I would be surprised if you haven’t read an article, seen a program, listened to a TED talk or in some other way been exposed to the concept of “mindfulness meditation” recently. Everyone seems to be getting in on the act. Time magazine ran an interesting cover story recently entitled “The Mindful Revolution” which I read on my way to the British Virgin Islands – a good place to practice meditation. 🙂 The claims of lowered stress and better health are compelling which brings up a question. Is the growing popularity of this practice based on science or is it just a fad? More in a minute.
Stress is a fascinating topic because it is both critical for good health and personal growth and damaging to all aspects of our health when chronic and unregulated. The Bible addresses stress in many ways but perhaps most succinctly in the letter of James. Obviously addressing a stressed audience, he writes, “Count it all joy my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have it’s full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” The Apostle Paul takes it to another level in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians. “For we do not want you to be unaware brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.” Paul persevered and learned through the experience but many of us do not. We are rather overcome by long term severe stress and our health suffers with our brains being the most significant casualty. Chronic stress results in persistently elevated cortisol levels which can adversely effect blood vessels including those of the heart, cause weight gain, lower immunity, and make our primary memory control center, the hippocampus, shrink among other negative effects.
There are many ways we can manage stress, and I’ll write in greater detail about it in a future series. Today, I’ll briefly address the issue of meditation and deal with deeper aspects at another time. Is “mindfulness meditation” a fad or a valid means of calming our minds and bodies? Is there any scientific evidence? I would answer with a qualified yes to both of these questions. Dr. Herbert Benson, in the 70’s at Harvard, began scientific experiments on meditation and produced data showing lowered blood pressure, less anxiety and help with curing addiction. He called it the “relaxation response” and taught his subjects how to readily trigger it. He taught a four step process:
1. Find a comfortable place to sit with no distractions and close your eyes.
2. Relax all of your muscles
3. Breathe in through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out say the word “one”. Breathe easily and naturally. When distracting thoughts occur try to simply ignore them.
4. Continue for 10 – 20 minutes.
While originating from Transcendental Meditation, he insisted that the method was based on triggering a physiologic response rather than any particular spiritual experience. I see it differently and would slightly modify the method. As a Christian, rather than reciting a generic mantra or attempting to completely empty my mind, I would insert a scripture verse or the name of Jesus. This allows me to retain the physiologic benefits while having a time of worship. In this way, I am putting off negative thought loops which are the fuel of chronic stress and putting on thanksgiving and praise, and I can reframe experiences of stress as an opportunity to grow. Consider this practice in your own life. I would love to hear your thoughts regarding this as I am in the early stages of learning about it myself. Perhaps some of you consider it dangerous and others simply a waste of time. Dialogue here could be fruitful and good for our brains as we think deeply and learn something new.