Primordial Sound Meditation

Meditation as Good Medicine

By: TIMOTHY GOWER

It's becoming the mantra of an increasing number of Americans. Research shows the ancient practice may help promote healing--and might just make you live longer.

When Joannie Parker developed breast cancer, her doctors eradicated the disease with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. But the rigors of battling cancer left the 66-year-old Westwood woman feeling as many patients do: stressed out.

To deal with her anxiety, Parker enrolled in an eight-week meditation class at UCLA's Rhonda Fleming Mann Resource Center for Women with Cancer. During each 90-minute session, an instructor led the class through various meditative techniques, such as asking Parker and her classmates to imagine that they were sitting on a beach, with the ocean waves washing the cancer out of their bodies. Parker, who had never meditated before, believes the sessions were just as critical to her healing as the conventional medical treatment she received.

"I would walk out of those classes feeling deeply relaxed and enormously calm and whole and well,"she said in a telephone interview. "It's not at all strange."

Personally, I was relieved to hear that last comment--about it not being strange. I've been something of a closet meditator for several years. To have this kind, intelligent stranger talk about the habit we share made it seem a little less, well, weird.

On most days, after breakfast, I sit quietly on a sofa for a few minutes and simply try to clear up the jumble of thoughts in my head. I might breathe deeply and concentrate on the sensation of my diaphragm moving up and down. Or I might pick a word to focus on, such as "peace" or "calm." Some mornings I slip on headphones and listen to that CD of the chanting monks that was a hit a few years ago.

I can't say why, but meditating acts like a desk organizer for my brain, clearing away much of the clutter. It also provides a boost of mental energy unlike anything I could get from a double espresso or a hit of ginkgo biloba.

I've never mentioned any of this to my golf buddies. But who knows, maybe they're doing it too. After all, about 10 million American adults--or one in eight--meditate regularly, according to statistics in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. That's nearly twice as many as a decade ago.

What's more, some very successful people have gone public with their embrace of this ancient practice. It's no surprise that actor and celebrity-Buddhist Richard Gere is on the list. But how about St. Louis Cardinal slugger Mark McGwire? There's also Monsanto Corp. Chief Executive Robert Shapiro, who meditates twice a day and has led meditation retreats for top executives of the giant chemical company.

Further proof that meditation has reached the masses can be seen in the publication last year of the book "Meditation for Dummies." Author Stephan Bodian, former editor of Yoga Journal, says the basic, how-to "Dummies" format is tailor-made for the art of calming the spirit. The beginning meditator, he explains, "has the mind of a 'dummy.' Not in the negative sense, but in the sense of someone who's new and open to learning and doesn't know anything about the topic."

The yoga-meditation connection may partially explain the growing number of meditators in the United States. Yoga classes, where students learn how to limber up and mellow out, are taught at most adult education centers. Instructional videos by the likes of yoga master Rodney Yee, fitness guru Kathy Smith and actress Ali MacGraw are among the most popular items sold by online retailer Amazon.com. Even Richie Aprile, the menacing Mafioso on TV's "The Sopranos," practices yoga. That is, when he's not running over guys who owe him money with his sport-utility vehicle.

But there's another likely reason more Americans are turning to meditation: A growing body of research over several decades suggests that it might make you live longer.

More than 25 years ago, Harvard Medical School cardiologist Herbert Benson reported in his best-selling book, "The Relaxation Response," that people with hypertension experience impressive drops in blood pressure when they practice Transcendental Meditation. Also known as TM, this form of meditation involves the silent repetition of a specific sound, known as a mantra.

Study Shows Benefits of Stress Management

In 1990, cardiologist Dean Ornish, founder of the Sausalito-based Preventive Medicine Research Institute, published a now-famous study showing that people with heart disease who adopted a regimen of lifestyle changes could unclog their arteries without drugs. While most people focused on the very low-fat diet Ornish fed his patients, he points out that exercise and stress-management techniques--including meditation --were just as important.

"We found a direct correlation to the patients' adherence to stress-management [techniques] and changes in their arteries. Just as strong as adherence to the diet," Ornish says.

Some, though not all, studies have shown that meditating causes humans to produce lower levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol. Chronically elevated cortisol levels, Ornish explains, speed up the formation of artery-blocking plaques. Most recently, in March, a study conducted in Los Angeles found that African American men and women with hypertension who learned TM decreased the amount of fatty substance in the walls of their carotid arteries, which are in the neck. Carotid arteries clogged with fatty deposits can cause strokes and are considered by some experts to be a measure of heart attack risk.

"The reductions were similar to that often seen with cholesterol-lowering drugs and also with intensive changes in diet and exercise," says Dr. Robert Schneider, one of the study's authors. He estimates the meditators cut their risk of heart attack and stroke by at least 10% to 15%.

The U.S. government is clearly intrigued by the meditation-heart disease connection. The National Institutes of Health has awarded a total of $17 million to Maharishi University of Management researchers to study the role of TM in treating and preventing hypertension in African Americans.

The health institutes, along with the American Heart Assn., have also funded another researcher who is studying the effects of TM. Physiologist Vernon Barnes, of the Medical College of Georgia, in Augusta, is studying whether African American high school students with hypertension can keep their blood pressure in check by learning to meditate.

Not all experts are sold on the idea of meditation as a heart saver. Cardiologist Edward D. Frohlich believes some researchers overstate the role of stress in heart attacks.

"It's clear that stress has an adverse effect on coronary heart disease," says Frohlich, editor of the medical journal Hypertension. But, he adds, "it's one of the minor risk factors." That is, reducing your stress level isn't a bad idea, but if you're serious about avoiding heart trouble, it's more important to exercise, eat right and quit smoking.

However, even if questions remain as to whether meditation prevents heart disease, there's strong evidence that it can alleviate symptoms of other conditions.

'Mindfulness' Taught to Patients in Pain In Worcester, Mass.'

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center's stress reduction clinic have taught a form of Buddhist meditation known as "mindfulness" to more than 11,000 patients with various problems, including chronic pain and emotional distress. In one study, patients reported 35% fewer symptoms after completing the eight-week program. In another, people being treated for psoriasis who meditated saw their skin clear up four times faster than patients who didn't meditate.

Meditation is taught, in many forms, at cancer centers throughout the United States to help patients cope with the disease. At Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, Barrie Cassileth, chief of integrative medicine services, believes in meditation, even if she's not sure how it works.

"Who cares [how it works] if patients feel better, their pain is reduced and they gain a sense of control," says Cassileth, who is also the author of "The Alternative Medicine Handbook" (W.W. Norton, 1998), which examines non-Western medicine, often skeptically.

Back at UCLA, psychologist Anne Coscarelli, director of the Mann Resource Center, agrees that meditation and other stress-reduction techniques are valuable, if a bit mysterious.

"We don't know what the physical impact is of doing these things," she says, "but we know that patients who are less distressed may be able to tolerate their treatments better." and get on with their lives, it seems. Joannie Parker has become an enthusiastic booster for the Mann center's meditation program and has even signed up for the course several more times.

"While I think anybody who is suffering from cancer should take this meditation class," she says, "I also secretly hope there'll be one chair left for me."