meditation,  recovery

Meditation, Not Medication

I was writing a Facebook post when I realize I had mistyped and that my spellcheck had autocorrected my mistype into medication and not meditation. My initial response was to curse spellcheck as usual, but then it hit me how often people USE medication instead of meditation. I had been procrastinating on writing this post about meditation, so perhaps the universe was giving me a message?

Step 11, in the Steps for all 12 Step programs, says: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him…” Yet many people only work the prayer part of this step. Many say they’ve tried to meditate but can’t focus. Others see a religious overtone to the idea of meditation. Still others find the idea sort of scary, as though it’s some sort of magical ceremony and they might be turned into something unrecognizable as a result (Yes, I’m kidding… Sort of.)

We need to Stop Doing What Isn’t Working

Whatever the excuses we use to avoid getting quiet with ourselves, the bottom line is this: we live in a stress-filled, sensory-overloaded society. Our minds and emotions, as well as our physical well-being require some downtime. Time NOT spent worrying, arguing, stressing, fighting traffic, meeting deadlines or connecting to the Internet or our TV sets. The pharmaceutical answer is anti-anxiety meds, antidepressants and pain management prescriptions, and in our hectic world we crave the one stop, quick fix, thinking that we can just go back and continue to do what we’ve been doing once our minds, emotions and bodies are numbed out enough to stop protesting. The problem is the mind and body are complaining for a reason – they’re trying to tell us something – “NO!!” (It’s that two letter word many of us seem to have so much difficulty with in all areas of our lives). And for those of us prone to overusing substances there’s an even bigger reason to avoid the so called ‘easy way’ – the risk of over-using pills is real.

Meditation Just as Effective as Medication

Taking 5, 10, 20, even 30 minutes to meditate daily is a great step to changing the habits and patterns of stress in our lives, and will also reduce the chance of being addicted to medications.

But perhaps the best reason not to turn to drugs first is that they really don’t work any better than meditation does. A study from John Hopkins University, involving 3500 subjects, found that meditation was just as effective for treating depression, anxiety and pain as the commonly prescribed medications for those afflictions.

And, in a study from Wake Forest Baptist University, meditation beat the pain reducing properties of morphine! Meditation was found to be 40% more effective in reducing the intensity of pain and 57% more effective in reducing the unpleasantness of pain than morphine and other pain relieving drugs. Meditation works against pain by reducing activity in the somatosensory cortex and increasing activist in other areas of the brain.

The Excuses

“I Don’t Have Time” The “I don’t have time” excuse, which really also links with the above misconception that we really need to live in the dysfunctional ways we always have, is all about the illusion that busy means more effective. There’s a Zen proverb that says, “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.” What I understand from this is that if my life is truly too busy for me to set aside 20 minutes a day to do something that will have a positive impact on the whole rest of my day, then I really need to take a break because my thinking has become deranged.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Peter McWilliams, prolific author and activist wrote, “Some people think that meditation takes time away from physical accomplishment. Taken to extremes, of course, that’s true. Most people, however, find that meditation creates more time than it takes.”

Here’s a list of some extremely successful people who are regular meditators who all agree that meditating has helped them to be the successes they are in their chosen fields:

  • Arianna Huffington – former President and Editor in Cheif of the Huffington Post Media Group
  • Larry Brilliant – former Director of a
  • Russell Simmons – Hip Hop mogul
  • Robert Stiller – CEO Green Mountain Coffee Roasters
  • Ray Dalio – founder of the worlds largest hedge fund firm, Bridgewater Assoc.
  • Rupert Murdoch – Chairman and CEO of News Corp.

and also…

  • Oprah Winfrey
  • Hugh Jackman
  • Angelina Jolie
  • Sting
  • Leonard Cohen
  • Paul McCartney

…And a host of other well known actors and performing artists

“I Can’t Stop Thinking!”

The reasons given are sometimes complex, but the bottom line is frequently due to discomfort with the idea that they have to stop thinking, or the experience of trying to stop the thoughts during a meditation practice and failing. That shouldn’t be a surprise since our minds are designed to think, and the ‘thought’ of trying not to think seems an impossible feat. And yet, our thinking is often what gets us into the most trouble.

Our minds may well be uncomfortable with the perceived loss of control that could come from a conscious decision to quiet the thought process. The question becomes, what is it that will be taking control if my mind steps aside?

The answer is, we are not merely our thoughts. We are also the Higher Mind. Not the mind that runs on about what to have for dinner, why that person was so mean or complaining about commuter traffic. The Higher Mind is the mind that knows the truth; that doesn’t let us get away with the lies we try to tell ourselves. The Higher Mind is always in the present moment, unlike the thinking mind which tends to dwell in the past and the future. And, beyond all knowledge and thought we are ‘That’ which can observe the thoughts. ‘That’ is our essence, and it is That which is present within us, with thoughts or without them. At the center we are a Soul. The ineffable Spirit.

