Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Meditation Gaining Medical Acceptance

Text: Marilyn Elias (USA Today, 6/30/09)
Vipassana: insight or mindfulness meditation: an ancient Theravada Buddhist practice

Challenges are landing fast and furious on Capitol Hill. So Representative Tim Ryan (Democrat, Ohio) feels he has to arrive at the top of his game every day. And Ryan says he has found a way to do that: He meditates for at least 45 minutes before leaving home.

Ryan, 35, sits on a floor cushion, closes his eyes, focuses on his breath, and tries to detach from any thoughts — just observing them [without mental comment] like clouds moving across the sky — a practice he learned at a retreat.

"I find it makes me a better listener, and my concentration is sharper. I get less distracted when I'm reading," he says. "It's like you see through the clutter of life and can penetrate to what's really going on."

Once thought of as an esoteric, mystical pursuit, meditation is going mainstream. A government survey in 2007 found that about 1 out of 11 Americans, more than 20 million, meditated in the past year. And a growing number of medical centers are teaching meditation to patients for relief of pain and stress.

More than 240 programs in clinics and hospitals teach the same type of meditation that Ryan learned, says Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed mindfulness-based stress reduction 30 years ago at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Other types, such as transcendental meditation, use a mantra or repeated phrase.

"A colossal shift in acceptance"
Some kind of meditative practice is found in all of the world's religions, says Shauna Shapiro of Santa Clara (California) University, co-author with Linda Carlson of the new book The Art and Science of Mindfulness. Most include focusing attention and letting thoughts and emotions go by without judgment or becoming involved.

Kabat-Zinn credits "a colossal shift in acceptance" to accelerating research on the benefits of meditation. Studies suggest the practice can ease pain, improve concentration and immune function, lower blood pressure, curb anxiety and insomnia, and possibly even help prevent depression. Newer research tools, such as high-tech brain scans, show how meditation might have diverse effects. More>>