Calif. (USA) -- IN THE MIDDLE of the night, Dale Lechtman wakes up,
all kinds of thoughts crowding sleep out of her mind. But Lechtman uses
meditation to handle insomnia.
Lying in bed, she
focuses on breathing. She takes in air deeply. Then, she expels it through
her nose and mouth slowly, as though she were trying to make a feather
float on her breath.
pound at her mind's door, but in time, they are no match for Lechtman's
skills. They disintegrate harmlessly into darkness, and, finally, the
62-year-old nurse from Westminster is relaxed enough to resume sleeping.
Lechtman has found that
secular meditation -- the deliberate quieting and focusing of the
mind and body -- can be beneficial to her health.
As patients and doctors
seek answers other than medications to treat illnesses, some are
finding that meditation can be strong medicine.
More doctors have
opened their minds to the idea of meditation as complementary therapy as
more studies emerge linking better health and meditation, said Dr. Roger
Walsh, professor of psychiatry at UC Irvine. Walsh has published research
on meditation and teaches the practice as an elective to medical students.
Among the latest
• A pilot study led by
Walsh suggested that meditation is useful in understanding the effects of
antidepressants and might be useful as maintenance therapy for depression.
Researchers found that
meditation -- like antidepressants -- fostered a state of equanimity.
This is the ability to
tolerate and not be disturbed by potentially provocative or stimulating
thoughts, events, encounters or experiences. The study appeared recently
in the Journal of Mental and Nervous Disorders.
• A study presented at
a recent American Heart Association meeting found that transcendental
meditation, or TM, reduced the severity of risk factors in metabolic
This syndrome is a
collection of conditions that lead to heart disease, such as high blood
pressure and increased blood-sugar levels.
People who practiced TM
significantly decreased their levels of blood pressure, blood sugar and
insulin, said Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, study author and medical director of
the Preventive and Rehabilitative Cardiac Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical
Center in Los Angeles. Merz continues to study the effect of meditation on
• Preliminary results
of a study on meditation and binge-eating disorder showed that meditation
can help people "reconnect" with their mind and body to understand when to
eat and when to stop.
can help those with the disorder gain control over their eating habits,
said Jean Kristeller, professor of psychology and director of the Center
for the Study of Health, Religion and Spirituality at Indiana State
This research joins an
increasing body of knowledge based on science rather than on religious
beliefs, whether rooted in Buddhism or Christianity. Religious elements
can be present in meditation, but it's also possible to practice
meditation without them.
Some meditators in
hospital settings say the turning point for meditation in medical practice
came after 1975, when Harvard University researcher Dr. Herbert Benson
first wrote about the value of meditation in treating illnesses in the
book "The Relaxation Response."
Meditation already is
an essential part of the Dr. Dean Ornish program for reversing heart
disease, which impressed Lechtman and her husband, Max.
This year, the
Lechtmans took weekly beginner meditation classes taught by Martha Jensen
at UC Irvine. In these classes, Jensen teaches a range of meditation
techniques in sets of four weekly sessions.
Cheryl Medicine Song-Procaccini also introduces participants to various
meditation techniques in monthly classes at the Cordelia Knott Center for
Wellness in Orange, which is affiliated with the oncology and breast
centers of St. Joseph Hospital.
At Mission Hospital in
Mission Viejo, meditation is part of a stress-management program offered
by the hospital's cardiac rehab services.
People with medical
conditions such as cancer or heart diseases take the classes, as well as
those who want to deal with stress, according to Jensen and Procaccini.
"Everything we learn in
the meditation chair we can use in everyday life," Procaccini said. "As we
strengthen our concentration, we become less reactive to what's happening
to everything outside of ourselves."
It's important for
beginners to be exposed to different types of meditation to find one
that's right for them, Jensen said.
One person may find
walking meditation effective, while another may prefer to use a mandala, a
symbol upon which one concentrates. Some choose to chant a mantra or
repeat a prayer or word, such as peace or calm.
A common mistake some
novices make is to try a type of meditation and not like it, then give up
without experimenting with other ways.
Not surprisingly, time
-- not motivation -- is the biggest obstacle to maintaining the practice
of meditation, said Dr. Wadie Najm, associate professor of family medicine
at UC Irvine. Longtime practitioners recommend meditating twice a day for
20 minutes each time. "It's not as quick as taking medication," said Najm,
who has recommended meditation to some patients. It requires a time
commitment, much as exercise does.
helps the body and mind so much that patients can reduce their dosage of
medications, such as drugs to reduce blood pressure or stress and anxiety,
Najm said. In a few cases, meditation has proved so effective that it
picks up where medication leaves off.
To maintain the state
of equanimity that sometimes results from meditation, meditators have to
continue practicing throughout life. Even longtime meditators are never
completely rid of intrusive thoughts and distractions but, with practice,
are better able to deal with them, Walsh said.
"The biggest myth is
that if one learns to meditate, one will never feel upset," Procaccini
said. "Meditation is not about getting rid of difficult experiences or
feelings. It's about learning to cope with them. We learn to develop a
more accepting outlook, with less resistance to life."
HOW TO MEDITATE
There are many ways to
meditate. Here is one to try. If you are unable to complete this for 20
minutes, do not worry. Relax and do as much as you can:
Choose a quiet place.
Sit, as if on a throne,
with dignity and stability. Allow breath to move gently through your body.
Let each breath be like a sigh, bringing calmness and relaxation.
Be aware of what feels
closed and constricted in your body, mind and heart. With each breath, let
space open up those closed-in feelings. Let your mind expand into space.
Open your mind, emotions and senses. Note whatever feelings, images,
sensations and emotions come to you.
Each time a thought
carries you away, return to your sense of connection with the Earth. Feel
as if you were sitting on a throne in the heart of your world. Appreciate
moments of stability and peace. Reflect on how emotions, feelings and
stories appear and disappear. Focus on your body, and rest for a moment in
the equanimity and peace.
Sit this way for 10
Slowly stand up and
take a few steps, walking with the same awareness as when you were
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