The benefits of a regular practice of meditation are widely acknowledged, analysed medically, and recorded in academic and popular literature. In the interests of clarity in this short essay, I will assume that, across the breadth of historical methods and the diverse ways of articulating the goals of meditation, what remains central is the regulation of attention, often through attention to the breath. On that basis, I will describe four beneficial outcomes of such a process.
The experience of feeling stressed is often accompanied by changes in both psyche and soma. Psychologically, the signs of stress include: anxiety, aggression, and the kind of thinking which over-emphasises goals and desires. One of the results of this pattern of cognitive activity is that the affective, right-side responses become dulled so that the ability to be compassionate is curtailed. Physically, the signs of stress include: shallow breathing, high cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and auto-immune diseases including inflammation in the body.
In the 1970s, Dr Herbert Benson, of Harvard Medical School, developed what is known as the ‘relaxation response’, a mechanism that reduces heart-rate, blood pressure and the tension which is held in the muscles of the body. Benson’s research findings indicate that the ‘relaxation response’ can be successfully triggered by regular meditation. In addition, Benson showed that the results, including changes in the brain waves, are measurable.
Many people have attested to physical improvements associated with the regular practice of meditation. In addition to the benefits mentioned above, insomniacs have reported an improvement in their sleep patterns, and those suffering from weight problems (either over-eating or under-eating) have found that meditation brings a more balanced relationship with food.
One of the most intriguing claims is that regular meditation can slow down the ageing process. If there is any truth in this, it is likely to be linked to the following three things. First, when a person makes the conscious decision to adhere to a disciplined regulation of breath, then they allow their body to restore and renew itself at its own pace. It is credible, therefore, that restoration of cells and renewal of energy sources within the body will show in its outward appearance. Second, when the mind is released, even for a short time, from the pressures of ordinary daily activity, the muscles of the face learn to re-compose themselves from the expressions most commonly seen on adults, to the more bright and open expressions that we associate with childhood innocence. Third, I am willing to believe that a regular focus on the souls of others will clear our eyes and make us smile. So, whether or not meditation actually slows down ageing, it certainly makes the process more beautiful to behold.
Researchers are divided as to the genesis of human emotions. It is generally agreed that emotions can be categorised as: joy, sorrow, fear and anger ( some researchers add surprise and disgust). In medieval times, and following Hippocrates’ notion of the four elements, one school of thought associated emotions and moods with what were known as the four humours: sanguine (linked to the state our blood), choleric (yellow bile), melancholic (black bile), and phlegmatic (linked to phlegm). This theory was influential enough to be carried into the minds of classical composers, notably Nielsen’s Four Temperaments. It is to these ideas that I turn when I consider the link between meditation and emotional well-being. It is significant that both western medical science and eastern traditional theories both understand the human body to be regulated by internal flows (either circulatory system of the blood or the energy in qi). This points to a universal acceptance that health is linked to the movement of the essential life-force, however that is named. Blockage of any kind, either in the circulatory system of blood or in the flow of qi, will be reflected in the level of our ability to enjoy the changes which we experience.
The regular practice of meditation, then, is likely to have an effect on the free flow of the life force within our body. By slowing down the pulse rate, reducing inflammation and blood sugar levels, and by deepening each inhalation and exhalation, meditation will, literally, ‘unblock our heart’. The result might be a more balanced emotional state of being.
In my work, I am regularly called upon to define spirituality; and, in particular, to distinguish between spirituality and religion. In the pluralist and secularising context of the 21st century, it is important that we do not carry a reductionist notion spirituality by confining it within religious rituals or expressing it narrowly in the vocabulary of particular world faiths. My understanding is that human beings are drawn to the spiritual as thirsty people are drawn to the oasis, knowing that our bodies will use the water to replenish every cell of our bodies. Knowing also, that, without living water, our bodies will not support growth and development.
The practice of regular meditation can be thought of as an oasis, or spring, whether we live in a desert or in the urban dryness of the city’s constant activity. The point is that the spring is within each one of us, it is not in a place inaccessible or other-worldly. The most remarkable thing is this: the more we nourish ourselves from the spiritual stores within us, the more we add to the sum of the universal creative life-force because there is no end to the flow of spiritual energy that began with the creation of the world. There are no beginnings or endings except the ones that human beings wilfully create.
Regular, mindful meditation is a route away from the aberration of the ‘doing person’ towards the peace and wholeness of the ‘being person’. It is a way of re-turning our attention to the stillness of what is, rather than the anxiety of what might have been or what is yet to reveal itself. We reach the oasis, and what we feel is gratitude. And we say, “enough, this is enough.”
As I move through a consideration of the four benefits: freedom from stress; physical health, emotional balance; and spiritual growth, two things become clear. First, it is foolish to imagine that we can disentangle these four aspects of human existence. Holistic well-being involves the systems of our bodies, the workings of our mind, the delicacy of our changing emotions, and the union of the spirit within us with the universal spirit of peace and love. Second, the evidence points to the role of regular meditation in establishing strong connections between these seemingly separate areas of our being, with the result that the fragmentation of our spirit becomes, over time, restored.