Meditation can help you manage stress, symptoms of chronic illness, and enhance your overall health and well-being.
Meditation is a mind-body medicine practice that has been used throughout history to increase calmness and physical relaxation. It is important to know that mind-body medicine modalities focus on the interaction between your brain, mind, body, and behavior. Thus, meditation can help you manage stress, improve psychological balance, help you cope with illness, and help you enhance your overall health and well-being.
I am making mighty claims here, and by now you are, hopefully, asking yourself “Not so fast! How is all this is possible? Can meditation really be an all-encompassing panacea?” If that question popped into your mind, great! Keep that thought.
This article is mainly about introducing you to meditation, and not elaborating on all the research. However, I will introduce some of the meditation research that is relevant to this article, as well as to cancer survivorship. My research interest is sickness behavior, and much of the writing I will be doing in 2015 will evolve around mind-body modalities, cancer survivorship, and sickness behavior. Future articles about meditation will center around sickness behavior and the immune system. These meditation articles will allow me to cover extensively the results of meditation research as it pertains to specific topics in oncology.
If you are a business executive who stumbled upon this article by accident, keep on reading, much of what you will learn here about meditation is highly relevant to managing work stress and job burnout. Here is an article in WIRED magazine pertaining this topic and one you might find pretty interesting titled “In Silicon Valley, Meditation Is No Fad. It Could Make Your Career.”
As a side note: Right now is a good time to remind you to join our “Weekly Smarts & other fresh ideas on The Art of Living and Self Care in Cancer Survivorship” mailing list. (The sign-up form is located to your right.) Once a week, you’ll get links to our latest articles delivered right into your inbox.
A Brief History of Meditation
Meditation originated from traditions in both Eastern and Western cultures. The heritage of mediation dates back centuries. Comparable meditation practices are found in many religions and cultures. Christian meditation dates back to the earliest Christian tribes. Meditation practices are also incorporated in Islam and Judaism. However, over the last 50 years, by far the most prevalent methods of meditation in Western society have been Buddhist and Indian forms of meditation. Various forms of Yoga practice fall into meditation practice as well (Arias, Steinberg, Banga, & Trestman, 2006).
In order to operationalize meditation for pragmatic study, and despite some of the similarities in meditative techniques traversing societies, scientists remain divided how research goals should be achieved. We scientists need a definition of meditation that will allow us to design rigorous research from which society as a whole can benefit (Arias et al., 2006).
Meditation – A Family of Attentional Regulatory Training Regimens
I found a superb definition of meditation that works well for the purpose of this article in Lutz, Slagter, Dunne and Davidson (2008):
Meditation is a family of complex emotional and attentional regulatory training regimes developed for various ends, including the cultivation of well-being and emotional balance.
There are two overarching styles of meditation, Focused Attention meditation and Open Monitoring meditation along the mental processes and underlying neural circuitry that make up most different types of meditation.
Key Features of Meditation
According to Biegler, Chaoul and Cohen (2009) when you meditate you do the following:
You have an active, yet relaxed mental state; you concentrate as well as regulate your breathing to connect your mind with your body. Whenever possible, you disengage from concentration.
Manocha (2000) writes that the nomenclature “meditation” should only apply to mental processes that aim to attain a well-defined state called “thoughtless awareness,” (p. 1136) directing attention to the present moment and turning focus away from dwelling on “the unchangeable past or undetermined future” (p. 1136).
Furthermore, according to Manocha (2000), a person who engages in meditation should aim to decrease needless and unproductive “background mental noise” (p. 1136). Thoughtless awareness is described by Manocha as “…a state in which the excessive and stress producing activity of the mind is neutralized without reducing alertness and effectiveness” (p. 1136).
It is possible to enter a conscious state in which you express essential features of meditation via Focused Attention or Open Monitoring. The results you experience will be different based on what style of meditation, Focused Attention meditation or Open Monitoring meditation, you mostly engage in.
Now that you have a pretty good idea of what it might mean to “meditate,” how about I introduce you to different meditation training regimens. These training regimens will aid you to become well versed in achieving states that are compatible in exhibiting the essential features of meditation. Then we move on to answer the second part of the question “Why should you care?”
Different “Training Regimens” to Cultivate Well-Being
The situation gets a little tricky trying to discern between which “training regimen” (if you will) cultivates a particular style of meditation. This is because there are many training regimens of meditation. All these training regimens of meditation share the feature of incorporating one or more of the key elements just mentioned above. However, the training regimens can still be distinguished between Focused Attention and Open Monitoring meditation.
Next I will introduce you to different trainig regimens (kinds) of meditation you’ll have a chance to practice at ACEF. The reason we are offering different forms of meditation throughout the week is to keep your practice fresh, exciting, and all encompassing.
The Main Types of Meditation
Some authors such as Arias et al. (2006) include certain yoga practices in meditation. To keep things nice and tidy, I have excluded yoga practice as a type of meditation for purpose of this article.
Open Monitoring Meditation
Mindfulness Meditation (often practiced at ACEF)
Mindfulness meditation is a form of attentional control training by which you develop the ability to direct and keep up attention towards the present moment. During mindfulness meditation, you will be encouraged to accept thoughts regardless of their content, but to also be intentional in deciding when to attend to or disengage from these thoughts if they are not helpful or necessary at that moment (Feldman, Greeson, & Senville, 2010).
Loving Kindness Meditation (sometimes practiced at ACEF)
Loving-kindness meditation, also known as metta (in Pali), is derived from Buddhism and refers to a mental state of unselfish and unconditional kindness to all beings. Engaging in loving-kindness meditation will help you to develop an active state of unconditional kindness to all people (Hofmann, Grossman, & Hinton, 2011).
