Sunday, July 27, 2003
Just Say Om
Scientists study it. Doctors recommend
it. Millions of Americans many of whom don't even own
crystals practice it every day. Why? Because meditation
The one thought I cannot purge, the one that keeps coming
back and getting between me and my bliss, is this: What a
waste of time. I am sitting cross-legged on a purple cushion
with my eyes closed in a yoga studio with 40 people, most
of them attractive women in workout outfits, and it is accomplishment
enough that I am not thinking about them. Or giggling. I have
concentrated on the sounds outside and then on my breath and
then, supposedly, just on the present reality of my physical
statea physical state concerned increasingly with the
lack of blood in my right foot. But I let that pass, and then
I let my thoughts of the hot women go, and then the future
and the past, and then my worries about how best to write
this article and, for just a few moments, I hit it. It looks
like infinite blackness, feels like a separation from my body
and seems like the moment right before you fall asleep, only
I'm completely awake. It is kind of nice. And then, immediately,
I have this epiphany: I could be watching television.
After 20 minutes we stop for a break, which surprises me,
since I would not have guessed that sitting on a cushion is
an activity that requires a break. Before we begin again,
our instructor, Sharon Salzberg, a cofounder of the Insight
Meditation Society in Barre, Mass., and the author of Faith:
Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, asks for questions
or comments. Four are about breathing. "Breathing is too complicated
for me to concentrate on," one woman complains. "I mean, breathing
must be the most complex thing we do." I briefly consider
waiting outside and mugging the lot of them.
But as pitiably muggable as these people may appear, the
latest science says they've got something on my judgmental
self. For one thing, they will probably outlive me by quite
a few years. Not only do studies show that meditation is boosting
their immune system, but brain scans suggest that it may be
rewiring their brains to reduce stress. Meanwhile, we nonbelievers
are becoming the minority. Ten million American adults now
say they practice some form of meditation regularly, twice
as many as a decade ago. Meditation classes today are being
filled by mainstream Americans who don't own crystals, don't
subscribe to New Age magazines and don't even reside in Los
Angeles. For upwardly mobile professionals convinced that
their lives are more stressful than those of the cow-milking,
soapmaking, butter-churning generations that preceded them,
meditation is the smart person's bubble bath.
And they no longer have to go off to some bearded guru in
the woods to do it. In fact, it's becoming increasingly hard
to avoid meditation. It's offered in schools, hospitals, law
firms, government buildings, corporate offices and prisons.
There are specially marked meditation rooms in airports alongside
the prayer chapels and Internet kiosks. Meditation was the
subject of a course at West Point, the spring 2002 issue of
the Harvard Law Review and a few too many locker-room
speeches by Lakers coach Phil Jackson. At the Maharishi University
schools in Fairfield, Iowa, which include college, high school
and elementary classes, the entire elementary school student
body meditates together twice daily. The Shambhala Mountain
Center in the Colorado Rockies, a sprawling, gilded campus
that looks like casino magnate Steve Wynn's take on Tibet,
has gone from 1,342 visitors in 1998 to a projected 15,000
this year. The Catskills hotels in New York are turning into
meditation retreats so quickly that the Borscht Belt is being
renamed the Buddhist Belt. And, as with any great American
trend that finds its way onto the cover of TIME, many of these
meditators are famous. To name just a few: Goldie Hawn, Shania
Twain, Heather Graham, Richard Gere and Al Gore, if he still
counts as famous.
But the current interest is as much medical as it is cultural.
Meditation is being recommended by more and more physicians
as a way to prevent, slow or at least control the pain of
chronic diseases like heart conditions, AIDS, cancer and infertility.
It is also being used to restore balance in the face of such
psychiatric disturbances as depression, hyperactivity and
attention-deficit disorder (ADD). In a confluence of Eastern
mysticism and Western science, doctors are embracing meditation
not because they think it's hip or cool but because scientific
studies are beginning to show that it works, particularly
for stress-related conditions. "For 30 years meditation research
has told us that it works beautifully as an antidote to stress,"
says Daniel Goleman, author of Destructive Emotions, a conversation
among the Dalai Lama and a group of neuroscientists. "But
what's exciting about the new research is how meditation can
train the mind and reshape the brain." Tests using the most
sophisticated imaging techniques suggest that it can actually
reset the brain, changing the point at which a traffic jam,
for instance, sets the blood boiling. Plus, compared with
surgery, sitting on a cushion is really cheap.
