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    Meditation



    By Chris Douglas

    Why

    Meditation has come to the forefront of the holistic medicine movement as an iconic mind-body interaction with significant impacts on health and happiness. Researchers have accumulated a large body of knowledge on the effects of meditation, both psychological and physiological, and the data show that meditation reduces stress, increases emotional well-being, improves concentration, and can aid in recovery from several health problems.[1],[2],[3]

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    Emotional regulation:Meditation practice reduces overall emotional disturbances after relatively few practice sessions.[4] It has also been shown to enhance overall mental processing of emotional stimuli, and to increase activation in regions of the brain associated with emotional thought and comprehension.[5]

    Attention: Numerous studies have shown meditation to improve attention regulation and monitoring, both in beginners as well as long term practitioners.[6],[7] This cognitive control is associated with changes in neurological activity in many brain regions, especially in the prefrontal cortex, an area facilitating higher order cognitive function.[8].[9] Long-term training has been shown to increase brain thickness in areas associated with sensory processing and attention, perhaps through long-term increases in neural activity.[10]

    Stress: Relatively short-term meditation interventions have been shown to reduce stress in patients with anxiety disorders.[11] Significantly positive effects develop after several weeks of intervention, and can last for years after the intervention ends.[12],[13] Studies have also shown meditation to reduce general anxiety in healthy people subject to high levels of environmental stress, such as medical school students.[14] Finally, these stress reduction effects have been observed in a variety of clinical populations as well, including those with cancer, chronic pain, or fibromyalgia.[15],[16]

    Immune function: Research has show meditation to increase overall immune function in healthy individuals, perhaps through its stress reduction effects.[17] This increase in immunoreactivity has been shown to arise after only a few short training sessions.[18] Meditation interventions can also normalize overall immune profiles in cancer patients.[19]

    Happiness: Meditation has been shown to increase positive mood states after several weeks of training, and to decrease ruminative thought associated with depression.[20] These effects extend to cancer patients, in whom meditation practice produces a significant increase in overall quality of life.[21] Neurological studies have shown underlying patterns of increased brain activation in regions associated with positive affect after meditation.[22]

    While meditation does encompass a wide variety of techniques and traditions currently under study, the various styles are all rooted in achieving a state of mental focus, relaxation, or stillness. This underlying foundation in repeated mental exercise is common across all the styles, some of the more common of which include mindfulness meditation, Zen meditation, and transcendental meditation. As outlined above, studies have shown these meditation practices to have very real impacts, short and long term, on both subjective mental state and objective brain and neurological function.[23] While the benefits of long-term practice such as those observed in lifelong monks are more pronounced, the benefits of short term practice have still been found to be very significant.

    How

    For those looking to begin meditation, consistency is viewed as the key to successful practice.[24] Most scientific studies use a fixed meditation schedule, mandating a certain length of session practiced multiple times per week, if not daily. In accordance with this, many websites recommend starting with a regular but relatively short session (10-15 minutes at a time), then working up in length as time progresses, since longer sessions can be strenuous at first.[25] Certain websites delve into more individualized techniques and theories such as Zen or Transcendental meditation, with many more niche styles available on the internet or in print.[26],[27] Others offer more interactive and guided introductions, such as short audio clips of guided meditations directed toward a variety of purposes.[28],[29] Overall, one of the main divisions between meditation styles lies between those with an open focus on the entirety of the present moment (i.e. mindfulness), and those with a closed focus on a specific idea, mantra, or image (i.e. Transcendental).[30]

    As consistency is important, guides generally recommend that each individual find a technique best suited to his or her personality, in order to maximize the chances of maintaining a steady and reliable practice. If any of the above resources spark further interest, more in-depth meditation resources are usually found in print. One popular exception is Mindfulness in Plain English, a well-known overview of mindfulness meditation that is fully and freely available online.[31] Otherwise, Amazon offers a list of common books on meditation, and other booksellers offer similar recommendations.[32]

    As mentioned, three common styles of meditation – mindfulness, Zen and transcendental – meditation are all supported by large bodies of research, but there are several techniques related to each that adhere to the same underlying principles. The main goal is to find one that suits the individual, and then to commit to regular practice, even if each individual session is brief. Consistency is the key to experiencing the many physiological and psychological benefits meditation has recently been shown to produce. 

     

     



    Top Meditation Resources

    National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
    Meditation Website through the National Institutes of Health providing an overview of meditation. Includes examples of meditation and the health relevancy of regular practice.

    Mindfulness in Plain English
    Free online book introducing mindfulness meditation practice and tradition. Includes both practical advice on technique as well as theory and philosophy of mindfulness. 

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    Meditation Practices for Health
    In-depth summary of the impact of meditation practice on health. Covers a wide variety of meditation techniques and several health conditions, and includes meta-analyses of current scientific research. 

    WikiHow Meditation
    A straightforward, non-religious guide to introductory meditation. Bare-bones instructions on starting a practice. 

    Zen Meditation: The Seat of Enlightenment
    Simple introduction to Zen meditation practice. Includes advice on meditation technique as well as on basic Zen philosophy. 

    Mayo Clinic Meditation
    Brief overview of the health benefits of meditation and simple suggestion about how to start a practice. 

    Learning Meditation: Meditation Room
    Simple audio-based introductory guided meditations. 

    Transcendental Meditation
    Introduction to and overview of transcendental mediation.

    ZenCast
    Podcast mindfulness meditation course.

    Amazon Book List
    List of books on meditation. 

     



    Bibliography

    •  [1] National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, "Meditation: An Introduction." February, 2006.

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    • [2] Ospina, Maria B. "Meditation Practices for Health." June, 2007.
    • [3] Mayo Clinic, "Meditation: Take a stress-reduction break wherever you are." April 21, 2009.
    • [4] Tang, Yi-Yuan. "Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation” Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences of the USA.104.43 (2007), 17152-17156
    • [5] Lutz, Antoine. "Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise” PLoS ONE. 3. 3 (2008), e1897
    • [6] Ibid.
    • [7] Tang, Yi-Yuan. "Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation”Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences of the USA.104.43 (2007), 17152-17156
    • [8] Brefczynski-Lewis, J A. "Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners” Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences of the USA. 104. 27 (2007), 11483-11488,
    • [9] Cahn, B. Rael. "Meditation States and Traits: EEG, ERP, and Neuroimaging Studies”Psychological Bulletin. 132. 2 (2006), 180-211
    • [12] Ibid.
    • [18] Tang, Yi-Yuan. "Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation”Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences of the USA. 104. 43 (2007), 17152-17156. [23] Ospina, Maria B. "Meditation Practices for Health." June, 2007.
    • [24] Quirk, James. "How to Meditate." April 13, 2011. 
    • [25] Ibid. [26] Maharishi Foundation, "The Transcendental Meditation Program." 2010.
    • [27] Zen Mountain Monastery, "Zen Meditation: The Seat of Enlightenment." 2010.
    • [28] Patsy Grey Enterprises, "Learning Meditation: Meditation Room." 2010.
    • [29]Insight Meditation Center, "Zencast: Mindfulness Meditation Course." 2011.
    • [31] Gunaratana, Henepola. "Mindfulness in Plain English." 2011.
    • [32] Kayle, Andrew. "Some Excellent Meditation Books." July 13, 2002.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

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