Meditation

This post is the ninth on an essential book by Jeffrey Rediger, M.D. titled Cured: The Life-Changing Science of Spontaneous Healing. The following is a quote from the cardiologist Hebert Benson: “We can either change the complexities of life—an unlikely event, for they are likely to increase—or develop ways that enable us to cope more effectively.”

The importance of meditation was brought to the attention of Dr. Benson by practitioners of transcendental meditation. They believed that they could lower their blood pressures, but had no proof. Benson hooked practitioners up to sphygmomanometers and monitored their blood pressures as they entered and sustained a meditative state. They not only lowered their blood pressure, but their heart rates fell. Their breathing became slower and deeper, and their metabolisms slowed and stabilized. Essentially, they were able to manage the part of their nervous systems that allows the body to rest and relax.

Initially critics of the research argued that the drop in blood pressure was small since it fell by only a few points at most during meditative sessions. Benson responded that these were people who meditated daily, practicing and “toning” their meditative abilities the way you would tone a muscle through exercise. Their resting blood pressures were already extremely low—much lower than an average person’s. Their unusually low blood pressures were a direct result of their diligent daily practice of the relaxation response. Benson argued that these people, simply through meditation, could produce a wave of positive physiological changes in the body.

Dr. Benson wrote an important book, The Relaxation Response. There is a healthy memory blog post titled “The Relaxation Response,” as well as many additional posts on this topic. Here are instructions: “Close your eyes. Relax all your muscles, Breathe through your nose, slowly and evenly, in and out, while focusing on a word, phrase, or sound in your mind—a mantra that can keep unwanted thoughts a bay and get us out of the “monkey mind,” or our repetitive thoughts and fears. For the mantra, one could use words that are personally soothing and meaningful, or associated with one’s own particular or religious practice. In his many presentations on the topic, Benson is quick to reassure audiences that unwanted thought will come (HM attests to this)—this doesn’t mean failure. The important thing is to refocus and continue. He recommends keeping the session going on for ten to twenty minutes.”

At the time of this posting there is a coronavirus pandemic. We are supposed to stay in our homes except for exercising outside or trips to the grocery or pharmacist. Being restricted like this can cause interpersonal problems. Advice on coping with psychological difficulties is published. But except for rare exceptions, the relaxation response is not mentioned, and it is the most effective technique. Plus there are additional advantages that follow in this post.

Dr. Benson writes, “We know now that meditation can literally change the shape of the brain. Sara Lazar and other colleagues at Harvard ran an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program and found that it measurably increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus, the part of the brain in charge of memory, feelings, and regulation of emotions. Not only that, but it actually shrank the amygdala, the part of the brain that dispenses fear hormones and triggers the fight-or-flight response.”

Dr. Rediger writes, “when it comes to spontaneous healing our focus is mainly on the autonomic nervous system—the branch that runs the brain to all your essential organs, full of billions of neurons and nerve fibers. This aspect of your nervous system runs silently, not really under your conscious control. Unlike, say, deciding to lift your hand and then lifting it, the organs, blood vessels, glands, and other systems controlled by the autonomic, nervous system are run by the subconscious mind.” Meditation is a means of affecting the autonomic nervous system and the subconscious mind.

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