As meditation is demystified and mainstreamed, the methods
have become more streamlined. There's less incense burning
today, but there remains a nugget of Buddhist philosophy:
the belief that by sitting in silence for 10 minutes to 40
minutes a day and actively concentrating on a breath or a
word or an image, you can train yourself to focus on the present
over the past and the future, transcending reality by fully
accepting it. In its most modern, Americanized forms, it has
dropped the creepy mantra bit that has you memorize a secret
phrase or syllable; instead you focus on a sound or on your
breathing. It's a practice of repetition found somewhere in
the history of most religions. There are dozens of flavors,
from the Relaxation Response to gtum-mo, a technique practiced
by Tibetan monks in eight-hour sessions that allows them to
drive their core body temperature high enough to overcome
earthly defilements oreven coolerto dry wet sheets
on their backs in the freezing temperatures of the Himalayas.
The brain, like the body, also undergoes subtle changes
during deep meditation. The first scientific studies, in the
'60s and '70s, basically proved that meditators are really,
really focused. In India a researcher named B.K. Anand found
that yogis could meditate themselves into trances so deep
that they didn't react when hot test tubes were pressed against
their arms. In Japan a scientist named T. Hirai showed that
Zen meditators were so focused on the moment that they never
habituated themselves to the sound of a ticking clock (most
people eventually block out the noise, but the meditators
kept hearing it for hours). Another study showed that master
meditators, unlike marksmen, don't flinch at the sound of
a gunshot. None of this, oddly, has been duplicated for a
In 1967 Dr. Herbert Benson, a professor of medicine at Harvard
Medical School, afraid of looking too flaky, waited until
late at night to sneak 36 transcendental meditators into his
lab to measure their heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature
and rectal temperature. He found that when they meditated,
they used 17% less oxygen, lowered their heart rates by three
beats a minute and increased their theta brain wavesthe
ones that appear right before sleepwithout slipping
into the brain-wave pattern of actual sleep. In his 1970s
best seller, The Relaxation Response, Benson, who founded
the Mind/Body Medical Institute, argued that meditators counteracted
the stress-induced fight-or-flight response and achieved a
calmer, happier state. "All I've done," says Benson, "is put
a biological explanation on techniques that people have been
utilizing for thousands of years."
Several years later, Dr. Gregg Jacobs, a professor of psychiatry
at Harvard Medical School who worked with Benson, recorded
EEGs of one group of subjects taught to meditate and another
given books on tape with which to chill out. Over the next
few months, the meditators produced far more theta waves than
the book listeners, essentially deactivating the frontal areas
of the brain that receive and process sensory information.
They also managed to lower activity in the parietal lobe,
a section of the brain located near the top of the head that
orients you in space and time. By shutting down the parietal
lobe, you can lose your sense of boundaries and feel more
"at one" with the universe, which probably feels a lot less
boring than it sounds when you try to tell your friends about
Studies of the meditating brain got much more sophisticated
after brain imaging was discovered. Or maybe not. In 1997
University of Pennsylvania neurologist Andrew Newberg hooked
up a group of Buddhist meditators to IVs containing a radioactive
dye that he hoped would track blood flow in the brain, lighting
up the parts that were the most active. But the only way for
Newberg to freeze-frame the exact moment when they reached
their meditative peak was to sit in the next room, tie a string
around his finger and snake the other end under the door and
leave it next to the meditators. When they reached meditative
Nirvana, they pulled the string, and Newberg released the
dye into the subjects' arms. His results showed that the brain
doesn't shut off when it meditates but rather blocks information
from coming into the parietal lobe. Meanwhile, Benson took
a group of highly focused Sikhs who could meditate while an
fMRI machine clanked away, and he measured the blood flow
in their brains. Overall blood flow was down, but in certain
areas, including the limbic system (which generates emotions
and memories and regulates heart rate, respiratory rate and
metabolism), it was up.
At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Richard Davidson
has used brain imaging to show that meditation shifts activity
in the prefrontal cortex (right behind our foreheads) from
the right hemisphere to the left. Davidson's research suggests
that by meditating regularly, the brain is reoriented from
a stressful fight-or-flight mode to one of acceptance, a shift
that increases contentment. People who have a negative disposition
tend to be right-prefrontal oriented; left-prefrontals have
more enthusiasms, more interests, relax more and tend to be
happier, though perhaps with less real estate.