Compassion Meditation (sometimes practiced at ACEF)
Compassion Mediation (CM) involves techniques to cultivate compassion, or deep, genuine sympathy for those stricken by misfortune, together with an earnest wish to ease their suffering (Hofmann et al., 2011).
Loving Kindness Meditation and Compassion Meditation are centrally related to, and include the practice of, mindfulness. It seems like many scholars and practitioners from varying traditions, including Theravadin, Japanese, and Chinese Zen embrace mindfulness (Hofmann et al., 2011).
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
Even though we do not practice MBSR at ACEF, I mention the practice here, because you might come across the term in conjunction with health care research and stress management. MBSR is a clinical treatment and wellness program based on mindfulness meditation and yoga developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn and colleagues at the Stress Reduction Clinic of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center (Carlson, Speca, Patel, & Goodey, 2003).
Focused Attention Meditation Techniques
Focused Attention Meditation Techniques consist of concentrating an awareness on a particular object, such as an image, sound or mantra. Most of the early research on meditation centered on this kind of meditation. For example, Dr. Herbert Benson’s ground-breaking book “The Relaxation Response” described the health benefits of a particular concentrative technique. Repeating a meaningful word or phrase is known in Sanskrit as a mantra. Prayers and visual meditations are also concentrative meditation techniques.
Mindful Breathing Meditation (practiced often at ACEF)
During mindful breathing meditation, you are guided to become aware of physical sensations. The aim is to observe your sensations that are accompanying the process of breathing and paying attention to them without altering the occurring sensations. You will be instructed, if possible, to accept in a non-judgmental way when your mind wanders to something other than the exercise. Once you notice that your mind wanders, you are asked to return your focus gently to the sensations of breathing. This meditation exercise represents some features of mindfulness practice (Feldman et al., 2010).
Expressive Meditation (sometimes practiced at ACEF)
Expressive meditation is perhaps the oldest type of meditation. Indigenousness healers have used expressive meditation worldwide for thousands of years. Techniques include active practices such as chanting, dancing, shaking and rapid breath work. If you are a yoga practitioner you are familiar with the “breath of fire” exercise. Researchers hypothesize that expressive meditation releases mental, physical and emotional tensions from the body and mind (Brown & Gerbarg, 2005).
We do not practice Transcendental Meditation at ACEF, but because it is a very popular meditation technique, one you might come across in the literature, it is worthwhile mentioning here. Transcendental meditation is a widespread form of mantra meditation. It aims to prevent disrupting thoughts by focusing on a mantra. You are instructed to be passive during practice and if thoughts other than the mantra come to mind, to notice them and return to the mantra. You might be asked to exercise twice a day for 20 minutes each.
Now that you have a working knowledge of different styles of meditation and training regimens lets explore why you, the cancer survivor should care. What benefits might be in it for you?
Why Should You Adopt a Regular Meditation Practice?
Even though meditation research is still emerging and relatively young, we have some intriguing results that are applicable to cancer survivors.
The results of a systematic review by Arias et al. in 2006 support the possible effectiveness of meditative practices for treating medical illness. The authors single out anxiety disorders and other diseases in which mental distress plays a significant role in the illness trajectory as viable targets for meditation routines. However, Arias et al. (2006) also write that robust and reproducible evidence from large, rigorous studies is absent. Further methodologically sound research is needed to confirm or refute meditation hypotheses (Arias et al., 2006).
You need to be a little cautious about the shortcomings in the field of mediation research and thus the quality of the recommendations that can be made. In future articles, we will explore specific meditation research that has been performed in the oncological setting to help you decide whether meditation is a practice that is right for you.
Are There Any Adverse Effects of Meditation?
A systematic review of meditation that included 20 randomized studies and a total of 958 meditation research participants found no harmful effects of meditation (Arias et al., 2006).
Meditation and Cancer: The Possibilities
According to the President’s Cancer Panel and the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, cancer patients and survivors have identified cognitive impairment as a significant factor that prohibits cancer survivors to fully function in family, social, and career-related activities (President’s Cancer Panel, n.d.).
Because of the frequency of cancer-related cognitive impairment, behavioral interventions for improving cognitive function as well as lessening other cancer- related chronic conditions could offer considerable benefits to cancer survivors (Biegler et al., 2009).
Thus, if found effective, a mind-body modality such as meditation, alone or in combination with other therapies, may offer you the means to ease cognitive dysfunction and other treatment-related side effects (Biegler et al., 2009).
Some studies report significant improvement in cognitive function in healthy persons, as well as for children and adults with ADHD (Brefczynski-Lewis, Lutz, Schaefer, Levinson, & Davidson, 2007; Harrison, 2004; Stevenson, Whitmont, Bornholt, Livesey, & Stevenson, 2002; Zylowska et al., 2007).
Additionally, initial evidence proposes that meditation could have neuroprotective effects against normal aging and a genetic predisposition to develop dementia (Xiong & Doraiswamy, 2009).
The research mentioned here suggests that committing to a regular meditation practice might enable you to dervive tangible benefits. Since meditation practice might be associated with improved cognitive function in non-cancer populations and be able to ease cancer-related conditions and symptoms, further investigation of the relationship between regular meditation practice and cognitive function is warranted in cancer survivors (Biegler et al., 2009).
How to Cultivate Your Mind at ACEF?
We offer numerous meditation classes throughout the week. Early mornings, at lunch time and at convenient early evening times. Click here to see our calendar of “Upcoming Events” for the most recent meditation class schedule.
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