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Meditation In Mental Health

LESSON 1: History of Meditation as a Clinical Intervention

BackgroundMindfulness MeditationConcentration MeditationTranscendental Meditation



As the pictures above illustrate, meditation is both an ancient spiritual practice and a contemporary mind-body technique for relaxing the body and calming the mind. Most meditative techniques have come to the West from Asian religious practices, particularly India, China, and Japan, but similar techniques can be found in many cultures around the world. Until recently, the primary purpose of meditation has been religious, although its health benefits have long been recognized in these cultures where these methods originated.

In the West, however, the first view was that meditation induced a type of dissociative state or a type of catatonia. Thirty years ago, before Hebert Benson,MD's pioneering research described below, meditation was still considered a religious practice, not appropriate for healthcare settings. The first articles on the health benefits of meditation appeared in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology in 1970. Meditation is the first mind-body intervention to be widely adopted in mainstream health care. Meditation is now widely taught at medical settings such as the VA clinics and Kaiser Permanente where it is prescribed as a technique for relaxing the body and calmingmind.

Mindfulness Meditation

There are two basic forms of meditation: Mindfulness Meditation and Concentration Meditation. Mindfulness is an outgrowth of a Buddhist tradition called vipassana, which focuses on the present moment. The mediator focuses his or her attention alertly but non judgmentally on all processes passing through the mind.

Take a tour of A Day in the Life of Kauai Aadheenam, a Hindu monestary in Hawaii


Picture of meditators at Kaui Aadheenam monestary.

Concentration Meditation

This technique is used almost universally in religions and spiritual practices. The meditator focuses his or her attention on an internal or external object (e.g., sound,word, bodily sensations, etc.) while minimizing distractions and bring the wandering mind back to attention on the chosen object. Repetitive prayer is a commonly used form.

Dr. Herbert Benson is a pioneer in establishing the efficacy of meditation for health through his research at Harvard in the early 1970s. Dr. Benson's impeccable credentials and university affiliation, along with the world class quality of his work, led to publication of breakthrough articles on meditation in the Scientific American and the American Journal of Physiology. His book, The Relaxation Response topped the best seller lists in the mid-1970s, and is still widely read. Dr. Benson's studies showed that meditation acts as an antidote to stress. Under stress, the nervous system activates the "fight-or-flight" response. The activity of the sympathetic portion of the nervous system increases, causing an increased heart beat, increased respiratory rate, elevation of blood pressure, and increase in oxygen consumption. This fight-or-flight response has an important survival function. It helps an organism to run quickly to escape an attack or to fight off an attacker. But if activated repeatedly, as happens for many people in modern societies, the effects are harmful. Many researchers believe that the current epidemic of hypertension and heart disease in the Western world is a direct result.

Dr. Benson demonstrated that the effects of meditation are essentially the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. Meditation:

Decreases the heart rate
Decreases the respiratory rate
Decreases blood pressure
Decreases oxygen consumption
Decreases muscle tension

Dr. Benson studied the health impact of a type of meditation involving the repetition of a word or phrase (called mantra meditation). He created a non religious version of the popular Transcendental Meditation technique with the sole goal of achieving the relaxation response that TM is known to trigger. Instead of using sanskrit or other religious words as is done in religious practices, he had patients use "neutral" words like one and even Coca Cola. This approach allows those who are not religious, or whose beliefs may appear to conflict with the teachings connected to a particular meditation system, to nonetheless participate fully in this health-promoting activity.

Transcendental Meditation

According to Dr. Benson, the relaxation response technique produces the same physiological changes as does Transcendental Meditation (TM), the method which has been most fully researched in scientific settings. Over 500 papers have been published in 108 scientific journals, authored by scientists at 211 research institutions and universities, in 23 countries. TM was brought to the Western world in the mid-twentieth century by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an Indian spiritual teacher. TM has been taught to hundreds of thousands of people, and is widely credited with being the first form of meditation to be practiced on a mass scale in the West. Some 4 million people have received training in TM.Herbert Benson's original research subjects were TM practitioners (they actually approached him with the idea of doing research on meditation), and his first studies were of TM pratitioners. Dr. Benson used TM as the basis for his relaxation response method. Before Benson's pioneering research, meditation was still considered a religious practice, not appropriate for healthcare settings. Dr. Benson argues that medicine must incorporate self-care methods like prayer and meditation because it doesn't matter from a health point of view whether God exists or not because there are clear health benefits to these practices.

Origins of Meditation Practices


The meditation techniques used as therapies originally derive from: 1) laboratory discoveries  2) Native American traditions  3) Asian spiritual practices  4) Christian practices.

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