Meditation is the practice of focusing one’s attention on an individual point by removing distractions and stressful thoughts within their external environment. The word meditation is derived  from the latin word meditatum, meaning to ponder. Meditation is thought to have originated from the ancient Indian practice of Vedantism around 3000 BCE. Vedantism is an early form of spiritual enlightenment which stemmed  from Hindu traditions, while later forms of meditation originated from Taoist China and Buddhist India. 

Meditation first emerged in the West back in the 1700s once Eastern texts were translated into European languages. These texts included The Upanishads, The Bhagavad Gita and The Buddhist Sutras – a combination of religious and philosophical scripture from India and China. It was only thought to be of interest to philosophers and intellectuals, but gained popularity in the United States in the 20th century following a presentation by Swami Viviekananda in Chicago. Swami Viviekananda was an Indian, Hindu monk who is best known for his groundbreaking speech to the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in which he introduced Hinduism to America and called for religious tolerance and an end to fanaticism.

As mediation grew in the West, the practice deviated from its religious roots, and was further studied by scientists to evaluate its use within medicine. Dr. Herbert Benson, professor, author, cardiologist, and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute. He is largely credited with demystifying meditation and integrating it into mainstream healthcare. In the 1960s, Dr Herbert Benson investigated the effect of meditation on health and found that individuals who meditate showed reduced stress levels, improved wellbeing and lower blood pressure levels. Benson coined the term “relaxation response” to describe a reaction that counteracts the physiological effects of stress responses. In the case of the fight or flight response, when a threat is detected, our sympathetic nervous system is activated by the release of hormones. The sympathetic nervous system then goes on to stimulate adrenal glands which trigger the further release of hormones such as adrenaline. This chain of reactions causes an increase in breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. The effects of this response can often leave individuals feeling uncomfortable and anxious, and where stress hormones are released too often, it can lead to a series of complicated medical problems, such as high blood pressure and anxiety. The “relaxation response”, described as a “physical state of deep relaxation” activates  the parasympathetic nervous system in our bodies when reacting to stress in order to reduce blood pressure, heart and breathing rate, and has been proved to improve health problems associated with chronic stress. 

In the late 1970s, Jon Kabat-Zinn studied the potential health benefits of meditation and developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. This is a group program that has been designed to treat patients with mental or physical illnesses through  utilising mindfulness and meditation to form a flexible approach to stress and follows a basic set of principles: The following statements were found on the Centre of Mindfulness website (link below). 

  • Making the experience a challenge rather than a chore and thus turning the observing of one’s life mindfully into an adventure in living rather than one more thing one “has” to do for oneself to be healthy;
  • An emphasis on the importance of individual effort and motivation and regular disciplined practice of the meditation in its various forms, whether one “feels” like practicing on a particular day or not;
  • The immediate lifestyle change that is required to undertake formal mindfulness practice, since it requires a significant time commitment (in the clinic 45 minutes a day, six days a week minimally)

In the 1990s, WIlliam, Teasdale and Seagal furthered the work of Kabat- Zinn by combining Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction to form the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) program. This program combines mindfulness techniques like meditation, breathing exercises and stretching with elements of cognitive behavioural therapy to help break the negative thinking patterns that are common in those with depression. The program has been approved by the NHS and been found to help those experiencing a variety of conditions such as depression, anxiety and cardiovascular problems. 

With our hectic modern day lives, meditation could be more beneficial now than ever. Meditation can encourage us to deal with our negative thoughts in a positive manner and reduce anxiety and stress. Individuals who have practiced meditation for years have reported to have improved concentration, increased confidence and better emotional stability. Through research and several studies, meditation has been proved to strengthen the immune system, lower blood pressure and decrease physical tension as well as reduce the risk of developing illnesses associated with high stress levels. 

Engaging in a meditation practice might seem like a daunting task, but it definitely doesn’t have to be. Just start with five minutes a day, sitting in a comfortable position in a place where you can properly relax. The simplest way to begin is by focusing on your breath – count each breath in and each breath out with the same number and slowly adapt it so that your breath out is longer than your breath in. Don’t worry if your attention deviates, just try and guide yourself back to your breathing. It can seem silly to begin with, but the whole point of meditation is to be fully aware of your thoughts and refocus them when necessary. I have found that integrating meditation into my bedtime routine often helps me sleep better and alleviate my worries after a stressful day. It has been useful in situations where I feel especially anxious and is something that I will try to be more consistent with throughout medical school and as a doctor. 

As students going into demanding vocations and courses, I’d recommend starting a meditation practice. It might seem pointless now, but as the years go on, the benefits will speak for themselves. It is important to be able to separate yourself from the stress of education or your workplace and truly find peace and happiness. Give it a go and hopefully you’ll discover the true power of meditation. 

For further information about mindfulness and meditation, I’d recommend the following resources:

Written By Carolyn Thomas

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