But when we start talking about spirit is when many of those afraid of getting pulled into a religious practice they don’t want, start to balk.

“I’m Not Looking for a New Religion”

Meditation is not religious, although both meditation and prayer are used in many religions. Meditation is a spiritual practice. If we accept that we need communion with something, some power greater than ourselves, the collective consciousness, God, HP, whatever works for you, then we must accept that we need a way to communicate with that power. I have long heard and subscribe to the axiom that “Prayer is talking to God. Meditation is listening.” If all we do is talk, then we are likely just giving our Higher Power ‘marching orders’ rather than taking direction. The latter of which is, in my opinion, much more effective. After all, who am I to change the plan?

There is no defined deity involved in meditation unless you are getting your practice from a particular religious group, in which case, yes, there could be. But there are many types of meditation including Transcendental Meditation (TM), which do not specify or define what it is that you are choosing to listen to. The simple breathing meditation offered [here on this site] is also an example of a meditation that doesn’t specify, or even refer to what might be sending you messages. It’s simply a technique to help the mind get quiet so that whatever It is that speaks to you can be heard.

It is not magic, but the idea of stopping the incessant chatter of the mind may seem magical to some. And to me, finding the ability to step back from my busy mind is a gift worthy of pursuit. That quiet space of peaceful silence first thing in the morning is better than the time I used to spend with my cup of coffee and the morning news by far.

What Science Says About Meditation

It’s not only the ability to quiet the thoughts during meditation practice that’s amazing, but also the ability to be less reactive to outside influences; calm, considered decision making; a lessening of anxiety; and the ability to sleep more easily and deeply.

The following scientific studies are deserving of mention when considering whether the practice of meditation will serve you. After all, we get package inserts with every prescription we take telling us the effects and side effects of the particular medication and we know we should read it. It’s my hope that reading the scientific studies below may help to give you motivation to just try it.

An eight week study conducted by Harvard researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) determined that meditation literally rebuilds the brain’s grey matter in just eight weeks. It’s the very first study to document that meditation produces changes over time in the brain’s grey matter.

Sustained meditation leads to neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change structurally and functionally on the basis of environmental input. Richard Davidson a University of Wisconsin Neuroscientist states, “Experienced meditators exhibit high levels of Gamma wave activity and display an ability continuing after the meditation session ends to not get stuck on a particular stimulus They can control their thoughts and reactiveness.”

Sara Lazar of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and a Harvard Medical School Instructor in Psychology: “Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day. This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”

Dr. Randy Zusman summarizing a 2008 Massachusetts General Hospital study stated that meditation is better than blood pressure medications for reducing blood pressure in patients with high blood pressure. The relaxation of meditation results in the formation of nitric oxide which opens up the blood vessels and lowers blood pressure.

A UC Davis research study found that meditators have significantly higher telomerase activity. Telomerase is the enzyme that builds Telomeres – the protective caps at the end of our chromosomes. Longer telomeres means we are likely to live longer.

A 2008 study found that HIV patients who meditated showed no decline in lymphocyte content compared to non-meditators who showed a significant reduction.

In the November 2014 issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Researchers at Harvard Medical School-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Boston University (BU), and a few other research centers reported that the difference in the meditation practice used made a difference in some of the effects of meditation.

Although neuroimaging studies have found meditation decreased the activation of the amygdala (a part of the brain responsible for processing memory and emotion) before, those changes were only observed during meditation. This study tested the theory that meditation could produce a long term reduction in the response to emotional stimuli.

The study was done with one group learning and using Mindfulness Meditation, one group using Compassion Meditation and a third group as the control group not meditating.

They found that the Mindfulness Meditation group had a decrease in activation of the amygdala in response to all stimuli, supporting the hypothesis that meditation can improve emotional stability and response to stress. In the Compassion Meditation group they found the activity in the amygdala also decreased but those who reported practicing Compassion Meditation most frequently outside of the study, it was found, had an increase in activity in response to images depicting human suffering. This lead scientists to posit that Compassion Meditation could lead to an increase feelings of compassion to the idea of human pain. It also led to decreased depression scores, indicating that compassion for others can also correlate to increased compassion for ourselves. It was also stated that meditation may result in enduring, beneficial changes in the brain, especially in the processing of emotions.

Illuminating the Darkness

Finally, I will leave you with a quote from the Buddhist monk and best selling author Pema Chodron, who I alternately curse (for showing me my own disease of perception) and love (for the same reason).

“What’s encouraging about meditation is that even if we shut down, we can no longer shut down in ignorance. We see very clearly that we’re closing off. That in itself begins to illuminate the darkness of ignorance.”

– Pema Chodron

Top Comment:

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