In Western medicine, we are generally taught to look to outside sources for treatment of our illnesses or injuries. Going to the doctor usually means getting a diagnosis and a prescription for a pharmaceutical drug. But what if an additional part of the prescription was up to you—that you had some responsibility for your own healing?
At the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, patients suffering from everything from heart disease and cancer to skin disorders and anxiety commit to eight-week courses to “work on themselves” with meditation and relaxation. And in Tucson at the Miraval Life in Balance Resort, Dharma Singh Khalsa, author of Meditation as Medicine (Pocket Books, 2001) and president and director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Foundation, is prescribing “medical meditation” to his patients—specific meditation prescriptions for patients based on their ailments.
“The body can heal itself if given the chance,” says Khalsa, who combines Eastern healing with his Western-medicine background. “Meditation is the most potent form of natural healing.”
In research from the Stress Reduction Clinic, patients who have completed the program have a greater ability to engage in their own ongoing wellness through mindfulness—the foundation of all work done at the clinic. The majority of patients completing the program report a decrease in both physical and psychological symptoms, and pain levels improve.
Judith Orloff, M.D., a psychiatrist, intuitive, and author of A Guide to Intuitive Healing (Three Rivers, 2001), says that meditation is one of the major ways to access intuition. “Getting quiet and listening to the still, small voice inside lets you go in and connect with your own spirit and intuition,” she says.
It’s all about looking inside yourself and trusting the feelings that arise as answers to your own healing, Orloff says. Orloff teaches her patients to ask questions not to their minds but to their inner voices, such as “Is this treatment (medication, et cetera) right for me?” Intuitive answers for healing may arise from this inner dialogue.
As an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, Orloff often works with people suffering from panic disorders and has found that meditation helps alleviate panic and anxiety. A 1995 study at the Stress Reduction Clinic showed that twenty subjects demonstrated significant reductions in anxiety and panic after eight weeks of mindfulness meditation.
The meditation Khalsa prescribes is unique because of its five specific attributes: breath, posture, mantra, hand position, and focus of concentration. Each medical meditation has a different set of these five attributes. For instance, there are different ways of working with the breath (such as rapid or slow) and different postures, depending upon the ailment being treated.
The sound, or mantra, used during the meditation varies as well. While saying a mantra, when the tongue touches one of the eighty-four meridian points on the roof of the mouth, certain areas of the brain are stimulated, releasing peptides, chemicals, and neurotransmitters, Khalsa says. These chemical releases can be very healing, he says.
The hand positions can also affect different parts of the brain. Positron Emission Tomography, or PET, scans have shown increased uptake of oxygen and glucose in the brain when certain areas of the hands are stimulated.
The fifth attribute, focus of attention, has many variations. One method involves closing the eyes and focusing on the third-eye area, between the eyes. This method, says Khalsa, activates the optic nerves and increases blood flow past the pituitary gland, thereby stimulating the immune system.
Orloff suggests starting out with as little as five minutes of meditation a day. First, center yourself, paying attention to your breath. Try not to fixate on thoughts, letting them pass by like clouds. Using the breath to calm and center you helps you to develop your inner voice.
Khalsa says that anyone could benefit from a daily routine, what ancient masters called “sadhana,” or “wake up to wellness.” He thinks it’s important to balance the nervous system upon waking. Stretching, breathing, meditation, and prayer can get healing energy flowing, raise serotonin levels, change brain chemistry, and set a person up for the day in a healthier way than by that obtained from a cup of coffee, Khalsa explains.
“The best part of waking up,” he says, “is to try and take some time for yourself.” That way, you’ll be happier and healthier.
Sarah Kelch graduated from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, as a journalism and graphic design major.