For Americans in the fast lane, relief comes from an ancient discipline adapted for today. Science is showing its value to mind and body.
By Virginia A. Smith
Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer
Arvind Saini goes through life at one speed: Overdrive.
He was a triple major – zoology, South Asian studies, molecular biology – at the University of Wisconsin. Two weeks ago, he received a medical degree and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania.
But about midway through the five-year, joint-degree program, it hit him. He was burned out, so fixated on career goals that he’d lost himself.
“I started asking… what am I racing against?” he recalled in a cell-phone interview as he crossed the Penn campus.
Saini, 27, still charges forward every day, but occasionally the race slows to stillness. Meditation now provides him a measure of serenity, an enhanced awareness of the moments of his overachieving existence.
“This is my life,” he says. “I’m going to enjoy the journey.”
Millions more in this country have adopted meditation, “not as an ancient, culturally bound set of tools, but in a uniquely American way,” according to Michael J. Baime, a general practitioner and director of the University of Pennsylvania’s stress-management program, who was meditating by age 14.
“I’m watching it happen,” he said.
Embraced by pop culture, widely marketed and consumed, meditation is touted as a stress-busting antidote to our 24/7 lifestyle, rather than a lifelong path to enlightenment with deep Eastern roots.
It’s increasingly evidence-based, as more scientists study the practice’s effects on the brain and body. The National Institutes of Health oversee 45 studies investigating whether the practice can help reduce such problems as alcohol and nicotine use or improve the quality of life for organ-transplant patients.
Meditation is also stoking the nation’s entrepreneurial engine. An estimated 8 percent of the nation’s population meditates – slightly more than those undergoing chiropractic care – according to a 2002 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those mellow folks are fueling a big market in books, tapes and classes. “Bliss sells,” says Barbara Casey, a “spiritual marketing consultant” who helps clients pitch holistic products.
The practice even comes in short – or long.
Pressed for time? Take one deep breath. Not so pressed? Take a minute or three, 15 or 30, and quietly be.
Meditation’s singular message – “being in the moment” – can be adapted to any constituency with a stress, a goal or a dream. That’s the case with students in Springfield, Delaware County, medical staff at the Philadelphia Heart Institute, and future corporate leaders at the Wharton School.
“My role here is to translate meditation into American,” Baime said.
Increasingly, science informs the translation.
Andrew B. Newberg of Penn and other neuroscientists have found that meditative practice can train the mind and reshape the brain. Others have found that regular meditation can lower blood pressure and heart rates, decrease anxiety and depression, and help control chronic pain.
According to last month’s Harvard Mental Health Letter, meditation techniques have been used to relieve discomfort in patients with psoriasis, irritable bowel syndrome, and fibromyalgia. A combination of meditation, yoga and diet change has been claimed to reverse coronary artery disease.
The newsletter also reported that depressed patients treated with a mindfulness-based cognitive therapy were only half as likely to relapse as patients getting traditional counseling and medication. Cognitive therapy focuses on recognizing distorted beliefs about one’s self and replacing them with realistic ones.
Dozens more studies, a few by Baime, are under way to examine meditation’s effects on binge eating and obesity, addictions, insomnia, multiple sclerosis, back pain and other conditions.
It adds up to a growing recognition, Newberg said, “that our psyche, our spirit, our social dimensions… all have an impact on how we do.”
Pat Rambo, a counselor at Springfield High School who studies with Baime, saw that clearly after the World Trade Center tragedy. Her students mourned and raged, prompting her to start a meditation class.
“Kids, like the rest of us, live very stressful lives,” she said.
They learned mindfulness meditation, which Baime practices and teaches. It does not involve repeating a mantra or concentrating on an image but focuses on being “fully present” by being aware of one’s own breathing.
It’s helped Springfield students deal with anxiety over standardized tests, community violence and family turmoil. “They carry a great burden. We don’t often think about that,” Rambo said.
Health-care workers are burdened, too.
Barbara Mitchell manages the electric physiology lab at the Heart Institute in West Philadelphia, part of Presbyterian Medical Center, where she oversees a lot of sophisticated technology for very sick patients.
“I’m always in a hurry, always worried about what’s next,” she said.
With about 20 other institute employees, Mitchell is taking Baime’s eight-week meditation class, which has helped them stop-breathe-be when things get chaotic.
“We are all a little more relaxed around situations we can’t control,” she said.
“Just by stopping and not doing anything,” Baime said during a recent class, “you have a kind of balance that’s natural, that comes back to you.”
Mitchell said meditation had so enhanced her awareness, she recently noticed four elevators in the institute lobby!
“Always thought there were three,” she said.
Saini, the recent Penn medical and business school graduate, believes meditation-inspired awareness has a key role to play in shaping effective leaders in the corporate and health-care worlds.
“It allows you to increase your concentration and actually do more with the time you have,” he said. “You’re not wasting energy thinking about results, or the past. It makes you better with people.”
Saini took Baime’s course last fall, then helped organize a Wharton meditation retreat in April. Quite a pause for students used to free-time excursions such as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and trekking in Patagonia. “Our culture is so driven to work so hard, to be able to find peace is really important,” he said.
Baime insists that is the point. So what would it matter, in the future, if meditation were promoted in gaudy American style with customized cushions and fancy suits, gorgeous Zen gardens and blooming lotuses?
Whatever it takes.
“Because when people actually do the practice, it will transcend that. What really matters is that people become more fully present in their lives,” he said.
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer online (www.philly.com)