No lotus position needed: Neuroscience pushes meditation into the mainstream

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 29, 2013 - 6:08 PM

With doctors prescribing it and scientists swearing by it, you clearly don’t need to be a monk to meditate. Enthusiasts have even given it a new name. Goodbye, meditation – hello, “mindfulness.”

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(left to right) Erin Marth Marty Anderson, Deb McMahon and Judy Besch meditated at the start of the Holy Yoga class at the Elim Lutheran Church in Robbinsdale.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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When the Rev. Ron Moor began meditating 30 years ago, he did so in secret.

“When I started, meditation was a dirty word,” said Moor, pastor of Spirit United Church in Minneapolis. “[Evangelist] Jimmy Swaggart called it ‘the work of the devil.’ Because of its basis in Eastern religions, fundamentalists considered it satanic. Now those same fundamentalists are embracing it. And every class I teach includes at least a brief meditation.”

The faith community isn’t alone in changing its attitude. Businesses, schools and hospitals not only have become more accepting of meditation, but many offer classes on it. Meditating has gone mainstream.

Why? “Because it works,” Moor said.

Adherents have been saying that for centuries, of course, but now there’s a difference: Scientists can prove it.

Propelled by technological breakthroughs in neuroscience enabling researchers to monitor brain activity, the medical community is awash in studies showing that meditating has beneficial physical effects on the brain. Those studies are being joined by others demonstrating that advantages include everything from raising the effectiveness of flu vaccines to lowering rejection rates for organ transplants.

“Meditation has become a huge topic” in medical circles, said Dr. Selma Sroka, medical director of the Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) Alternative Medicine Clinic. “The health benefits are so strong that if nothing else, people should learn the relaxation techniques.”

The practice is being embraced by an audience that isn’t interested in its religious contexts, typically Buddhist or Hindu, but is fascinated by its mechanics and techniques. Sroka compared the West’s co-opting of meditation to what happened to yoga, which came to this country as a spiritual discipline and has morphed into a form of physical fitness.

Some would-be meditators opt simply to ignore the religious element, said Mark Nunberg, co-founder of Common Ground Meditation Center in Minneapolis. Although his center is a Buddhist organization, at least half the people who enroll in classes are there just for instruction in meditation, he said.

“It’s the same practice” whether it involves religion or not, he said. “It’s training the mind to be in the present moment in a relaxed way. It’s the most practical thing in the world; some might even say it’s just common sense.”

What’s in a name?

You don’t have to call it meditation. In fact, Sroka said, a lot of people would prefer that you don’t.

Terms such as “mindfulness stress reduction” and “relaxation response” are less threatening to some folks. They also make it easier to introduce the practice in offices and schools, where even a tangential reference to religion can raise red flags.

Since 2001, doctors doing their residencies in HCMC’s family medicine program have been required to take a class in meditation, not necessarily to pass on the information to their patients — although they are encouraged to do so, Sroka said — so much as to help them deal with the stress of their jobs. At first, the program ran into resistance. Then the hospital quit calling it meditation.

“I think a lot of it is in the language,” she said. Because of meditation’s association with Eastern religions, “members of other religions often are uncomfortable with the term. People want to know that I’m not selling them a religion.”

The scientific community’s interest in meditation springs from tests in which electrodes attached to subjects’ heads show their brains calming down during meditation, lowering stress levels and increasing the ability to focus.

The tests are generating so much interest that leading experts have almost become rock stars. In October, 1,200 people turned out for a lecture by Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing. Davidson is a professor at the University of Wisconsin who has been on the cutting edge of using neuroscience to monitor meditation-induced changes in the brain.

He is convinced that the brain can be trained to deal with stress the same way a muscle can be conditioned to lift a heavy weight.

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