity of the brain is altered.
When we are awake and going about our business, our brainwaves are in the beta cycle. The waves can be measured at anywhere from 13 to 30 cycles per second. This category of wave is associated with a waking awareness, normal wakeful concentration and logical thinking. The more excited a person is, or the more fully she is engaged in a conversation or a debate, the higher the beta cycle of the brainwave.
The next category of frequency is called the alpha wave. The very moment you close your eyes – even if you're not meditating or sleeping – your brain waves are slowed to the theta cycle. The waves in this class indicate that the mind is in a relaxed state of non-arousal. It's also the frequency of the wave that's association not only with meditation, but also hypnosis. Alpha waves are measured from seven to 13 cycles per second.
The next class of brainwaves is those that are the second slowest. Measured between four to seven cycles per second, this frequency is associated with greater levels of meditation, bouts of day dreaming, dreaming during sleep, as well as periods of creativity. Curiously, it's also measured in those individuals who are experiencing out of body experiences, those engaging in extrasensory perception and shamanic journeys.
The slowest of the brain waves is called the delta wave and its frequency is from 1.5 to 4 cycles per second. The only time the mind goes into this state is when you're sleeping in a very deep, dreamless sleep.