Studies on meditation moved into the modern era in March
2000, when the Dalai Lama met with Western-trained psychologists
and neuroscientists in Dharamsala, India, and urged the Mind
and Life Institute to organize studies of highly accomplished
meditation masters using the most advanced imaging technology,
the results of which will be discussed in September at a conference
at M.I.T. (which will also plan the next stages of research).
Not only did these studies allow for a more detailed understanding
of how the brain works during meditation, but they also provided
a lot of cool shots of monks wearing electrodes.
What scientists are discovering through these studies is
that with enough practice, the neurons in the brain will adapt
themselves to direct activity in that frontal, concentration-oriented
area of the brain. It's what samurais and kamikaze pilots
are trained to do and what Phil Jackson preaches: to learn
to be totally aware of the moment. "Meditation is like gasoline,"
says Robert Thurman, director of the Tibet House (and father
of actress Uma Thurman). "In Asia meditation was a sort of
a natural tool anyone could use. We should detach it from
just being Buddhist."
Increasingly it is being detached from Buddhism. Along with
the more obscure Zen techniques (such as sitting for hours
in positions that look painful to me and asking to be hit
with sticks if you feel you are about to doze off), Americans
are trying Vipassana (which begins by focusing on your breath),
walking meditation (at first walking really, really slowly
and then being hyperaware of each step), Transcendental Meditation
(or TM, repeating a Sanskrit syllable over and over), Dzogchen
(cultivating a clear but even-keeled awareness) and even trance
dance (spinning with a blindfold on for an hour to dance music).
And early next year a new book, Eight Minutes That Will
Change Your Life, by Victor Davich, will advocate the
most American form of meditation yet: a daily practice that
he claims takes just eight minutes. That, it turns out, is
exactly how long we're conditioned by modern society to concentrate,
since it's the amount of time between TV commercials.
Josh Baran, author of the upcoming book 365 Nirvana Here
and Now, says when his brain wanders in a distinctly unfocused,
nonmeditative waythat deal when you've flipped five
pages of a book and read nothingit actually causes him
discomfort. Roger Walsh, a professor of psychiatry, philosophy
and anthropology at the University of California at Irvine,
has been studying the extent to which meditators can control
their psychological states. "Only in recent years has Western
psychiatry recognized attention-deficit disorder, but the
meditative-contemplative traditions have maintained for thousands
of years that we all suffer from some kind of ADD and just
don't recognize it." It's the kind of basic human attention
deficit that makes it hard to keep reading a paragraph if
it doesn't end with a joke.
Psychologists are trying to discover whether meditation
can reprogram minds with an antisocial bent. A study at the
Kings County North Rehabilitation Facility, a jail near Seattle,
asked prisoners serving time for nonviolent drug- or alcohol-related
crimes to sit through Vipassana meditation for 10 days, 11
hours a day, alternating sitting and walking meditations.
They were chosen for their extreme rehabilitation needs and
because, really, who else are you going to get to bear with
11-hour meditation sessions? Approximately 56% of the newly
enlightened prisoners returned to jail within two years, compared
with a 75% recidivism rate among nonmeditators. The meditating
cons also used fewer drugs, drank less and experienced less
depression. At Cambridge University, John Teasdale found that
mindfulness helped chronically depressed patients, reducing
their relapse rate by half. Wendy Weisel, the daughter of
two Holocaust survivors and author of Daughters of Absence,
took anxiety medication for most of her life until she started
meditating two years ago. "There's an astounding difference,"
she reports. "You don't need medication for depression or
for tension. I'm on nothing for the first time in my life."
Contentment and inner peace are nice, but think how many
Americans would start meditating if you could convince them
they would live longer without having to jog or eat broccoli
rabe. More than a decade ago, Dr. Dean Ornish argued that
meditation, along with yoga and dieting, reversed the buildup
of plaque in coronary arteries. Last April, at a meeting of
the American Urological Association, he announced his most
recent findings that meditation may slow prostate cancer.
While his results were interesting, it's important to note
that those patients were also dieting and doing yoga. Jon
Kabat-Zinn, who studied Buddhism in the '60s and founded the
Stress Reduction Clinic at the UMass Medical Center in 1979,
has been trying to find a more scientific demonstration of
the healing power of meditation.
Over the years, he has helped more than 14,000 people manage
their pain without medication by teaching them to focus on
what their pain feels like and accept it rather than fight
it. "These people have cancer, AIDS, chronic pain," he says.
"If we think we can do something for them, we're in deep trouble.
