Meditation as a spiritual tradition
In the collective imagination, meditation is most strongly associated with Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. However, meditation has also been traditionally practiced in various forms in Christianity, Judaism, Islam (Sufism), Sikhism and Jainism. Meditation may have begun as early as 5000 BC according to some archaeologists.
Meditation is difficult to define but can be seen as a way to hone awareness, calm or compassion.
Originally, meditation was a practice very closely tied to a spiritual tradition, seeking to come closer to God, Tao, Brahman, self-realization, Dharma or Buddhahood, or Allah.
Even the external form of this inner practice is difficult to define. Sitting still and in silence is one external form, be it with a silent mantra or a focus on the breath or on the body. But, meditation can also be in movement, such as walking meditation, T’ai Chi, Ch’uan and other meditative martial arts, and even dancing, as in the more recent practice of 5 Rhythms and other movement practices (with or without music) developed in the 20th and 21st centuries. Chanting is another traditional form of meditation and singing has also been proposed as a meditative practice.
In some traditions, meditation is described as a way to quieten the mind so that one can be closer to the eternal or sacred. However, some approaches to meditation do away with techniques and goals altogether.
Doing away with goals and techniques altogether may be appropriate for those committed to spiritual practice under the guidance of a suitable teacher, but how is meditation relevant in a clinical setting?
Stripped away from its spiritual trappings, meditation has been popularised in a clinical setting perhaps most of all by Jon Kabat-Zinn who began to use mindfulness in a hospital in Massachussets in 1979. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as ‘the quality of consciousness or awareness that arises through intentionally attending to present-moment experience in a non-judgemental and accepting way .
The stress reduction programme Jon Kabat-Zinn developed is known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Therapists, Zindel Segal, Mark Williams and John Teasdale used MBSR to build upon cognitive therapy and developed Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). There are now many books, videos and courses available in the UK on MBSR and therapists offering MBCT.
How does meditation help you?
In Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book ‘The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness’, he describes how our thinking mind is very useful for finding a way to get from A to B. It finds solutions to problems and helps us find ways to meet our goals. However, if we use the mind to analyse our inner world, we can get caught in rumination and fixation on ourselves as a problem to be solved and this can lead further into anxiety, depression and self-obsession. This is where many ‘self-improvement’ projects fail. What is far more helpful is to bring a gentle awareness to one’s ‘inner’ world of feeling and to give time to sensing rather than thinking.
In a similar vein, if, as teachers of many traditions claim, awareness is a priori to everything that exists then science will never be able to get to the bottom of it. Although we may never be able to explain how meditation can help you, there is plenty of evidence that it does, since science can measure the effects of meditation.
Benefits of meditative practice
Illness usually has several underlying drivers that we uncover in clinic, and stress often triggers a disease process. Stress often needs to be reduced or a source of stress removed before healing can take place. Since meditation reduces stress  and we know that stress is a significant driver of almost every chronic disease, it should perhaps not be surprising that meditation benefits many chronic conditions. Conditions that have been linked to chronic stress include heart disease , diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome , Alzheimer’s disease , osteoporosis , autoimmune disease  and poor immune function .
There is also strong research indicating that meditation benefits depression and anxiety .
Emerging evidence also suggests meditation may be beneficial for the following:
- Learning and memory 
- Addiction 
- Insomnia 
- Chronic pain 
- Fibromyalgia 
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome 
- Prevention of heart disease 
- Chronic inflammation 
- Prevention of acute respiratory infections such as the common cold 
- High blood pressure 
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease 
- Psoriasis 
Meditation is a practice that can be done daily in the comfort of your own home and brought into your daily life at no cost or at a very low cost. It can support other therapies, both psychological therapies or therapies aiming to resolve trauma, and therapies aimed at bringing resolution of physical symptoms.
How to meditate
Much of the research is on MBSR and you can easily learn about this approach by attending a low-cost 10-week course in your locality or by working from a book and CD with guided meditations by authors in the field, such as Jon Kabat-Zin, Mark Williams, Danny Penman and Vidyamala Birch.
One such book I can highly recommend is Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zin – ‘The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness’.
It is helpful to set a regular time to do your meditative practice on a daily basis, as momentum builds with daily practice. There are now also many meditation apps such as Calm, Headspace and HeartMath which can help with stress reduction. You could also go to a class to learn a meditative practice such as yoga, T’ai Chi Ch’uan, aikido, 5 Rhythms or Movement Medicine.
Meditation practice does not require you to hold any spiritual beliefs and in some traditions, the practice is to drop all preconceived notions. If you do have an interest in the spiritual side of meditation, there are many teachers and resources available to support you. It is very difficult to say which are the ‘best’ books to read on this subject, as the literature is so wide and comes from many different traditions. Also, which books appeal to you will be down to personal preference. I can only list a few that stand out for me:
Barry Long – Meditation: A Foundation Course
Thich Nhat Hanh – Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life
Alan Watts – although he did not write a book specifically about meditation many of his books can support the deepening of your meditative practice
One supplement for meditation:
It is said that Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of the Chan school of Buddhism that preceded Zen, cut off his eyelids and threw them out of the window after sleepiness during meditation practice. Where his eyelids landed the tea plant was found growing.
Tea may be too stimulating for many of us in the Western world who are already overstimulated by the frantic pace and driven nature of modern life, but aside from caffeine, tea contains the amino acid theanine. Theanine balances out the caffeine in tea, promoting calmness . As a supplement, theanine can be provided in a much higher dose and promotes a calm and relaxed awareness , so can be helpful for mental focus. Green tea is especially beneficial, and you will find higher concentrations of theanine and healthy polyphenols in matcha green tea .
Difficulties with meditation
Although meditation tends to promote a sense of wellbeing, difficulties are also met. Each difficulty can be a doorway to a deeper realisation which then opens to a deeper sense of wellbeing and trust in this process of unfolding. So the encouragement is to welcome the difficulty without being overly fixated on it.
However, some clients tell me they just can’t do this. Their anxiety levels may be very high to begin with, which may be due to trauma of some kind, including attachment trauma. These individuals may need to use some kind of therapy or practice to deal with trauma, the most effective forms usually being body-centered approaches such as Somatic Experiencing or TRE (Trauma Release Exercises).
Some other clients without known trauma but who may have stressful lives or are ‘adrenaline junkies’ may need to focus on intense exercise or sports to wind down after a day’s work. Perhaps meditation would be easier after a workout or a sauna for some individuals. It may also be that yoga or T’ai Chi or 5 Rhythms dancing or some other movement practice may be more appropriate for you.
For some individuals, gardening, singing or going for a walk in nature can help them come into present moment awareness. Find what works for you and over time enjoy the mental and potentially physical health benefits of a regular meditative practice.
Author Tom Sokolowski
Tom is passionate about keeping a wide area of interest in health and disease since he sees all the systems of the body as intricately connected and appreciates that any one symptom may have many different causes that need to be understood and investigated. Tom specialises in gut complaints, cognitive function, psychological health and neurodegenerative conditions, cardiometabolic health, autoimmune disease, chronic fatigue, toxicity and fertility.