Letting go: the healing art of meditation 


The occasional motorcycle careening by outside the window is nothing compared to the distraction sitting next to me, a gentleman in a deep sleep, snoring loudly. No doubt sleep is an excellent antidote to the stresses of life, but we are all gathered here for another purpose: to meditate.

“Our main wish,” lectures Kelsang Kalden, resident teacher of the Dromtonpa Buddhist Center in Fountain Square, “is to be free from suffering.” Further, she asserts, “if we have control over our mind, our actions are controlled.” Sounds good to me, and no doubt everyone else who had found their way to the program, which is offered each Thursday evening. But for some, this is easier said than done.

Take my snoring neighbor, for instance. You could say it’s hard to regulate one’s breath — one of the prime dictates of meditating — when someone else’s is announcing itself so loudly. Kelsang Kalden offers this bit of advice: When it comes to a distraction, “all we need to do is label it and let it go.”

“There’s a man next to me and he’s snoring,” I say to myself. He continues to snore. I try to let it go.

The business of sitting still

While this was one of my first attempts at meditation in a long while, I didn’t expect to be freed from suffering, let alone reach transcendence, even for a moment; but I did glimpse a basic understanding of how such a practice proves beneficial to so many. Leaving the center on that cool winter evening — snoring neighbor and motorcycles aside — I felt a calm I wasn’t used to feeling. It was as if my mind had settled into a low hum rather than an incessant chatter. Even my body felt tuned to a quieter frequency; the usual aches and pains resolved to a distant pitch. While the feeling left me soon after I walked in the door back home — greeted by my toddler, a living room strewn with toys like an abandoned battlefield and other, not-so-subtle, reminders of all I had not accomplished that day — it occurred to me: What if I meditated every day? I’d be verily floating among the clouds.

I’m not the only one who is just now realizing there may be something to this business of sitting still. Meditation is now endorsed by prestigious institutions such as Harvard University, based on research studies that reveal the practice not only makes us more relaxed but it also makes us more productive. And it can provide some degree of relief to such conditions as arthritis, depression, high blood pressure and numerous other chronic ailments, including pain from cancer and HIV-AIDS.

But don’t take my word for it. A department of the stalwart National Institutes of Health, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), is the federal government’s lead agency for scientific research on practices such as meditation. The fact that such a center exists at all is a sign of a changing mind-set when it comes to the legitimacy of alternative forms of “medicine.”

According to NCCAM, a 2004 survey revealed that meditation was one of the 10 most common alternative therapies used by Americans (www.nccam.nih.gov).

The survey further revealed that 8 percent of U.S. adults use meditation. In other words, in a population of more than 300 million people, nearly 2.5 million of us are quieting our minds. If one gives any credence to mind over matter and each one of us meditators were to focus on world peace during our practice, the possibilities could be staggering. And we haven’t even touched on prayer.

It’s all in your head

Funders at NCAAM want to know more. To that end, recent NCAAM-supported studies are investigating the potential effectiveness of the Transcendental Meditation technique to prevent and treat heart disease; mindfulness-based stress reduction to relieve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and, in a different study, chronic lower back pain; what happens to the brain’s activity and structures during Buddhist insight meditation; and the long-term impact of meditation on basic emotional and cognitive functions as well as on the mechanisms in the brain that are involved in these functions.

Fortune 500 companies and even some hospitals offer meditation classes, and the rare insurance company, recognizing the value of preventive medicine, will help pay for meditation and other wellness practices such as exercise and nutritional consultation. After all, meditation is a low-cost, low-risk proposition that doesn’t involve drugs or other invasive procedures. It’s all in your head, so to speak — but you have to consider the pivotal role of the mind in the larger picture of our sense of self and wellbeing.

Scientists are also actively exploring the nature of consciousness itself: Progressive researchers in the field such as Andrew Newberg, physician at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind, studied Franciscan nuns in prayer and Tibetan Buddhists in meditation.

“We’ve hypothesized that when people meditate or pray — if they block the sensory information that gets in that area [of the brain] — they no longer get a sense of who they are in relation to the world,” Newberg told Steve Paulson in a Sept. 20, 2006, Salon interview. “They may lose their sense of self, and they feel they become one with something greater — ultimate reality or God.”

Newberg further hypothesizes that “in these peak states, there is a simultaneous activation of both this very profound sense of arousal and alertness and also a deep sense of oceanic bliss and calmness. Maybe someday, if we’re fortunate enough, that could actually be captured on a brain scan.”

Whether or not that ultimate state of bliss is reached — and certainly it depends on one’s goals for meditating and one’s willingness to spend the months and even years it may take to hone the practice to this profound level — anyone who can make the commitment (most programs suggest 15 to 20 minutes a day) stands, or rather sits, to benefit.

Stress is the prime culprit

We live in a culture focused on productivity and results. No one is exempt; even preschoolers are faced with achievement tests and assessments, while many older adults are plagued by financial pressures long past retirement age. And what about those supposedly small things — from unexpected car repairs right after you’ve tapped your savings for holiday spending to omnipresent deadlines at work? It all adds up and the results can manifest themselves physically as well as mentally.

From a medical standpoint, the mind-body-spirit connection is profound. Western doctors are increasingly recognizing the connections between stress and lifestyle choices. While there’s still a dramatic split between so-called Western or allopathic medicine and alternative practices, integrating them is becoming far more common.

Dr. Vimal Patel, recently retired from the faculty of IU School of Medicine where he taught alternative and complementary medicine for many years, founded Health Synergies (www.healthsynergies.net) in 2003. Health Synergies reflects Patel’s longtime interest in integrative health care models that focus on the whole person rather than looking at the body as a collection of parts.

