Effects of Meditation
It's so unfair: Just at the age when you start figuring things out -- who you are, what you want out of life -- you begin noticing that you're losing your mind. Already, at 44, I not only forget where I left my keys, I get in the car and have no idea where I'm going. I'm worried that what's left of my poor brain is starting to petrify. Finally sure of my priorities and values, I'm cross with others who don't see things my way. I'm anxious about getting older, and impatient with my little aches and pains. When I look in the mirror, I see not just superficial wrinkles, but something deeper and more troublesome -- the nascent beginnings of a forgetful, cranky, inflexible old bat.
Forget about anti-ageing creams. I need something to reset my mental clock.
Is there anything like exercise for the brain to keep it in shape? Studies have shown that doing crossword puzzles helps keep the mind sharp, but I doubt that struggling with 37-down, "Palenque king," can relieve the stress, anxieties, and mental rigidity that can accompany ageing. Recently, alarmed at my brain's seemingly swift degeneration (not to mention my impatience, distractedness, and maddening forgetfulness), I decided to try a different kind of mental exercise: meditation.
It seemed unlikely that simply sitting, closing my eyes, and focusing on my breathing could help. But after only a couple of weeks -- results are quick -- I was starting to believe that the best thing to keep my mind calm, cheerful, flexible, and focused is to do nothing, for 15 minutes a day. Meditation made me feel both relaxed and more energetic. I developed a bit of distance between events and my reactions. Someone cut me off in the car? Maybe he's having a bad day. A promising date didn't blossom into a romance? Perhaps it's his problem, not mine. Even at this early stage, I've noticed I'm much more able to let go of judgements of myself and others. I wondered: Can meditation really keep your mind young? And if your mind stays young, will your body follow?
When I attended a daylong meditation retreat to strengthen my practice, it certainly appeared that way. The participants, mostly a decade older than I, radiated the kind of clear-eyed luminosity one associates with the bloom of youth. "I don't know whether meditation actually makes you younger," said the teacher, who, in his 60s, had no trouble sitting cross-legged for hours on end. "But it sure as hell makes you feel younger."
It turns out that how you feel -- stressed or relaxed, anxious or calm -- does affect the ageing process. Recent research suggests that meditation and other forms of mindful relaxation may help slow down the biological clock, so you're better able to heal and to withstand disease. "There's a reason why experienced meditators live so long and look so young," says Eva Selhub, MD, medical director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute. That reason has mainly to do with reducing stress. Though there is little direct research on meditation and ageing, one 1989 study of residents in nursing homes showed that those who practiced transcendental meditation had better mental flexibility and lower blood pressure, and lived longer.
Stress = Ageing
Why? Researchers suspect that meditation slows down ageing because ageing is, in many ways, an accumulation of stress. The new thinking is that our cells, under stress, may stop regenerating as quickly, and become more prone to disease and early cell death. Meditation and other forms of deliberate relaxation also change the way you perceive stress, which actually lightens the physiological load. To some extent, age really is a state of mind: If you feel young, you're apt to be physiologically younger and healthier than your cranky peers.
"If we can affect the stress response, we can affect the ageing process," says Selhub. The longer we live, the more stress we're under, because stressful events are stored in our brains, Selhub continues, like icons on a computer, and each new anxiety triggers a lifetime's worth of anxiety, like double-clicking on that icon. The average woman over 40, who deals with work, kids, relationships, and her changing life and body, has about 50 of these stress responses a day. Selhub adds, "Without a lot of rest and recovery time between stress responses, we can age quickly."
The good news is that several studies have shown that deliberate relaxation, or meditation, has exactly the opposite effect as the stress response, slowing and calming all those wiggy, whacked-out physiological changes. And while the stress response may be automatic and uncontrollable, the "relaxation response" can be called up at will, by just sitting and literally doing nothing. Meditation also teaches you to separate events from your reactions -- simply observing situations, without judging them, and then letting them go -- so that a stressful event might not automatically cause your brain to click on that icon of stored memories of stress.
Other studies have shown that meditation can help strengthen the immune system and promote healing of illnesses that crop up as we age. Jon Kabat-Zinn, MD, founder of the Stress Reduction Program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, whose most recent book on meditation is Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness, has shown that when patients with psoriasis listened to meditation tapes during light therapy, they healed four times faster than those who didn't relax. "The mind can affect the healing process right down to the level of cell division and cell replication," he says. Psoriasis is an uncontrolled cell growth -- not unlike cancer, so there is some potential that meditation can help control cancer, too, he theorises.
Rewire Your Brain
In another study, Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues found that meditation can change the way the brain works. After an eight-week programme, employees at a biotech firm showed increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex -- the side associated with feelings of happiness and well-being (Buddhist monks show the same kind of brain activity). The subjects who meditated developed more antibodies more quickly in response to a flu vaccine, signalling a stronger immune system.
A calm, focused mind also improves memory and concentration. So much of forgetfulness has to do with multitasking, with your mind scattered in a million directions. "When you can't find your keys or remember a name, you have to ask yourself, how many things are you trying to pay attention to at once?" says Leslee Kagan, of the Mind/Body Medical Institute. Meditation teaches you to be mindful in the present moment, letting go of all those spiralling thoughts about the past, future, office politics, and the grocery list, and giving your mind and memory an opportunity to come into focus.
"There's nothing as effective as some form of meditation for cultivating concentration," Kabat-Zinn says. "If exercise takes care of the body, meditation is what takes care of the mind."
Meditation may also help us cope with the ageing process. Studies at the Mind/Body Medical Institute have shown that women who did 15-20 minutes a day of some kind of meditative activity that produced a relaxation response reported a 58 percent reduction in pre-menstrual symptoms and significant decreases in hot-flash intensity, and 90 percent were able to reduce or eliminate use of sleep medications. Beyond reducing physical symptoms, the meditators had a more positive attitude about their body's changes, with fewer anxieties and negative thoughts. "With regular practice, relaxation techniques can substantially diminish one of the most problematic aspects of menopause -- our negative attitudes about ageing," says Kagan, director of the Institute's menopause programme.
Meditation, says Kabat-Zinn, involves accepting things as they are, without judgement. "Acceptance doesn't mean passive resignation, like, 'Oh, well, I'm over the hill,'" he says. Instead you realise that over the hill is an illusory thought -- one which, if you identify with it, can affect how you feel about yourself. "If you think you're old, you can look in the mirror and find 100 different ways to confirm it," he says. "It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy." Instead, meditation can take you out of the self-absorption with ageing that can actually age you. "What we're talking about is attitude," he says. "Age is not so much chronological, but how you inhabit your body and your life in relationship to the world -- and that can be worked on. Meditation is really about reclaiming your life as if it were worth living now."
I'm a beginner, but after a few months of meditating, I feel less impatient, more relaxed, and able to concentrate more easily. I can meditate about a friend who is facing a serious illness and not spend the rest of the day panicked about her. Things on my desk get cleared away one by one, instead of haphazardly, between cups of coffee. I'm less likely to blurt out something in a fit of anger, or press "send" on a fuming e-mail. I'm also more apt to let go of grievances and disappointments. My mind may feel younger and in better shape -- but I also feel older, wiser, and more content. The research on meditation and ageing is still in its infancy, but I'm convinced that meditation will indeed help keep my mind fit, flexible, and acute for the coming decades.
Now that I've found the key, I'm in the driver's seat...
(R) thedailystar.net 2005