Last year, my husband Christopher and I were at a low point. We had recently taken a gamble by purchasing a small business. The tension built until we were both showing signs of stress: We weren’t sleeping well, our concentration was shot and our tempers flared. After a particularly dismal weekend, Chris wondered aloud one Sunday night whether we should take that meditation course I’d mentioned.
The course on ‘mindfulness-based stress reduction’ was offered by my family physician, Dr. Miroslava Lhotsky, and psychologist Judy Turner, both of whom practise in Toronto. Lhotsky had mentioned it in passing at my last checkup, telling me about new research on the ancient practice. Several of her meditating patients were lowering their blood pressure, she said pointedly, knowing that my numbers had been creeping up. On my way out, I picked up the brochure on the eight-week program.
Our first meditation class
Monday morning, I signed us up. Which is how we found ourselves on a frigid January evening, yoga mats in hand, heading to our first 2-1/2 hour class. But by this point, neither of us wanted to go. We both had vaguely positive views about meditation (and Chris had even tried it years ago as a student), but we had no idea what would happen that night. Would there be hours of lecturing? Or maybe some touchy-feely group discussion about our stress?
The answers were no and no. That first class, of about 20 men and women of all ages, started with a little explanation from Lhotsky and Turner. Mindfulness means being attentive to the present moment, ‘neither fretting about the past, nor anticipating the future,’ Turner explained. We would cultivate mindfulness through meditation, which involves focusing on the breath and observing the body’s sensations and one’s thoughts and feelings.
I don’t think anyone understood how paying attention to our breathing would reduce stress. But we quickly got down to it, sitting quietly and breathing in, breathing out, trying to let our thoughts drift through our minds without hindrance. We could sit on pillows, either cross-legged or with our legs folded beneath us, or we could sit in a chair. Chris didn’t even try sitting cross-legged because he knew he’d never get comfortable. I had no problem, but my back started to hurt after a while so I leaned against a wall.
After a little more explanation and discussion, we tried a different exercise: a ‘body scan,’ which involved lying on our backs on our mats while Turner instructed us to focus on relaxing our bodies. (A few gentle snores signalled that some relaxed a little too well.)
When our instructors asked us to share how we were feeling, everyone had a different experience of staying in the moment. One woman said she felt she couldn’t do it even for a second; her mind flooded with things she had to do. I found I could focus on my breathing for several seconds, and then when I became aware of a thought’like ‘remember to pick up dry cleaning’ or ‘call Dad tomorrow”I could let it go without losing my focus on my breathing.
Before we knew it, we were leaving with instructions to practise, starting with five minutes daily. I floated home through the crisp winter air feeling euphoric‘and that night I slept better than I had in months.
The health benefits of meditation
Stress relief was what we wanted, but as I read about meditation, I was amazed at all its other benefits. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a well-known U.S.-based meditation teacher and leading researcher, found that it can reduce depression, anxiety and pain. Further research showed that it could also improve hypertension, heart disease and even type 2 diabetes. Considering that depression can affect as many as one quarter of Canadian women and cardiovascular disease is our number one killer, I started wondering whether everybody should learn to meditate as part of a healthy lifestyle. (In fact, it is taught in some U.S. schools and is being tried in several schools in Vancouver.) But what was really mind-blowing is that meditation actually changes the neural pathways in our brains’a process called neuroplasticity, which, just a few years ago, neuroscientists thought was impossible.
How was this discovery made? For years, meditation researchers kept in contact with one of the world’s most proficient meditators, the Dalai Lama, the exiled Buddhist leader of Tibet. In 2002, world-renowned neuroscientist Richard Davidson asked several Tibetan monks (who meditate for thousands of hours during their lives) to visit his laboratory at the University of Wisconsin’Madison so he could scan their brains and compare them to others. The monks’ brains showed significantly more activity in circuits involved in attention and positive emotions. Davidson concluded that all the hours they spent meditating activated areas in their brains that improved their concentration and happiness, and that we can change the way our brains function by training our minds.
The implications are huge’particularly for the treatment of depression. While antidepressant medication works, depressed people often relapse once they stop taking it. Zindel Segal, a psychologist and the head of the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Clinic at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, discovered that patients who took mindfulness meditation training were less likely to relapse after stopping medication. ‘Mindfulness training is very helpful in regulating emotions,’ Segal says. ‘It increases people’s capacity to cope.’
And brain scans of patients who practised mindfulness training revealed less activity in areas of the brain that are linked to negative emotions. ‘As a physician, seeing those scans is very convincing,’ says Lhotsky.
How meditation helped us
As for Chris and me, we noticed compelling improvements in our lives. Once we worked up to the suggested 30 minutes a day, my concentration was better; I could stay on task rather than getting pulled into worries. Chris’s anxiety level dropped. We were sleeping better, and could put more space between action and reaction, taking a breath before ‘losing it’ in frustration.
A more objective proof of benefit? My blood pressure improved.
Like exercise, though, for us meditation gets squeezed out when life gets too busy’which, of course, is when we need it most! But we keep going back to it. And it pops up as a wonderful tool for handling stress at the oddest times. Recently, Chris had a nasty fall and broke his ankle. I ran to call 911 and though I anxiously hovered over him as we waited for the ambulance, he was calm. ‘How are you doing?’ I asked. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘I’m meditating.’ So I, too, took a deep breath.