Updated: Jan 11
What's the big deal with meditation?
For sooo many years meditation was thought, by most, this writer included, to be an exclusively Eastern religious practice. Western popular culture, in many ways, set meditation in the same box as chanting religious sects in the airport. So why then, in a relatively sudden way, do we have mindful meditation practices breaking into the mainstream from many directions?
books - if you type "meditation books" into Amazon you will get 60,000 results
articles in everything from The Washington Post to Sports Illustrated to Nature to Business Times
research from too many private and higher learning institutions to name
apps galore - Headspace, Luminosity, et al.
appearances in movies
celebrities from Hollywood to the English Premier League to the NBA discussing the practice and how it has helped them
In a 2018 Report, the CDC cited that the number of people who experienced meditation between 2012 and 2017 had more than tripled. For children, the number went up by a factor of 9. Meditation has entered our discourse big time. Why? WHAT IS THE BIG DEAL? What shifted to allow our Western culture to embrace the practice?
Let's go back to the beginnings, briefly. If you are not interested in the history, skip to the next section on benefits;). The exact geographic origin and attribution for meditation is a gray area. The oldest documented images of meditation are from India and date back to 5000 to 3500 BCE. Wall art drawings depicting people sitting in meditative-like seated postures with their eyes half closed, is thought to be pictorializing meditation. Researchers such as Wynne, 2007, and Davenger, 2008, note that nailing down a specific person, group or even geographic area that spawned meditation has not been done. With speculation dating as far back as the Neanderthals, there is also mention of Buddhism, Daoism (Laozi) and Islam. From Chinese Laozi, to Japanese Dosho to Buddha, we do not know who invented it.
Buddhism certainly played a great role in spreading the practice, but Confucianism, Taoism and Jaismim also had major integrations. Judaism, Christianity and Sufism all have practices of contemplation, deep thought and connection, via prayer, breathing or mantras, or a combination.
The following timeline, from Positive Psychology 1-9-2020, is worth the space as it shows the movement of meditation into to the West and gives us great clues and answers as to why we are now embracing what can be, and often now is here in the US, a secular, albeit oft times spiritual, wellness practice.
5,000 BC – 3,500 BC Early development - The oldest documented evidence of the practice of meditation is wall art in India. India
1500 BC - Hindu Meditation - The Vedas, a large body of religious texts, contains the oldest written mention of meditation. India
6th – 5th century BC Early development - Development of other forms of meditation in Taoist China and Buddhist India. China, India
6th century BC Buddhist Meditations - Siddhartha Gautama sets out to reach Enlightenment, learning meditation in the process. India
8th century BC Buddhist Meditation - The expansion of Japanese Buddhism meditation practices spreads into Japan. Japan
10th – 14th century Christian Meditation - Hesychasm, a tradition of contemplative prayer in the Eastern Orthodox Church and involves the repetition of the Jesus prayer. Greece
11th – 12th century AD Islamic Meditation - The Islamic concept of Dhikr is interpreted by various meditative techniques and becomes one of the essential elements of Sufism.
18th century Buddhist Meditation - The study of Buddhism in the West remains a topic mainly focused upon by intellectuals. Europe, America
1936 Western Research - An early piece of scientific research on meditation is published. America
1950s Buddhist Meditation - The Vipassana movement, or insight meditation, start in Burma. Burma
1950s Transcendental Meditation - Maharishi Mahesh Yogi promotes transcendental meditation. America
1955 Western Research - The first piece of scientific research on meditation using EEGs is published.
1960s Transcendental Meditation - Swami Rama becomes one of the first yogis to be studied by Western scientists. America
1970s Western Research - Jon Kabat-Zinn begins developing a mindfulness program for adults in clinical settings. He calls it mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).America
1970s Western Research - Herbert Benson shows the effectiveness of meditation through his research. America
1977 Western Research - James Funderburk publishes an early collection of scientific studies on meditation. America
1979 Medical Application - Jon Kabat-Zinn opens the Center for Mindfulness and teaches mindfulness-based stress reduction to treat chronic conditions. America
1981 Vipassana Meditation - The first Vipassana meditation centers outside India and Myanmar are established in Massachusetts and Australia. America, Australia
1996 Modern Meditation - The Chopra Center for Wellbeing is founded by Deepak Chopra and David Simon. America
2000 Medical Application - The first major clinical trial of mindfulness with cancer patients is conducted, with results indicating beneficial outcomes for the mindfulness-based stress reduction programs. America
From this timeline you can see that, in not unusual fashion, the West was led by the science. And once many Westerners are backed by science, they can concur by practice. Certainly there were those practicing meditation before 1936 and many testimonies as to the benefits, but not popularly. Thoreau and Emerson had meditation type practices back in the mid-1800s. Only very recently, however, has meditation been embraced and sought by so many. Most speculate that science backed studies have led the way. And after that, " The growing popularity of meditation creates a virtuous cycle, raising its profile in the culture and prompting more people to check it out," said Richard Davidson, director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Aimee and I love the science that supports the mind/body practices of meditation, mindfulness, gratitude, nature connection, and yoga. What these practices do for our minds and bodies, even at the cellular level, is utterly amazing.
