A study published in the July Journal of Psychiatric Practice reveals that Zen meditation and its secular sister, mindfulness meditation, effectively reduce depression, anxiety, and pain—and are “beneficial for general psychological health and stress management in those with medical and psychiatric illness,” its authors write.
It’s the latest of many studies suggesting that a practice honed by Japanese monks in remote temples 1,400 years ago can combat such maladies as breast cancer, asthma, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, HIV, PMS, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Mindfulness meditation trains the brain to release fear, anxiety, and other negative emotions. This lessens stress and boosts the immune function, as thoughts and emotions actively shape our brains, for better or worse.
“Mental activity requires neural activity; neural activity sculpts neural structure,” says neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. As new neurons form constantly, he says, “changes in the mind associated with changes in the neural system leave lasting traces in the structure of the brain.
“Neurons that fire together wire together. Mental states become neural traits.”
Like a wet washcloth, “the mind takes the shape of whatever it rests upon. If you routinely rest your mind on self-criticism, anger, or anxious rumination, your mind will take a negative shape.”
MRIs reveal that even eight weeks of mindfulness meditation create a “positive shape”—structural changes in the hippocampus “that calm down the brain’s alarm system,” Hanson notes.
That’s surely why, in 2007 alone, health care providers advised more than 6 million Americans to use meditation and related mind–body therapies, according to a Harvard Medical School–affiliated study released last year.
Could an ancient spiritual practice put antidepressants, painkillers, and other pharmaceuticals to the test?
“Mindfulness-based approaches may effectively replace medications for some patients,” asserts University of New Mexico associate professor of psychology Bruce Smith, who led a 2008 study examining meditation’s powers against depression, stress, binge eating, and pain.
“Of course, medications are readily available, well marketed, and fit with the value our society places on quick fixes,” Smith adds. “The challenge regarding mindfulness is to motivate people to practice enough to where they begin to really see the benefits.”
Hanson instructs those under his care to start by meditating just one minute per day.
“One,” he says, “is infinitely more than zero.”