By Kathy Gaillard
For thousands of years, meditation has been used in healing and spiritual practices.
More recently, scientists have found that meditation practices have specific, measureable and positive effects on the body, including treating physical and mental problems, and producing beneficial changes in the brain. This research is particularly useful for older adults.
Meditation is a practice that helps people achieve balance mentally, physically and emotionally. It is also used to treat depression, stress and anxiety.
The deep rest that individuals achieve through meditation can rid them of stress and enable them to make better choices by allowing them to think more clearly. There also have been reports of higher self-esteem in people who meditate.
While meditation started in the East, it took thousands of years for it to spread to Western societies.
In about the mid-20th century it gained popularity in the West. Many researchers and professors in the 1960’s and 1970s learned of the benefits that meditation had to offer as they began testing the effects of it.
Meditation has been used to help individuals quit smoking and to put a stop to alcohol and drug addictions. It can also be used to help reduce blood pressure and greatly lower the symptoms of menopause and premenstrual syndrome.
Meditation also helps to lower the heart rate and blood pressure by slowing down breathing which lowers the amount of oxygen the body needs.
Even though meditation has been found to have healing benefits, some Christians continue to reject it because the roots of meditation lie in non-Christian influences such as Buddhism.
However, while meditation has been widely used in Eastern spirituality for centuries, there is nothing non-Christian about the practice of meditation, and it is increasingly being accepted in promoting well being and mental health. In fact, throughout the Bible you will find references to meditating. Christian meditation is a peaceful focus on God.
Over the years, meditation has been studied more and more, particularly in regards to its positive benefits with older adults. One sad fact of aging is a lack of companionship as loved ones pass on and children scatter. Experts say loneliness resulting from these losses can be linked to emotional stress and declines in physical health. Loneliness is not just an emotional issue; it is a form of stress that has been linked to a higher risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, depression and early death. And it is particularly prevalent among the elderly. In fact, a 2005 study found nearly 60 percent of people 70 and older experience some type of loneliness.
To that end, interventions to relieve loneliness are increasingly in demand–that is one of the reasons why recent research such as that from the University of California Los Angeles is so significant. In the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, Steve Cole, Ph.D., and his colleagues report that the two-month program of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which teaches the mind to simply be attentive to the present and not dwell in the past or project into the future, successfully reduced the feelings of loneliness. Inflammation is a natural component of the immune system and is integral to tissue repair and restoration. Chronic inflammation is a significant contributor to many diseases and psychological disorders.
In the study, adults between the ages of 55 and 85 were assessed at the beginning and the end of the study using an established loneliness scale. Participants in the meditation group attended weekly two-hour meetings to learn the techniques of mindfulness, including awareness and breathing techniques. They also practiced mindfulness meditation for 30 minutes each day at home and attended a single, daylong retreat.
These MBSR participants self-reported a reduced sense of loneliness, while their blood tests showed a significant decrease in the expression of inflammation-related genes.
The list of benefits for meditation among those 50 years and older is much too long to ignore. The benefits, which are both physical and mental, according to Jeffrey Greeson, PhD, a clinical health psychologist at Duke University who researches meditation and practices it.
“As people age, even if they age with attitude and great aspirations, the system wears down,” said Greeson.
There are various types of meditation. Briefly, they are: Mindfulness meditation which encourages individuals to,”become aware of what is already there,” observing thoughts but not judging them. Mindful breathing teaches individuals to focus on breathing, while letting go of thoughts and other “stuff.”
Buddhist style meditation is in the mindfulness camp and has the same benefits. Transcendental meditation, or TM, encourages practitioners to transcend their normal state of consciousness, to use a prayer-like mantra to block out distracting thoughts and gain pure awareness or ”transcendental consciousness.”
Some of the reasons for meditation are Inflammation Meditation can fix inflammation. People between the ages of 55 and 85 who participated in an eight-week meditation program had a reduction in inflammation, as measured by their protein levels. Insomnia Meditation can improve insomnia, a problem of many older adults. University of Minnesota researchers found that meditation improved sleep just as well as prescription medicines do, reducing the time it took insomniacs to fall asleep by 20 minutes and boosting total sleep time by more than 30 minutes. Infections Meditation can also reduce the number of respiratory infections in adults 50-plus and ease chronic symptoms such as back and neck pain, other studies suggest.
How to Meditate
To meditate, choose a quiet place and time where you will not be disturbed. Sit down. Sit still and upright, comfortable and alert, with your back straight. Close your eyes lightly. Breathe calmly and regularly.
Silently, interiorly, begin to say a single word. Christians might be more comfortable saying a prayer-phrase such as maranatha.* Recite it as four syllables of equal length – ma-ra-na-tha. Listen to it as you say it, gently but continuously. Do not think or imagine anything—spiritual or otherwise. If thoughts and images come, these are distractions at the time of meditation: keep returning to simply saying the word.
The history of meditation has proven that this practice of the mind and body can help a person in many ways. It can be practiced in the comfort of one’s own home or with a local meditation group. No matter how individuals choose to incorporate meditation into their lifestyle, they will be sure to discover a fountain of benefits.
*Maranatha is an ancient Christian prayer word. It means ‘Come, Lord’
from the Aramaic language of Jesus’ time, and is found in the New Testament. When meditating, use it simply as a focus for your attention, without thinking about the meaning of it.