Love and connectednessAs Dean Ornish, MD, reveals in his groundbreaking research, love is more important than any other factor in the healing process, including diet and exercise. To heal your heart, he discovered, you need to open your heart — and his findings have been corroborated in studies of cancer, AIDS, and other life-threatening illnesses. By putting you in touch with the love in your heart (which is not just an emotion, but also a direct expression of being itself), meditation nourishes not only your internal organs, but also your entire body-mind organism.
Relief of tension and stressBy teaching you how to relax your body and calm your mind, meditation helps you avoid getting sick in the first place by alleviating stress, a major cause of many ailments, from heart disease and stroke to gastrointestinal disorders and tension headaches. In particular, Jon Kabat-Zinn (author of the bestseller Wherever You Go, There You Are) has developed a stress-reduction program based on Buddhist mindfulness meditation that teaches participants not only how to reduce stress while they’re meditating, but also how to extend the benefits of mindfulness to every area of their lives.
Restoring alignment and balanceTraditional healing practices such as ayurveda (the traditional medicine of India involving herbs and diet) and Chinese medicine, as well as more mainstream approaches like chiropractic and osteopathy, suggest that the body gets sick when it becomes unbalanced or misaligned. Meditation slows the mind to the speed of the breath, which restores balance and harmony to the body and facilitates healing. Besides, sitting up straight aligns the spine and encourages the unimpeded flow of life-giving energy through the body, which promotes both physical and psychological well-being.
Opening and softeningIf you’re like many people, you tend to get impatient or upset with yourself when you’re sick or hurting. You may even have strong judgments as though being ill is your fault. Unfortunately, these negative emotions may compound your suffering — and even amplify your illness — by causing you to tense up and contract. When you meditate regularly, you develop the skill of opening to your experience, however unpleasant, and softening around it instead of judging it or pushing it away.
Creating space for all your emotionsAs you accept your experience in meditation, you create a welcoming environment in which your feelings can bubble up and release rather than be suppressed or acted out. Research suggests that unexpressed feelings locked in the body form focal points of tension and stress that may eventually contribute to the development of life-threatening illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. Besides, you naturally feel more enlivened — and therefore more healthy — when you can feel your feelings fully.
Harmony, joy, and well-beingPositive qualities like happiness, joy, peace, and well-being don’t originate outside you in some other person or thing. Instead, they well up inside you naturally and spontaneously like water bubbling up from a spring. You simply have to create the proper internal environment, which is exactly what you do when you meditate. (Of course, you can always cultivate positive emotions like love and compassion.)
Western researchers have shown that these positive qualities correlate with a host of life-enhancing bodily responses, from lowered blood pressure and improved immune response to the release of natural painkillers called beta-endorphins. As Ecclesiastes 30:5 puts it, “Gladness of heart is life to anyone; joy is what gives length of days” (New Jerusalem Bible).
Freedom from self-clinging and habitual patternsUltimately, it’s the illusion (which everyone shares) of being a separate, isolated individual cut off from others and the rest of life that lies at the heart of all suffering and stress. According to the Tibetan scholar and meditation master Tulku Thondup, author of The Healing Power of Mind, “living in peace, free from emotional afflictions, and loosening our grip on ‘self’ is the ultimate medicine for both mental and physical health.”
As you gradually begin to penetrate and let go of habitual patterns (which have deep roots in the body as well as the mind), you become less emotionally reactive (which reduces stress) and more positively (even joyfully) responsive to life as it unfolds.
Awakening to a spiritual dimensionHerbert Benson, MD, a professor at Harvard Medical School, developed the technique known as the Relaxation Response on the basis of studies of people who repeated a simple word or phrase, known as a mantra.
But over the years, he discovered that the more meaningful the mantra, the more effective the technique in relaxing the body and promoting healing. “If you truly believe in your personal philosophy or religious faith,” he reported in Beyond the Relaxation Response, “you may well be capable of achieving remarkable feats of mind and body that [we] may only speculate about.” In other words, you enhance the healing powers of meditation when you expand your awareness to include a spiritual dimension of being.