Medical establishment ponders meditation for its health benefits

04/01/2013 12:00 AM

04/01/2013 9:54 AM

As the nation embarks on a top-down overhaul of health care, a simple movement with the potential to improve wellness is quietly growing from the ground up.

Access and cost pose no problems here. Unlike insurance-driven medical models, this one comes free and is available to virtually anyone. All it takes is a willingness to learn, discipline and plenty of practice.

It's called mindfulness meditation, an outgrowth of the West's fascination in recent decades with eastern Buddhist philosophy.

Slowly but surely, experts say, the medical establishment is opening its doors to meditation as research continues to reveal its potential health benefits.

Many of the nation's hospital systems – including Kaiser Permanente and Sutter in the Sacramento region – have come around to offer classes in mindfulness meditation as well as mindfulness-based stress-reduction programs.

"Often it's for patients who have just plain old life stress," said Dr. Hillary Campbell, Kaiser's leader in the Sacramento area for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "It brings on a sense of peace and calmness. And it helps your attention and focus."

Scientific research indicates mindful meditation may reduce stress-related illness, boost the long-term health of the body's cells and enhance one's sense of well-being. It's also been found to contribute to pain relief, alertness, memory and cognitive performance.

Clifford Saron is an associate research scientist at the Center for Mind and Brain and the MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis. He runs the Shamatha Project (the name means "calm abiding" in Sanskrit), a comprehensive study into how intensive meditation training can affect the mind and body.

The project, endorsed and closely followed by the Dalai Lama, continues to yield findings from the study of two three-month meditation retreats held at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado in 2007. The 60 participants in the study received up to five hours a day of intensive daily instruction.

Saron says achieving mindfulness through meditation is not as easy as it sounds.

"A common way people think about meditation is as though it is a formulaic process," Saron said. "Take a person, follow the instructions, obtain a result – but meditation is not so mechanical.

"It's a commitment to investigate the nature of one's mind in a developmental process. This promotes a more knowing and friendly attitude toward oneself. This greater comfort 'within our own skin' will be reflected in mental and physical health."

The best way to reach a mindful meditative state, Saron said, is with a good teacher, such as Tony Bernhard of Davis.

On a recent evening, Bernhard led what he called an "upper division" meditation sitting at a weekly session in a Davis community hall.

With students seated comfortably in straight-backed chairs, feet on the floor, arms at their sides, eyes closed, Bernhard gave instructions in a calm voice: Place your attention on your breath, its passage through the nose, throat, chest, to the belly. If the mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breathing.

After 40 minutes, a bell chimed and practitioners reported they felt refreshed and vividly alert. Chances were, their heart rates had also slowed and blood pressure had lowered as tensions eased.

By keeping their thoughts on their respiration, the students effectively kept their minds in the present – preventing rumination on either the past or the future.

Since the human brain can tend to worry when it wanders, staying in the moment prevented stress from creeping into the exercise.

The practice is spreading from area medical centers to community centers, from California prisons to programs for parents of autistic children.

Its benefits are being tested in workplaces such as Google, in veterans' post-traumatic stress disorder programs, in attention deficit disorder clinics and even in tough neighborhoods in Oakland, where the Mind Body Awareness project counsels at-risk adolescents.

When new devotees are won over to the cause, they tend to fall hard. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, based his 2012 book "A Mindful Nation," on his personal experiences and pilgrimages to retreats and visits with gurus and practitioners.

Ryan's book – subtitled "How a simple practice can help us reduce stress, improve performance and recapture the American spirit" – joins a multitude of others on the topic and, like most, it offers mindfulness exercises for the reader.

Last week, a study result from the Shamatha Project linked mindfulness to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

High levels of cortisol, produced by the adrenal gland, are linked to physical or emotional stress, and prolonged release of the hormone is considered a risk factor for mortality or disease.

Saron's project promises to continue to be a source of findings on the topic of mindfulness. It recently won a $2.3 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to further its work for another three years.

"This project represents a true, long-term perspective on the developmental consequences of intensive meditation training," Saron said. "Nothing quite like this has been done before."

Other clinical studies have concluded that mindful meditation may help reduce inflammation and act as a cooling agent for the body.

The Shamatha Project also found in 2010 that the feeling of well-being that comes from having meditated can lead to greater telomerase activity. Telomerase is an enzyme that is important for the long-term health of cells in the body.

Mindfulness meditation can also help people deal with anger management, anxiety and depression.

Statewide, mindfulness meditation and yoga are taught in at least 20 prisons by volunteers with the Prison Yoga Project. The project has been operating at San Quentin for decades.

A Sacramento Valley nonprofit called Mindfulness Meditation Project is expanding to six state prisons, including the new state women's prison in Folsom, officials said.

"We have these kinds of programs in almost all of the institutions," said Bill Sessa, a spokesman with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

For the well-heeled practitioner, serene retreats along the California coastline or in remote areas such as Joshua Tree in the Southern California desert have become popular, albeit pricey.

Trudy Goodman, founder of Insight LA, was teaching at a Marin County retreat recently. Goodman's word of warning to new enthusiasts, she said, is that there's only one drawback to meditation's benefits: You have to be diligent about maintaining a schedule of practice to retain the benefits.

Bernhard, the teacher in Davis, has also been recruited to train Folsom prison psychologists in the techniques. Bernhard agrees that cultivating mindfulness takes more than intent.

"It's not like snapping your fingers and you're there," Bernhard said. "It's like learning a language or a musical instrument. It takes time and commitment and discipline."

Call The Bee's Cynthia H. Craft, (916) 321-1270. Follow her on Twitter @cynthiahcraft.


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