The Benefits and Various Forms of Meditation

Meditation has been around for approximately 5,000 years and has been often associated with religious cultures in the Eastern world, including China and India. Though meditation quickly spread through Eastern cultures, wasn’t until the 18th century that ancient teachings of meditation made its way to the Western world. By the 1920s authors began to publish works about meditation – namely in relation to Buddhism and Buddha’s spiritual journey itself — and by 1979, meditation really made waves in mainstream medicine with the unveiling of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the program to treat patients with chronic illnesses — and with that meditation earned its well-deserved place in the Western medical industry.

Today, research continues to study the direct impact of meditation on health, and meditation is often used as an alternative to treat illnesses such as depression when the patient doesn’t respond to frontline interventions such as talk therapy and antidepressant medications. In relation to mediation and other mindfulness methods, Benjamin Shapero, an instructor in psychiatry Harvard Medical School (HMS) and a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital’s (MGH)Depression Clinic and Research Program said, “There is a great need for alternative approaches.” His current studies, along with Gaelle Desbordes, an instructor in radiology at HMS and a neuroscientist at MGH’s Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, include exploring ones of those alternatives, mindfulness-based meditation, and using it in conjunction with other therapies to achieve more beneficial results.

This approach has gained massive attention in the past 20-plus years with randomized controlled trials regarding mindfulness going from 11 in the span between 1995 and 1997 to 216 between 2013 and 2015. Findings through those trials have included positive physical and mental benefits including reducing or eliminating fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Desbordes’ interest in the topic stems from her own use of meditation as a relief from stress and frustration when she was a graduate student. The real effects she experienced prompted her to study meditation’s tangible effect on the brain. Her work received funding from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health and is expected to be completed this year. Ultimately, she hopes to find out what exact elements of mindful meditation work against depression and then refine therapies to be more effective and successful in treating this illness and others.

Mindful meditation is an important part of the core elements of functional medicine, which include sleep and relaxation, exercise and movement, nutrition, stress and relationships. Many people use meditation to relax and help them sleep, to reduce stress and as part of exercise – particularly yoga practices. There are a multitude of types of meditation including:

Spiritual — Serving as an element of many Eastern spiritual practices including Buddhism and Taoism as well as Judeo-Christian traditions, spiritual meditation often includes chanted (silent or spoken) prayer in one’s home, a place of worship or amid nature.

Mindfulness — This is focused on the teachings of Buddha and can help overcome impatience, intolerance, and dissatisfaction by using a variety of techniques based upon acknowledging reality and being mindful of one’s thoughts without judgement.

Movement — Used in combination with yoga or tai chi, martial arts or even walking, movement meditation focuses on the commitment to physical discipline and being present in one’s own body while moving to expand awareness during any type of daily movement.

Visualization — This form of meditation, stemming from Tibetan traditions, encourages those that are practicing it to focus on an image in their minds to evoke a particular feeling in an effort to creative a positive personal transformation.

Focused — In today’s busy world of multi-tasking, focused meditation invites people to only focus on one thing. It could be the simple act of sitting down to a good meal or pushing through a workout session, but the intent is to focus on simply that task at hand and not letting the mind wander.

From a natural way to relieve stress to reducing symptoms of illness such as chronic pain and depression, meditation serves many purposes. For those that are seeking a way to find peace of mind and an alternative to traditional prescription medication, meditation could be the answer. With questions about how meditation can be integrated into a functional medicine program for maximum health benefits, contact Dr. Lisa Ballehr.

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