Benefits of Meditation

Much has been said and written about the benefits of meditation – and over the past few decades numerous studies have been done which indicate that the meditative state of mind is not only beneficial but is indeed an ingrained and entirely natural function of the healthy human nervous system.

This acceptance of what was once considered at best a hobby of anti-social eccentrics has become so general that even mainstream institutions like Massachusetts General Hospital has an entire department dedicated to Mind-Body Medicine. Not surprisingly, the cornerstone of their methodology is teaching people how to meditate in order to avoid and assist in the cure of stress-related diseases.

Meditation for Health

The team there is led by Dr. Herbert Benson, a long-time researcher into the connections between mind and body. In 2008, a Harvard Medical School study led by Dr. Benson confirmed that deep relaxation of the kind possible using a suitable meditation method has profound health benefits which could be every bit as powerful as any medical drug – but without the side-effects. Specifically, the study revealed that methods such as visualisation, meditation and deep breathing switch off disease-causing genes at the same time as they switch on genes that actively protect against illness.

During the study, the genetic makeup of long-term practitioners of meditation and similar relaxation methods was compared to a control group of people who never use these methods. It was found that specific disease-fighting genes were active in the practitioners that were inactive in the control group.

And yet, when the control group began practicing the same methods, the constitution of their genes began to change. After two months of daily practice, specific genes that help fight inflammation, kill diseased cells and protect the body from cancer and other forms of damage began to switch on.

Not only that, the benefits of what Dr. Benson calls "The Relaxation Response" were found to increase with regular practice, significantly increasing practitioners' chances of enjoying a whole host of benefits, including strong immunity, low blood pressure, healthy arteries and increased fertility.

Other studies have confirmed that the health benefits of relaxation are both profound and measurable.

One study at Ohio State University found that progressive muscular relaxation, when practiced daily, reduced the risk of breast cancer recurrence. In another research project at the University of Western Australia, women were more likely to conceive when feeling generally relaxed as opposed to stressed. A similar study conducted at Trakya University, Turkey, recorded parallel effects in terms of sperm count in men. In a study at the University of Albany in upstate New York, patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome who twice daily practiced a relaxation meditation reduced symptoms such as bloating, belching, diarrhea and constipation. The improvements were so significant that researchers recommended the practice as a particularly effective treatment for IBS.

And that's just for starters. Here is a quick overview of some of the scientifically established health benefits linked to a meditation practice that induces deep relaxation:

Immunity: When medical students undertook relaxation training during exams, the level of the so-called "helper cells" that defend against infectious disease increased significantly, according to a report in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine – and those who most faithfully did the exercises had the strongest immune effects. In another study at Ohio State University, a month of relaxation exercises boosted immunity in seniors, increasing their resistance to tumours and viruses.

Blood Pressure: A study at Harvard Medical School found meditation lowered blood pressure by reducing the stress response, with an effectiveness practically equal to that achieved using blood pressure pharmaceuticals. Another report in the British Medical Journal similarly established that patients trained to relax enjoyed significantly lower blood pressure.

Heart: Meditation can improve blood flow to the heart, lower cholesterol levels and lessen the severity of heart attacks, as demonstrated by research at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in San Francisco.

Blood-Sugar Control: Relaxing could help curb appetite by keeping blood sugar stable, thereby helping diabetics control their symptoms. In a series of studies on diabetic patients at Duke University Medical Centre, relaxation was shown to improve the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar.

Inflammation: Stress leads to inflammation, which in turn is linked to heart disease, arthritis, and various skin conditions such as psoriasis. According to researchers at Emory University in the US, relaxation can play a role in preventing and treating such symptoms by switching off the stress response. Similarly, a study at McGill University in Canada recorded clinical improvements of the symptoms of psoriasis through the practice of meditation.

Asthma: Relaxation seems to offer relief by reducing the emotional upsets that can trigger attacks at the same time as it frees the air passages from the constrictions that choke breathing, according to a study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research.

Pain: Patients reported sharp decreases in painful symptoms following a regular practice of relaxation methods, according to a study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine. The patients in the study – suffering from backache, chronic migraine, tension headaches and similar conditions – were able to lessen or, in some cases stop altogether, their use of pain drugs.

