There is not one but four delightful, fresh roses on the table. They are glorious buds; a superb pink, and they smell divine. I am sitting having lunch while my wife Ruth and I lead a meditation retreat. I find myself marvelling at the attention to detail and then my mind turns to wondering how long it will be before people are paid to come to these programs?
At the moment our participants have paid their own way; a relatively modest amount and one hopes they receive good value for their money. But think of this. If the Government wanted to save significantly on the health budget; if the health funds wanted to be more profitable or be able to afford better services, paying people to meditate may be one of the most cost effective things they could do!
Results of a large 5 year study published last year in the American Journal of Health Promotion compared 1481 meditators who were matched for age, sex and place of residence with 1418 non-meditators.
The results? After the first year, the TM meditators’ expenditure on doctors had decreased by 11%. After 5 years, the regular meditators (about 20 mins twice daily) had reduced their cumulative health costs by nearly 30%. That is quite a reduction. As you might expect for people getting older, over the 5 years the non-meditating group’s expenditure rose.
But would doctors support meditation being used more widely? Based on the widespread acceptance of meditation by General Practitioners we can be reasonably confident they would. A survey of nearly 500 GPs published in the Medical Journal of Australia (see link below – ref. 1) found that over 80% had referred patients to meditation practitioners and nearly half had considered using meditation personally. Furthermore, 34% of the GPs in the survey had actually trained in meditation.
The authors of this research concluded that these findings generate an urgent need for evidence of these therapies’ effectiveness. That was 12 years ago and things have certainly moved on. In 2012, over 7,000 studies in the scientific literature demonstrate how powerfully meditation enhances our health, prevents illness, facilitates healing and leads to a heightened sense of wellbeing.
But is there evidence that meditation leads to physically detectable changes? Well yes, there is that too. Another recent break-through study has indicated that an 8 week meditation program can change brain structure!
Participating in an 8-week mindfulness meditation program appears to make measurable changes in areas of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. The study, published in the journal of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, (see ref 2 below) is the first to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s grey matter. The meditators in this study averaged 27 minutes of practice each day.
“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” says Sara Lazar, PhD, the study’s senior author. “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”
The analysis of MR images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. Although no change was seen in a self-awareness-associated structure called the insula, which had been identified in earlier studies, the authors suggest that longer-term meditation practice might be needed to produce changes in that area. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.
So we are relishing the retreat. The participants seem happy enough to have paid, but I wonder how long it will be before Government and/or the health funds begin to provide incentives for meditation. There is a great deal of evidence to support the notion that meditation may well be the best self help measure any of us can practise. Actually, meditation is worth paying for; in fact, it is a bargain!
1. Pirotta et al; MJA 2000; 172: 105-109
2. Hölzel B K et al;.Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain grey matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 2011; 191 (1): 36 DOI:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006