General News — 20 January 2014
We Need To Take Meditation More Seriously As Medicine

To be fair, I’m not sure how I would have responded had my surgeon suggested  I meditate before or after surgery to ease my anxiety or post-operative pain.  My guess is, like many women, I would have been skeptical: what exactly did  sitting in half-lotus pose or breathing deeply have to do with the tumor in my  right breast?  And why was a doctor— whose job and training and every  measure of success is rooted in science and clinical outcomes— prescribing a  spiritual or religious method of therapy?

But a new review study, published last week in the Journal  of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine, suggests that  the ancient Eastern practice of mindful meditation can offer real help for  patients with depression,  anxiety, and pain. And researchers are increasingly demonstrating the measurable  influence of meditation on the brain, proving that mindfulness  programs can make us feel happier,  have greater  emotional resilience and take fewer sick days.

The problem? Many of us conflate meditation with yoga or other types  of complimentary  medicine, overestimate the time it takes to meditate effectively, and  discount the neurological evidence that mindful focus improves brain  functioning.

Dr. Madhav  Goyal is a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, whose research  focuses on the effects of meditation on chronic pain and stress, as well as  low-cost means to improve health in rural India. As the lead author of the  recent bigstockphoto_Mindfulness_1686658JAMA study, he reviewed 47 clinical trials involving more than 3500  participants with mild anxiety or depression, and found that those who practiced  mindful mediation saw a 5-10% improvement in anxiety symptoms and a 10-20%  reduction in depressive symptoms compared to placebo groups—on par with the  effects other studies have shown for anti-depressants in similar  populations.

Critics of  the study basically argue that the 5-10% and 10-20% outcomes are  insignificant, though they are willing to concede that doctors should  consider “limited term mindfulness programs” in lieu of “pharmacological  intervention” in some cases of anxiety and depression.

But what’s most striking about the JAMA findings is that people weren’t  meditating for very long. Many in the underlying studies meditated for as little  as 2.5 hours per week for two months. As Dr. Goyal points out, because  meditation is a skill that’s learned over time, it’s unlikely the respondents  reached a high level of expertise. So according to him, it’s plausible to think  that people would experience even greater benefits with more rigorous training  and practice.

Unfortunately though, it’s precisely those realities of meditation— that it  is a state you can teach yourself to achieve and improve with discipline— that  might undermine its validity with physicians and patients. For example,  professor Mark K.  Blum, a Buddhist Studies expert at the University of California, Berkeley,  believes some medical professionals may doubt the value of meditation because  our culture has shifted so heavily in favor of quantitative measurement.   As Ben McAllister writes for The  Atlantic, we’ve become a society addicted to data; problem is, some things  are easier to measure than others.

“Medical doctors are practicing a form of science, and therefore expect to  see scientific measurement,” Blum explains. “But how do you measure  meditation?”

Berkeley is hosting a conference this spring to examine the question, Buddhism, Mind, and Cognitive  Science, and to see if the complex relationship between meditative culture  and Buddhism can be compatible with the “neurophysicalism” underlying scientific  research.

In Dr. Goyal’s view, critics of complimentary or alternative medical research  have a misunderstanding of what science is.  It has nothing to do with  molecules or drugs, he says. Rather, medical science is a “systematic  exploration of what is not known,” whatever that may be— and areas like  meditation desperately need more exploration, and the funding to do it.

This article first appeared on ‘Time” on 17 January 2014.

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