Beyond the Body

How about the benefits of meditation on the mind – specifically in terms of emotional well-being and mental performance? Studies have found that deep relaxation through meditation switches off the stress-response, thereby reducing chronic stress and anxiety. In the same way, depression, tension, irritation and anger can also be reduced, giving rise to improved feelings of well-being and satisfaction with life.

Furthermore, the ability to concentrate can be improved and significantly increased by employing a correct meditation method. With deeper levels of relaxation, more profound levels of concentration can be accessed which are not otherwise normally available – or even imaginable to the untrained mind.

And beyond that, meditation has for millennia served as the gateway to deeper self-knowledge and experiences of unity. This is because it is only through deep relaxation that the mind can slow down enough to "catch sight of itself" and of the deeper reality which generates it.

Benefits by Type and Difficulty of Attainment

Below is a relatively complete list of the claims made for meditation. This is not to suggest that you will experience (or should want to experience) all of these benefits. Some have been fairly well established. Others have yet to receive any real scientific scrutiny, and are based largely on anecdotal report.

There are some different ways we can usefully categorize the benefits associated with meditation. We might, for instance, divide between physiological, psychological and spiritual benefits, like so:

Physiological Benefits to Meditation
  • Decrease in stress hormones
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduced migraines and headaches
  • Increased energy and/or libido
  • Better pain management
  • Improved breathing
  • Improved posture
  • Relieved insomnia
  • Reduction in cholesterol
  • Reversal of aging process
  • Decreased cigarette, alcohol, and drug abuse
  • Relieved Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Help with Premenstrual Syndrome
  • Increased fertility
  • More positive health habits
  • Improved general health
  • Reduced need for medical care
Psychological/Emotional Benefits to Meditation
  • Greater orderliness of brain functioning
  • Improved concentration and ability to focus
  • Increased creativity
  • Deeper level of relaxation
  • Improved perception and memory
  • Development of intelligence
  • Increased strength of self-concept
  • Increased self confidence
  • Increased understanding and self insight
  • Increased productivity
  • Better communication with others
  • Improved relations at work
  • Improved patience
  • Emotional stability
  • Greater tranquillity, peace and calmness
  • Less prone to depression, worry and anxiety
  • Support for major life changes such as divorce, menopause, loss of a loved one
Spiritual Benefits to Meditation
  • Increased self-actualization
  • Union with God or one's higher power
  • Insight into or access to ultimate reality
  • Union of the subjective with the objective worlds
Another way to categorize the benefits is by the amount of time a practitioner might expect to spend in order to gain the benefit. Of course, the actual time spent will vary widely between different people, but generally speaking, we can divide between beginning, intermediate and advanced levels. By beginning, we would mean within the first few days and weeks of learning a basic meditation technique. By intermediate, we would mean generally within six months to two years of having started. And by advanced, we would mean generally after two or more years of practice, and probably more like a minimum of five to ten years for the more advanced attainments. So, we could re-arrange our above list like so:

Beginning level
  • Decrease in stress hormones
  • Improved breathing
  • Improved concentration and ability to focus
  • Deeper level of relaxation
  • Greater tranquillity, peace and calm
Intermediate level
  • Improved posture
  • Relieved insomnia
  • Reduction in cholesterol
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduced migraines and headaches
  • Increased energy and/or libido
  • Increased fertility
  • Better pain management
  • Decreased cigarette, alcohol, and drug abuse
  • Relieved Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Help with Premenstrual Syndrome
  • More positive health habits
  • Greater orderliness of brain functioning
  • Increased creativity
  • Improved perception and memory
  • Improved patience
  • Increased strength of self-concept
  • Increased self confidence
  • Increased understanding and self insight
  • Increased productivity
  • Better communication with others
  • Improved relations at work
  • Emotional stability
  • Less prone to depression, worry and anxiety
  • Support for major life changes such as divorce, menopause, loss of a loved one
  • Increased self-actualization
Advanced level
  • Improved general health
  • Reduced need for medical care
  • Reversal of aging process
  • Development of intelligence
  • Union with God or one's higher power
  • Insight into or access to ultimate reality
  • Union of the subjective with the objective worlds

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