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The Benefits of Meditation: Why do we meditate?

The brain waves of meditators show why they're healthier. Neuroscientists have found that meditators shift their brain activity to different areas of the cortex - brain waves in the stress prone right frontal cortex move to the calmer left frontal cortex. This mental shift decreases the negative effects of stress, mild depression and anxiety.

There is also less activity in the amygdala, where the brain processes fear. In other words, they were calmer and happier than before.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre. Since its inception, MBSR has evolved into a common form of complementary medicine addressing a variety of health problems. The National Institutes of Health's National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has provided a number of grants to research the efficacy of the MBSR program in promoting healing. Completed studies have found that pain-related drug utilization was decreased, and activity levels and feelings of self-esteem increased, for a majority of participants.

Six Other Reasons to Meditate

Linda Wasmer Andrews in Minding the Body reports on six other benefits of meditation, besides relaxing.

To Enhance Concentration

Meditation has an undeserved reputation for being esoteric and difficult to learn. In truth, it's really nothing more than the practice of focusing the mind intently on a particular thing or activity. It seems logical that regular meditation would hone a person's powers of concentration, and a recent study in the Journal of Neuroscience found just that. In the study, three months of intensive meditation training led to improvements in attentional stability – the ability to sustain attention without frequent lapses.

To Lower Blood Pressure

Research suggests that meditation may help lower blood pressure. In a study published in the American Journal of Hypertension, 298 college students were randomly assigned to either a Transcendental Meditation (TM) group or a waiting list (control) group. The study found that TM helped the students decrease psychological distress and increase coping ability. More interestingly, in a subgroup of students at risk for high blood pressure later in life, these changes were associated with a reduction in blood pressure. That's heartening news, because young adults with even slight elevations in blood pressure have a three times greater risk of developing full-blown high blood pressure within the next 30 years.

To Manage Pain

One of the best-studied medical uses of meditation is for helping manage chronic pain. The form of meditation often employed for this purpose is mindfulness meditation, which involves fully focusing on whatever is being experienced from moment to moment. The idea is to take note of the here-and-now experience without judging or reacting to it.

For chronic pain sufferers, mindfulness may help them notice and accept their pain without becoming anxious and panicky, which just makes the pain worse. However, a study from the University of Montreal suggests that long-term practice of mindfulness meditation may also lead to physical changes in the brain that directly affect pain perception. The study matched 17 expert meditators with non-meditators of the same age and gender. Structural MRI brain scans showed that the meditators had a thicker cortex in certain pain-related areas of the brain. This cortical thickening was associated with lower pain sensitivity.

How Meditation Changes Pain

Meditators process pain differently than non-meditators. The biggest difference? Meditators pay more attention to the direct sensation of pain. In laboratory studies that deliver painful stimulation, meditators' brains show more activity in areas associated with sensory processing (think: ankle throbbing!).

Non-meditators, on the other hand, showing more activity in areas associated with evaluation and language. It's the inner dialogue of "Holy $!%@ that hurts! I'm such a klutz! This stinks! When is it going to stop?" Interestingly, the more a meditator's brain focuses on the pain experience, and the less activity in the evaluation system, the higher their pain tolerance. It's what we hear all the time

from our wisest meditation teachers: Focus on the sensations, drop the story. It's the story that turns pain into suffering.

To Improve Sleep

Research indicates that meditation may help fight insomnia. In a study from India's National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, researchers looked at how sleep was affected by Vipassana meditation. This form of meditation involves focusing the mind on mental and physical processes in order to develop insight. The study included 105 healthy men between the ages of 30 and 60. Half were experienced Vipassana meditators, and half had no experience with any type of meditation. The meditators showed enhanced slow wave (deep) sleep and REM sleep across all age groups. In contrast, the non-meditators showed a pronounced decline in slow wave sleep with age, a sign of declining sleep quality in the older men.

To Live Longer

Meditation may influence not only quality of life, but also quantity. Three converging lines of research explain why. One, meditation may help counter the body's stress response and all the physical wear and tear that goes along with chronic stress.

Two, meditation may help slow aging by decreasing oxidative stress - cellular damage caused by highly reactive molecules known as free radicals. Several studies have linked meditation to reductions in various measures of oxidative stress. There is also evidence of enhanced activity by antioxidants - molecules that defend the body against free radicals - during meditation. Three, meditation may help fight chronic inflammation throughout the body, which contributes to diseases as diverse as obesity, atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Research indicates that meditation can dampen several inflammatory processes.

To Connect with Others

Meditation might seem like the ultimate in self-absorption. But at least one form of meditation, known as loving-kindness meditation, also seems to help build a sense of social connectedness. In loving-kindness meditation, the mind is sharply focused on compassionate feelings and well wishes that are directed toward real or imagined others. A study in the journal Emotion found that just a few minutes of this form of meditation practice increased positive, connected feelings toward strangers.

*Artwork by Igor Morski

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