So what IS the big deal? Following are 7 science backed benefits complied by Forbes, from some of our most respected institutions:
Helps preserve the aging brain - UCLA
Reduces activity in the brains "me" center. In other words, meditation helps to get us out of the stress response and into relaxation, where we access higher pre-frontal cortex centers that control empathy, connection, and higher thinking. - Yale
Effects similar to anti-depressants for stress and anxiety-Johns Hopkins
Can lead to volume changes in key areas of the brain - yes - added gray matter!! In a good way! -Harvard
Just a few days of training improves concentration and attention
Reduces Social anxiety - Jon Kabat Zinn (Harvard Professor) - Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction
Can help with addiction - American Lung Association, among others
Short meditation breaks can help kids in school - multiple, multiple studies show the benefits for developing brains
These are just a very few of MANY studies that have and are being conducted. Interestingly, it was Dr. Herbert Benson from Harvard, underlined in the timeline above, who really got the research ball rolling when he studied meditators at Harvard back in the 70s. Aimee studied Benson while becoming certified to teach his research based PART Program. She is well versed in his academic and research history. Dr. Benson came from a Cardiology medical background and was curious as to why meditators had better blood pressure. Due to the academic stigma at the time, he actually studied them at night. Now meditation is much more broadly accepted as a legitimate wellness tool, studied and practiced across the globe. But back then, Benson was the meditation vanguard.
Dr. Benson named the physiological ease that occurs during mindful meditation “The Relaxation Response.” With this name, Benson avoided the meditation moniker stigma of the times and was able to describe what is, in fact, the opposite of the stress response. The RR is defined as your personal ability to encourage your body to release chemicals and brain signals that make your muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain. From Psychology Today, “Benson can be largely credited for demystifying meditation and helping to bring it into the mainstream, by renaming meditation the “Relaxation Response.” His studies in the 1960s and 1970s were able to show that meditation promotes better health, especially in individuals with hypertension. People who meditate regularly enjoy lower stress levels, increased wellbeing, and even were able to reduce their blood pressure levels and resting heart rate.” There are many methods to elicit the Relaxation Response including visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, massage, breathing techniques, prayer, meditation as discussed here, tai chi, qi gong, and yoga.
Many are relating our current global mental health crises, that existed well before COVID, to the fact that we are experiencing a level of repeated stress response in the body that is causing dis-seas and disease. We are breaking down our own systems prematurely. Mindful Meditation, on the other hand, when we leave the train of thought that brings errant stress responses and point inner awareness to breathing by slowing, evening, elongating our breath, can turn on a relaxation mode in the body. We can then avoid, mitigate or recover from the stress response (aka fight or flight) or even better, up level the stress response threshold so we prevent inappropriate stress response in the body. Our PART Program, derived from the work done by Dr. Benson at Harvard and the curriculum created at the Benson Henry Institute, accesses the Relaxation Response via meditation to make other wellness tools more accessible. When we are relaxed and focused, not in the stress response, we are more apt to connect, help, be grateful, exercise, eat healthy, sleep better, access more positivity AND develop more self-awareness in order to better enable all.
Meditation benefits are fascinating, compelling and extremely accessible. The race for more research
continues. Meditation is not a mystery. Science has now qualified meditation. But meditation does take practice! The more you meditate, well, the more your meditate! as you experience the positive changes in your day.
In the end, it took the US a relatively long time to “full on embrace” what is perhaps a life altering practice that can be done from you own home, car, on the beach or in the office. Now that we know what we know, however, some, like Dr. Benson, speculate the Relaxation Response that can be achieved during meditation (and help control common errant stress reactions that are detrimental to health) could be one of the biggest wellness keys now and in the future.
Our PART program is a great way to learn meditation and have a platform for practice and guidance, a supported learning experience. PART Winter courses are under way. Look for Spring PART programs soon on the website.
In February, if you want to seat your practice and feel what mediation daily can do for you, join our ½ hour, 7 AM , 28 days of Mindful Movement and Meditation.