Meditation and Health

[the following is an excerpt from my 2016 book, Freedom from stress and anxiety, chapter 3, pp 52 – 54. It is about the process of ancient meditation/mindfulness understandings becoming more widespread in the western world and now in psychology and medicine. It is a very short, potted summary; but on re-reading I reckon it stands up very well.]

The English word ‘meditation’ is derived from Latin and
originally meant to ponder or think over something. About 150
years ago the term meditation began to be used by authors as
a translation of several words from the old Asian languages,
Sanskrit and Pali. These authors were referring to sitting
practices in yoga, Buddhism and other traditions; practices in
which a person sits in stillness, calmness and with a certain
focus of mind. These sitting practices in Buddhism and yoga
mostly do not involve ‘thinking over’ anything, therefore they
are not ‘meditation’ in the old sense of the word. More often the
practices are about observing your mind and finding states of
mind free from active thought. This became a new meaning for
the word meditation.

Mindfulness is a related term popping up in many places
in the last several decades—in magazines, books, the internet
and even in corporate wellness programs. It can refer to a
kind of meditation and to a more general way of training your
mind to pay full attention to your immediate, present-moment
experiences. Like the word meditation, mindfulness became a
translation for several words from old Buddhist texts about 100
years ago. Now, in the twenty-first century it can still be used to
refer to the Buddhist meditative practices and more broadly to
an important quality of psychological health.

Across the last hundred years a number of medical and
health pioneers described meditation-like practices for relaxing,
reducing anxiety and for general wellbeing. Some clearly related
their methods to Buddhist or yoga meditation. Others did not:
for example, in the 1920s and 30s Edmund Jacobson taught and
wrote about his progressive relaxation and Johannes Schulz, his
autogenic training.

Through the first half of the twentieth century a growing
number of yoga meditation gurus and Buddhist teachers from
Asia migrated to Western countries and opened training centres.
Some of them emphasised the health benefits of meditation.
Public awareness of meditation practice increased greatly in the
1960s with the rock band The Beatles, the ‘Fab Four’, travelling
to India to learn meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh. Since
then that particular, simplified style of meditation has been the
subject of a number of scientific studies that have shown benefits
for health issues including anxiety.

A significant pioneer in this field was an Australian
psychiatrist, Dr Ainslie Meares. He published Relief without
Drugs in 1967, along with numerous articles in medical journals
on his methods and case histories. Mostly he did not call his
method meditation but acknowledged that he owed a lot to his
meetings with an old, wise yogi in Nepal some years earlier. Dr
Meares had his patients sitting in chairs relaxing their bodies
and minds in a simple way, for quite long periods of time. His
results included overcoming anxiety disorders, relief from pain
and major improvements in a range of physical illnesses that we
know to be stress or anxiety-related.

Another pioneer was Dr Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical
School in the USA. He studied the benefit of a kind of meditation
practice for people with stress-related heart disease. Benson’s 1975
book, The Relaxation Response, was influential and widely read.
From the 1970s to the present there has been much research
conducted on meditation with many studies showing good
evidence of benefits for anxiety and anxiety-related conditions.
Most state health departments in Australia now have
information about the benefit of meditation for anxiety sufferers
on their public health websites. The world famous Mayo Clinic
in the USA has a comprehensive section on its website about
meditation as a therapeutic practice.

The sum total of research on meditation and health is still not
as comprehensive as it should be. This is partly because the level
of funds made available for such research is still inadequate;
way less than what is directed to pharmaceutical research,
for example. Many doctors still do not actively direct patients
toward meditation, even for anxiety issues for which it may
well be the best remedy. For these reasons the strongest factor
drawing you to learning meditation may still be the numerous
case histories that sufferers and doctors have written about in
books and medical reports.

In the coming sections you will find simple, effective
approaches to attaining this deep mental rest; this self-help way
of finding freedom from stress and anxiety. In many parts of
the book I will continue to call it meditation. In other places a
term like Simply sitting will apply best. You will see why as we
go along.

[The remainder of the chapter introduces meditation under sub-headings:
How to sit and find freedom from anxiety;
Meditation approach 1: methodless;
Sitting posture guidelines;
Meditation approach 2: Body awareness;
Meditation approach 3: flowing breath;
Questions of time and timing in meditation;
Your ‘thinking mind’ in meditation;
Interacting with your thinking mind;
How to learn]
NOTE: The book is not available in many bookshops now. Mostly available through this website.