Today’s way to transcend world’s woes
Relaxation ‘a sign of the times’ guiding many through stressful lives.
By Leslie Miller
You can say that Susan Snow’s job is stressful: The Chicago judge juggles up to 50 divorce cases a day in Cook County Circuit Court.
“I was constantly having muscle spasm and severe headaches,” says Snow, 47. The pain is now “almost 100% gone,” she adds, and without pills. Her prescription? Meditation. Twenty minutes twice a day has kept her headaches at bay since February.
Growing interest in the mind-body connection is fueling a major comeback of the ancient practice, boosted by research suggesting it can reduce stress and blood pressure, improve work performance, even slow effects of aging.
Several techniques are now being taught in mainstream hospitals and businesses; books about them are brisk sellers and discussion groups have sprung up on the Internet.
Even the Army is interested – it has asked the National Academy of Sciences to study meditation and other “new age” techniques that might enhance soldiers’ performance....
But what meditation is for, how to do it and what it can achieve are still hotly debated questions, both in academia and among proponents of competing techniques. Some say it’s a stress-buster, others, a spiritual discipline. Still others say it’s a growth tool.
No longer a flaky fad
Psychologist Lawrence LeShan says whatever else it may do, meditation’s real purpose is to “train the mind as an athlete trains the body…. If we had as little control over our body as we do over our mind, we’d never get down a flight of stairs alive.”
Techniques were developed by mystics and philosophers in every culture, says LeShan, author of the million-selling How to Meditate (Bantam, $4.99). They can be mental (contemplation and mindfulness) or physical (Yoga or T’ai chi).
Details differ, but a common theme is relaxing the body while keeping the mind alert and focused – on an object, sound, breath or body movement. If the mind wanders – and it always does – you gently bring it back and start again.
Although Americans now flock to classes and retreats, few outside religious communities were meditating here before Maharishi Mahesh Yogi introduced transcendental meditation to the U.S. in 1959.
After the Beatles learned it in 1967 and researchers began studying it in 1968, TM became a “household word,” says Robert Roth, author of Transcendental Meditation (Donald I. Fine Inc. $8.95).
More than 1.5 million Americans have taken TM classes and the Maharishi’s organization is growing: It has been buying hotels and other sites and plans schools in all 50 states, Roth says.
“It’s a sign of the times,” he adds. “The crisis of stress demands an innovative solution and nothing else has worked.”
Maybe that’s why it is no longer considered a flaky fad.
Research was done by Herbert Benson, who in the late ‘60s was studying high blood pressure in monkeys. A group of TM meditators asked him to study them, but he didn’t want to get involved in anything “so out of the mainstream.”
“It was 1968 and it was Harvard Medical School: I was having difficulties even trying to convince my colleagues stress might be related to hypertension,” says the co-author of The Wellness Book (Simon and Schuster, $14).
When he agreed, he and researchers at the University of California independently showed “our bodies possess an alternative to the stress response” that could be induced by meditation. Benson called it “the relaxation response.”
But he couldn’t believe TM was the only way to get this response; he says more study showed it occurred with any technique involving “repetition of a word, sound, prayer or muscular activity” and “passive disregard of other thoughts that come to mind.”
While that describes meditation, it also includes Catholic rosary prayer, breathing for Lamaze childbirth, even the “left-right, left-right” of jogging, he says.
Another pioneer in hospitals is Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic, University of Massachusetts Medical center, and author of Wherever You Go, There You Are (Heparin, $19.95).
There was an “outpouring of interest” after he was shown teaching Buddhist mindfulness techniques to chronic-pain patients in Bill Moyers’ healing and the Mind PRS series last year; 30 clinics now use mindfulness-based stress reduction.
“There’s nothing particularly magical or mystical about it,” he says. “Mindfulness emphasizes moment-to-moment paying attention, as opposed to more concentrated methods like TM…. They’re different roads up the mountain.”
The 10-week program (insurance often covers the $700-800 cost) has been so successful, affiliates have opened in Chicago, Morristown, NJ, Houston, and Columbia, Ohio; more are planned.
But the growth of meditation is not just because of its health effects or spiritual benefits, believes Kabat-Zinn; Americans know by now “there’s no magic answer to all life’s problems.”
He thinks people know there are “deep ways of doing inner work that have not been explored very much in our culture…. Meditation is a way to cultivate sanity and well-being and wisdom in one’s life that you can’t get from watching television or taking a pill.”
...TM: Meditation or Sedation?
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