Meditation is becoming increasingly popular among people all over the world as a way to relax, de-stress, to deal with anxiety and so on. Scientists and researchers are now studying meditation to assess it´s impact upon our health. In this article, Lisa looks at meditation and asks – can meditation heal?
Western and Eastern approaches
Before delving into this subject, I want to first share an observation that I made a few years ago. The western approach and eastern approach to learning, health, science, mediation and life itself are quite different. For many of us who were born in the west we need to learn about something (usually from books), see proof, see the numbers and only then might we consider “doing” it. In the east, you learn the theory to the level of your practical experience. Take meditation as an example. My first 10-day silent meditation retreat was in Thailand. There were three other English-speaking females and the other 30 women were from mainly from Thailand, Cambodia or Laos. The instructions were given in Thai and English (thankfully!). I sat for hours, following the given instructions. I experienced so much frustration as I did not understand why I was doing it or what I was expected to feel.
At the end of the day we had an hour discourse, where we listened to a commentary on what we had done, topics related to the meditation technique or given a different perspective, all directly linked to what we had just practised. Our learning had experiential and theoretical balance.
Many people want “proof” that something works, and by the word “proof” they mean scientific evidence. With the advent of the internet, there is so much information available at our fingertips. The current scientific approach is a paradigm – the current world view that everything must be measured very specifically, in set ways, is “proved” using statistics, it must be replicable and the results repeatable. As an Epidemiologist, I am trained to design studies to measure the health benefits (or limitations!) of interventions in the human population. (For those of you who are not sure what epidemiology is, epidemiology was the scientific approach that found the link between smoking and lung cancer. Read more about epidemiology on Wikipedia here – external link).
As a person, I see news stories every day, of the latest studies that have found an amazing health benefit from eating this product or practising daily mindfulness-based stress reduction. Yet it seems like the day after there is a different study, with the opposite findings. It is hard to know what or who to believe.
As a scientist, I know that studies look at results on the population level. It is grouped data. Yet people are individuals, we are all unique and we can all react or be different. In the scientific world, relatively low priority is given to case studies, the reports on one single person.
As a woman, I experienced meditation as an individual. It was one of the most challenging experiences of my life – 10 days of silence, me and my mind, sat on a cushion for 10 hours each day. It was also the one thing that healed me from my endometriosis.
So, in the scientific jargon, this is my case study.
Can meditation heal?
I was first diagnosed with endometriosis in 2003. (For those of you who do not know what endometriosis is, it´s where the lining of your womb grows outside the womb. It is associated with strong pain, particularly each month, infertility and hormone imbalance). I went down the medical route, scans, blood tests, keyhole surgery, followed by really strong drugs and major surgery. Two years from start to finish and the pain was the same. I explored food and different diets, which led to a reduction in pain. I took up yoga, this too helped. I worked with a life coach, I studied NLP and hypnosis, again they all helped reduce the pain but nothing much else changed. At 39 John and I decided to quit our jobs and go travelling, to explore what we wanted to do for the rest of our lives. It was during this journey I came to meditation, specifically Vipassana.
We took the 10-day silent Vipassana retreat in Thailand. After a few days I started to experience the most horrific endometriosis pain I had ever experienced – imagine red hot pokers stabbing you, with the pain from your knee to your shoulder. Emotions came up, memories resurfaced. I kept going with the technique. By the end of the 10 days the pain had gone.
Over the next few months I noticed that I no longer experienced pain from endometriosis every month. That was seven years ago (at the time of writing).
So, my answer to the question – can meditation heal? – is yes. 100%, absolutely, yes, meditation can heal. Is it easy? No. Can I (or anyone else) guarantee it? No, there are absolutely no guarantees. But if you are curious, interested and think you can sit on a meditation cushion in silence for 10 hours per day with only yourself and your mind for company, then I suggest that it is worth trying.
If you look around and speak to others who meditate, they will also share their stories about the healing powers of meditation. There was a story published recently on the BBC website about a man who went for a silent vipassana retreat and found he no longer experienced headaches. Ruby Wax (comedian) believes mindfulness helped her deal with depression.
Is there scientific proof that meditation can heal?
Coming back to hard science, I did a search of the published scientific articles using PubMed Medline (external link) (this is a resource that lists all the journal articles published in scientific and medical journals since the mid-1990s), to see what the medical and scientific community were publishing out about meditation and health. By 9th August 2018, there had already been 115 published studies during 2018 that investigated the role of meditation on human health – in particular physical and mental health. In 2017 there were at least 146 studies. The scientific community is getting more interested in studying the health impacts of meditation.
Us scientists are a cautious bunch. We use numbers and statistics, with cagey language like “more studies are needed to confirm that this result applies to other population groups”. However, the majority of the published studies showed a positive response – people felt better in the meditation groups, compared to others who did not meditate. And these health benefits appeared to last, at least for the short term.
For centuries, large parts of the population have practiced meditation and quietly spoken about the health benefits. In recent years, mindfulness has rapidly become a multibillion pound / dollar / euro industry in the west, as we all want to learn how to relax and be present. Yet meditation does not have to cost anything. You can do it anywhere. You do not need any fancy tools or specific equipment. All you need is you. And some quiet. And one technique. Pick a technique that works for you. And practice it.
If you are interested in learning more about Vipassana meditation, follow this external link. It is an international non-profit organisation. It is not the only organisation that teaches vipassana and there are other approaches to this technique, so I suggest you look around. I am sharing this link because of the huge impact this experience had on me personally. There is no payment involved in me writing this and I only recommend it for people who truly want to learn to be quiet inside, who are ready to look at themselves and love and accept themselves. It is not an easy option or a way to escape – it is the opposite of that. I did not go in expecting to be healed from endometriosis. I had no expectations of anything. Only if you are curious and prepared to work do I suggest you check it out. To me, it is a gift to go once every one or two years for a silent meditation retreat.
Meditation at La Crisalida
At La Crisalida, we usually start the day with a silent meditation class, in which we offer a different technique each day for you to practice. (Please note, we do not offer vipassana meditation – I believe you really need to go to a centre and immerse yourself completely in practicing this technique, with no distractions, amongst people who are well practiced in this technique). At the retreat we also offer a weekly mindfulness workshop, giving you practical tools to take home with you after your retreat.
If you have found that meditation has helped your health, then please do let me know, by contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To your peace and health.