Meditation Finding Converts Among Western Doctors

by John Roach, National Geographic News, February 1, 2006

Boston, Massachusetts (USA) -- Regular meditation may increase smarts and stave off aging, according to an ongoing study. The research is one in a string of studies that suggest some time spent getting in tune with the flow of one's breathing can complement a regimen of pills, diet, and exercise. Meditation is being prescribed for stress, anxiety, infertility, skin diseases, and other ailments.

Many medical professionals in the West remain skeptical or are against the use of meditation for therapy.

But some are beginning to endorse its benefits, said neuroscientist Sara Lazar, who leads the research at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts.

"Our hope is that by providing concrete evidence of [meditation's] benefits, more people will at least try it and see if it is beneficial for them," she said in an email interview. Lazar presented a paper on the research during a visit of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, to the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience last November in Washington, D.C.

Science and Buddhism

The Dalai Lama was at the neuroscience meeting to give a talk on the potential for mingling neuroscience with the Buddhist tradition of meditation. Prior to the Dalai Lama's talk, several hundred people signed an online petition urging the Society for Neuroscience to cancel the lecture, on the grounds that he is a religious leader whose goals conflict with those of the society.

The petition itself was seen as controversial. Since many of the signatories were Chinese Americans, defenders of the lecture charged that it was opposed on political grounds. The Dalai Lama has long symbolized the movement to free Tibet from Chinese rule.

Despite the controversy, the talk was met with scant sign of protest from the 14,000 or so conference participants in attendance, according to media reports.

During his speech, the Dalai Lama emphasized his preference for scientific inquiry over religious dogma.

According to a prepared text of the speech, the Dalai Lama believes that modern neuroscience understands the brain's wiring for attention and emotion. Meditation, he says, offers techniques for refining attention and regulating and transforming emotion.

"The meeting of modern neuroscience and Buddhist contemplative discipline, therefore, could lead to the possibility of studying the impact of intentional mental activity on the brain circuits that have been identified as critical for specific mental processes," he said.

The talk was followed by several presentations, including one by Lazar, the Harvard neuroscientist. She addressed whether meditation can change the brain's structure and function, thereby offering health benefits.

Psychologist Paul Fulton is the president of the nonprofit Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy in Newton, Massachusetts. He said "the barriers are falling" for the incorporation of meditation into the treatment of conditions such as stress and high blood pressure.

As these barriers fall, Fulton says, some people may begin to explore how meditation can complement Western medicine.

As an example, he pointed to the Stress Reduction Program at the University of Massachusetts' Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society in North Worcester.

The center aims to teach people how to integrate meditation into their everyday lives to overcome stress, pain, high blood pressure, fatigue, and other ailments.

Different Approach

Robert Thurman is the religion department chair and a professor of Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University in New York. He says meditation can teach people how to become more aware of their minds and their emotions.

Such ancient traditions, he adds, can offer tremendous amounts of insight to Western science.

As an example, in a Pulse of the Planet radio program broadcast today, he compares the difference between a Western and Tibetan doctor taking a patient's pulse.

"The Western doctor who's taking the pulse is just timing the beating of the pulse," Thurman said in the broadcast. "Now, the Tibetan doctor takes not only the pulse but the warmth, the degree of tautness in the vein, the quality therefore of the blood, thick or thin."

The Tibetan doctor also analyzes the subtle variations in the pulse, each one a potential indication of an ailment梐 flaw in an artery or a buildup of plaque, for example.

The Tibetan doctors build on these observations "by not only their own personal knowledge of anatomy, but also it comes in a long empirical tradition that's come from thousands of years of people observing different types of pulses and correlating those observations to different types of internal phenomena, symptoms, and so forth in their patients," Thurman said.