FROM RESEARCH TO PRACTICE
BY JAY LEBOW
Mindfulness Goes Mainstream
Research is proving the value of awareness practices
It's hard to believe that just 20 years ago meditation was still widely considered something practiced only by Zen students, Yoga adepts, and New Age esoterics in Birkenstocks. True, in the '70s, a few outlander physicians, led by Herbert Benson, began studying the power of meditation to evoke a "relaxation response," which lowered blood pressure and alleviated stress. But for a long time, the scientific community considered the healing potential of meditation to be about as credible as that of faith healing and exorcism.
Since the early '90s, however, the idea that meditation might have a real, empirically measurable, impact on mental and physical health has become almost boringly mainstream. Dozens of research studies have now demonstrated that meditation can reduce anxiety, stress, blood pressure, chronic pain, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, substance abuse, and health care visits. It also seems to enhance the immune system, increase longevity, and improve the quality of life. Who knows? We may soon discover that meditation cures baldness, removes warts, and sharpens math skills.
But until the last few years, relatively few credentialed, respectable, standard-issue psychotherapists seemed to have discovered meditation for themselves or for their clients. Hovering for years around the fringy edges of mental health care, it's only now beginning to enter the mainstream of psychotherapy practice. More and more workshops and conferences seem to have "mindfulness" or "meditation" in their titles, and increasing numbers of therapists are teaching their clients to sit quietly and follow their breath.
In spite of increasing support for meditation among practitioners and much anecdotal evidence that it works well for different clients in a variety of circumstances, formal research on the value of incorporating it into the clinical practice of psychotherapy has been sparse. Perhaps the philosophy of detachment, which is often seen to accompany meditation traditions, conflicts with the goal of endless improvement and progress, which characterizes Western science and, probably, most psychotherapy models. After all, the byword for most psychotherapies has been "change," rather than "acceptance."
Also the research community may be constrained by an inability to think outside the box. The most stultifying research box of all is the self-defeating assumption that there must already be some empirical evidence showing the value of an intervention before there can be more exploration of its value as an intervention!
In the case of meditation, this assumption is indeed myopic, since there's a growing body of research demonstrating the extraordinary power of mindfulness practice to affect the way the mind works. Granted, much of this research hasn't been done in the area of psychotherapy per se, but some studies have shown that meditation has such an astonishing impact on the mind and brain that even the most hard-nosed psychotherapy researcher should be impressed.
In one of the most remarkable partnerships in the history of research, Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, collaborated with the Dalai Lama on an astonishingly innovative piece of research investigating long-term meditation's effects on the mind and brain. For this project, the Dalai Lama sent eight monks to Davidson's laboratory. Each one had meditated for between 10,000 and 40,000 hours over the preceding 15 to 40 years. In a randomized design, comparing the brain waves of these monks to those of novice meditators, Davidson and his colleagues found that the monks had substantially higher levels of gamma brain waves--brain activity indicating higher levels of consciousness--than the novices. The monks' brain waves were better organized and coordinated. …