But if you switch frames of reference and entertain the notion
that they may be able to do something for themselves if we
put very powerful tools at their disposal, things shift extraordinarily."
Lately Kabat-Zinn has been studying a group of patients
with psoriasis, an incurable skin disease that is often treated
by asking patients to go to a hospital, put goggles on and
stand naked in a hot, loud ultraviolet light box. Apparently,
many people find this stressful. So Kabat-Zinn randomly picked
half the patients and taught them to meditate in order to
reduce their stress levels in the light box. In two experiments,
the meditators' skin cleared up at four times the rate of
the nonmeditators. In another study, conducted with Wisconsin's
Richard Davidson, Kabat-Zinn gave a group of newly taught
meditators and nonmeditators flu shots and measured the antibody
levels in their blood. Researchers also measured their brain
activity to see how much the meditators' mental activity shifted
from the right brain to the left. Not only did the meditators
have more antibodies at both four weeks and eight weeks after
the shots, but the people whose activity shifted the most
had even more antibodies. The better your meditation technique,
Kabat-Zinn suggests, the healthier your immune system.
Meanwhile, the evidence from meditation researchers continues
to mount. One study, for example, shows that women who meditate
and use guided imagery have higher levels of the immune cells
known to combat tumors in the breast. This comes after many
studies have established that meditation can significantly
reduce blood pressure. Given that 60% of doctor visits are
the result of stress-related conditions, this isn't surprising.
Nor is it surprising that meditation can sometimes be used
to replace Viagra.
But meditation does more than reduce stress, bring harmony
and increase focus. As the Beatles demonstrated in 1968 when
they visited the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in his Himalayan ashram
(they had met him in London in 1967), it can also give you
much needed gravitas.
Actress Heather Graham started meditating at the suggestion
of director David Lynch, another Maharishi student, 12 years
ago on the set of his studiously bizarre Twin Peaks
TV series. "It's easy to spend a lot of time worrying and
obsessing, but meditation puts me in a blissful place," says
Graham, who typically meditates for 20 minutes when she wakes
up and then again in the afternoon. "At the end of the day,
all that star stuff doesn't mean anything.
Transcendental Meditation reminds you that it's how you
feel inside that's important. If you have that, you have everything."
Lynch, who also directed Eraserhead and Blue Velvet,
has been sitting for 90 minutes twice a day since 1973. "I
catch more ideas at deeper and deeper levels of consciousness,
and they have more clarity and power," he says. Imagine the
messed-up stuff Lynch might come up with if he meditated for
four hours a day.
Goldie Hawn, who says she has been practicing for 31 years,
has a dedicated meditation room in her house filled with her
favorite crystals, flowers, incense and pictures of the Dalai
Lama and Mother Teresa. She meditates twice a day for at least
30 minutes. "How do you learn to witness your destructive
emotions?" she asks. "You can only do this by being able to
sit quietly and quiet your mind."
More recent devotees are decisively noncrystal. Eileen Harrington,
who runs the hard-boiled consumer-fraud group of the Federal
Trade Commission in Washington, invited a meditation speaker
to give a presentation after 9/11. Roughly half her staff
is still at it. Bill Ford, the head of Ford Motors, meditates,
as does a former chief of England's top-secret MI-5. Hillary
Clinton has talked about meditating, and the Gores are converts.
"We both believe in regular prayer, and we often pray together.
But meditationas distinguished from prayerI highly
recommend it," says the man who nearly became our President.
Gore's TM mantra is not, as rumored, Florida.
Though I don't meditate as religiously, I can see Gore's
point. Taking time out of our video- and Wi-Fi-drenched lives
to rediscover the present is a worthwhile activity. And I
felt a tangible difference when, in my postmeditative buzz,
I would walk down the street hyperaware of my surroundings,
like some not particularly useful superhero power. I could
even get myself to not need to go to the bathroom if I concentrated
on my bladder and accepted its fullness, though I'm not really
sure this is a health benefit. But if I weren't one of the
few people I know who need to be more active and less chillI
could use an anger-training classI would meditate more.
And if I ever find myself faced with trauma or disease, I
think I'll pursue meditation. That's what Buddhists meant
it for, after all, since they believe that life inevitably
entails suffering. My only counterargument is that they came
up with that suffering idea before television was invented.
David Bjerklie, Alice Park and David Van Biema/ New York City,
Karen Ann Cullotta/Iowa and Jeanne McDowell/ Los Angeles