Patel cites a Harvard study spearheaded by Dr. David M. Eisenberg in the early ’90s that revealed that about 34 percent of the population was using other forms of medicine or modalities that were not considered part of our conventional health care system. “That really began the awareness on the part of people that there are other ways of dealing with chronic problems,” Patel says. The technological, pharmaceuticals-based Western model, focused on addressing symptoms and largely ignoring root causes, fell short when it came to results and left people looking for alternatives.

Back in 2002, Eisenberg told a Harvard Magazine reporter that he foresaw medical schools “teaching everybody a modest amount about these [complementary] treatments. Then, in every domain, there would be somebody more expert than his or her peers. In every oncology group, each dermatology group, and so on, there would be someone who had studied herbs, massage or meditation, who could inform colleagues on a given case.”

Since that time, many established and highly regarded medical institutions, from Harvard to Indiana University, have jumped onto the proverbial bandwagon, bringing in specialists and training their medical staff in non-Western modalities, many of them thousands of years old.

Acupuncture, for example, is a form of traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda originates in India. (Both are offered at Health Synergies as well as by many other practitioners in the city.)

“It was a groundbreaking, or watershed, moment in our health care delivery system, that it was not useful the way it was working,” Patel says. “The health care system that we used is extremely good for acute conditions but it is not good for chronic conditions.” In other words, if you have a stroke or accident, by all means, head straight to the hospital. But consider the fact that a whopping 78 percent of our health care dollars go toward chronic conditions rather than acute ones. Therein lies the rub: A lot of our money is being spent on treatments without consistent or even statistically positive results.

Stress, Patel believes, is often a prime culprit when it comes to chronic conditions. Health Synergies’ philosophy rests on the fact that chronic conditions are more often the result of imbalances drawing on everything from work-related stress to nutritional deficiencies to emotional baggage — combined with genetic predispositions.

“Stress is one of the key factors in misguiding or giving the wrong information to our genes,” Patel explains. “What is stress? Our limbic system or our primitive brain is so wired that anytime we see any fear or have a fight or flight response, any time you have a threat of any kind, whether it’s from a bad boss, a bad husband, a bad wife, bad children … you have salient stress going on. That really changes the way your body produces chemicals. So your nervous system gets activated chronically. That is a signal for inflammation … and it can inform our genes to produce disease.” Diabetes, arthritis, cancer, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and on it goes.

Relief from the cacophony

Stephanie Smart, owner of Jing Wellness Center (www.jingwell.com) in Indianapolis, practices traditional Chinese medicine, including acupuncture and ortho-bionomy, a form of subtle mind-body work. Smart is one of a growing number of practitioners in the city offering so-called alternative models for addressing the whole person when it comes to wellness.

And Smart concurs with Patel when it comes to root causes and the desire for change: “I think there’s a broader consciousness,” she says, “that more and more we’re looking at, what are some other options for getting my health back and getting more balance in my life?”

Smart and Patel make the implicit point that we have choices. Making poor or uninformed ones can result in poor health. For instance, “Our Western diet is invading everywhere,” Smart laments. “This speaks more about how fast-paced the world is becoming. We work more hours and have less time with our families … we are a phenomenally fast-paced society right now. And that invades everything we do.”

American fast-food restaurants are spreading to distant cultures like a mutant flu virus, and so is workaholism. Indeed, they feed on each other. But these choices, which often become a necessity if we want to live up to certain lifestyle requirements or simply have no choice from an economic standpoint, have their consequences — and practitioners such as Patel and Smart help the individual to make these and other crucial connections.

A great place to start is to make relaxation as important as making a living — whether it’s through meditation, yoga, massage therapy, communing with nature or other forms of stress relief (nope; this doesn’t include caffeine and alcohol).

Health Synergies, for instance, offers classes in meditation and Hatha yoga, as both help address stress relief as a crucial component to mind-body-spirit wholeness. Like many Eastern-based practices, these contribute to overall wellness, and are an important part of preventing or alleviating disease states. And neither requires a prescription.

Meditation has been around for untold years, even before the Buddha first found nirvana under the Bodhi tree. While the practice has waxed and waned in the West, it seems to be making a comeback as a source of stress relief and spiritual awakening. There are many methods for engaging the mind, or disengaging it, to provide relief from the cacophony of thoughts and physical sensations that equal suffering.

The mind creates problems

Indianapolis offers a number of meditation options for novice and seasoned alike — from the group meditations and related programs offered by the aforementioned Dromtonpa Buddhist Center (www.meditation-indianapolis.org), where I experienced one of my first guided meditations, to many other Buddhist and non-Buddhist institutions and groups.

But such a list of choices can seem daunting. Rose Getz, who taught yoga and meditation — she sees the two as intrinsically linked — for 35 years, believes that “It’s really very basic.” Getz is director of the Himalayan Yoga Meditation Center of Indiana (www.hymcenter.com), which brings well-known leaders in the field to Indianapolis, continues to meditate and practice yoga in the Himalayan tradition, attributing her good health and strong sense of wellbeing to the practice.

“All meditation, if it’s done properly, is done the same way,” Getz says. These three components are essential, she says: “Regulate the breathing, relax the body, quiet the mind.”

Dr. Lois Neate, a certified instructor and longtime practitioner of Transcendental Meditation (TM) with her husband, is sold on the TM technique that was first brought to the West by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1950s. Neate doesn’t believe all meditations are the same. “Some meditations require concentration and take effort,” Neate says. “TM is not like that. It uses the natural tendency of the mind.”

TM, she says, “turns the mind in on itself and the mind experiences deeper and deeper levels"

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