The Latest Developments in Meditation

By Stephan Bodian

Now that meditation has become so popular in the West, it has begun to infiltrate the culture in ways that were unimaginable a decade or two ago. From corporate boardrooms to elementary school classrooms, meditation is transforming the way people do business, educate children, conceptualize and deliver healthcare, and treat common psychological problems like anxiety and depression.

Scientific studies indicate that regular meditation makes you happier, more empathic, more productive, more emotionally intelligent, and more resistant to disease. As a result, more and more public and private institutions — from Fortune 500 corporations to major insurance companies, from county mental health clinics to prisons and the military — are feeling called to offer some form of meditation to their patients, inmates, students, employees, and members.

Take two meditations and call me in the morning

In the past decade, mindfulness meditation has become widely recognized as an important component of the American healthcare system, and the technique has been integrated into thousands of clinical and private practice settings across the United States and around the world.

More and more doctors are prescribing regular sitting practice along with insulin, beta blockers, and blood-pressure medication for patients with serious stress-related illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension — and mindfulness practice has become one of the go-to methods for working with chronic pain.

Sixteen medical schools across North America, including Duke, Harvard, and McGill, teach meditation to their students, which not only ensures that emerging physicians have tools to deal with their own stress and are more attentive and compassionate with their patients, but also makes it more likely that they’ll pass on the technique through their clinical practice.

The work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and his widely disseminated mindfulness-based stress-reduction (MBSR) program, coupled with extensive research into the health benefits of meditation over the past two decades, has prompted many insurance companies to reimburse for — or even create their own — meditation-based stress-management programs.

As a case in point, take Aetna, one of the largest health insurers in the world and a Fortune 500 company. After a skiing accident, CEO Mark Bertolini took up mindfulness meditation and yoga to ease his chronic pain — and now Aetna’s Mindfulness at Work program is available free to the company’s employees and to companies that purchase insurance for their employees!

Talking back to Prozac

Not only is depression the most common mental illness, but it’s also one of the most tenacious. Up to 80 percent of people who experience a major depressive episode relapse, and drugs tend to lose their effectiveness over time, if they work at all. Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated that the regular practice of mindfulness meditation increases positive mood by activating the happiness center in the brain, the left prefrontal cortex.

Now the latest research, published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, goes even further: It shows that mindfulness — in particular, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) — helps prevent the recurrence of depression as effectively as antidepressant medications, and even more effectively with patients who experienced severe childhood trauma.

In the United Kingdom, where MBCT originated, the National Health Service recommends the use of mindfulness for depression, and the growing acceptance of MBCT by the American mental health system suggests that it will soon be available at a psychiatrist’s office near you, if it isn’t already.

Transforming classrooms with mindfulness

The growing focus in the U.S. education system on standardized test scores has led to a deemphasis on important skills like social and emotional intelligence and the ability to deal with stress and control attention, which research shows are just as essential for success and well-being later in life. The growing mindful schools movement is promoting the value of mindfulness meditation in reducing stress and creating more harmonious classrooms and happier, more focused, and more compassionate students and teachers.

Through a number of organizations nationwide, teachers can now learn how to practice mindfulness meditation themselves and then how to introduce mindfulness to their students in ways that are uniquely suited to the needs of a developing child. The best-known of these organizations, Mindful Schools, claims that they have educated teachers from all 50 states and more than 60 countries and reached more than 300,000 students.

Though there has been some resistance from those who claim that meditation promotes a particular religion — an objection that’s waning in popularity as mindfulness becomes an integral and well-researched part of our healthcare system — the results are speaking for themselves. As a consequence, more and more teachers and schools nationwide are incorporating basic mindfulness training — or at least a brief pause at the beginning of class for a few moments of silence and introspection — as an essential part of their curriculum.

Meditation in the workplace

If you’re like most people, you may spend more time on the job than anywhere else, and the quality of your experience there has a profound impact on your physical and psychological well-being. If you’re constantly stressed out, not only will your overall health and happiness suffer, but so will your focus, effectiveness, and productivity. Well, more and more companies — including some big names like Apple, Google, General Mills, and Goldman Sachs — are now incorporating it (excuse the pun) into their on-the-job offerings to employees.

Though some CEOs, like Mark Bertolini of Aetna, have included meditation because of their own experience with the technique, many are just protecting their businesses’ bottom lines. After all, stress costs American companies an estimated $200 billion to $300 billion in lost productivity each year, and study after study suggest that mindfulness can be an effective antidote. Even sports teams have gotten into the game, with the Seattle Seahawks claiming that meditation and other stress-reduction techniques help them play winning football. One recent study indicated that even 25 minutes of meditation for a measly three days can reduce on-the-job stress significantly.

In addition to Aetna, where the 13,000 employees who take advantage of the company’s mindfulness program report a 28 percent reduction in their stress levels and a 20 percent improvement in their sleep quality and earn the company $3,000 a year each in increased productivity, perhaps the poster child for mindfulness in the corporate world is Google. Its successful in-house meditation program — created in conjunction with mindfulness experts Jon Kabat-Zinn and Daniel Goleman — has grown into the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, which brings a unique blend of emotional intelligence, neuroscience, and mindfulness training to businesses worldwide.