Meditation as therapy

Meditation is being embraced by patients and by the medical profession. Its techniques are shown to be effective in preventing and managing diseases, and improving overall well-being

So far, meditation has been integrated less in European hospitals than in the United States.

The story began 2,500 years ago in Asia. In Buddhist monasteries and Tibetan caves, monks would spend hours, even years, meditating. They consequently developed a multitude of techniques and considerable know-how. In 1979 Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts, was the first person to gain inspiration from this time-honoured tradition to create a method called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Its aim: to introduce patients to meditation techniques in an eight-week programme.

The results obtained with the Jon Kabat-Zinn method were such that it is now used in over 200 hospitals in the US and 700 more around the world. “The tremendous merit of Jon Kabat-Zinn was to secularise Buddhist practices, synthesise their most powerful elements and structure them into a method accessible to everyone,” says rheumatologist Jean-Gérard Bloch, MBSR instructor and founder of the first European university diploma dedicated to meditation at the University of Strasbourg. “This method then provided a framework for the various scientific research studies that have been conducted on meditation.”

Proven beneficial effects

With the advances in neurosciences and brain imaging, this research has progressed in leaps and bounds since the beginning of the 2000s. Important figures such as Richard Davidson from the University of Wisconsin, who arranged for Buddhist monks (French biologist Matthieu Ricard and the Dalai Lama) to take part in his experiments, greatly contributed to bringing this age-old activity to light. He was thus able to demonstrate by electroencephalography that intensive practice of meditation transformed the structure and operation of the brain.

Researchers then continued to observe the many positive effects of meditation, both physical and psychological. Hundreds of publications are now issued every year on the subject. In April 2012, nearly 700 researchers from throughout the world met in Denver, USA, for the first International Symposia on Contemplative Studies.

The research studies show an improvement in disorders such as insomnia, cardiac problems and hypertension. Patients could also manage their pain better.

The benefits of meditation measured by science include the thickening of the left prefrontal cortex tissue, which is involved in cognitive and emotional processes. There is also the increase in attention capacity and reduction in stress, with a reduction in cortisol (stress hormone). Other research studies show an improvement in disorders such as insomnia, cardiac problems and hypertension. Patients could also manage their pain better.

Preventing relapse of depression

So far, meditation has been integrated less in European hospitals than in the United States. But for some years now it has started to be offered in Europe as a complementary therapy to prevent relapse in cases of depression or addiction. For example, the psychologist-psychotherapist Valérie Rossier proposes joint or individual mindfulness meditation sessions for patients treated for addiction at the CHUV Community Psychiatry Service. “Several studies observed that practising meditation reduced people’s impulsiveness and therefore their irrepressible desire to consume a substance,” says Valérie Rossier. “Research is at the hypothesis stage, and there is still no clear explanation. But I am noticing that patients who regularly practise meditation have less risk of relapse.”

The same observation was made at the Geneva University Hospitals (HUG) by psychologist Françoise Jermann, who for several years has been offering another Jon Kabat-Zinn method called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) to patients in remission from depression: “We have good feedback from our patients. For many, it is a complementary tool to their medication treatment. Sometimes it is even the trigger for a life change. There is only a minority for whom it doesn’t work at all.” The two practitioners note that patients are very passionate about meditation. “I am inundated with requests from patients facing numerous diseases, especially cancer,” says Valérie Rossier. “Unfortunately, I can’t answer them all.”

This success can also be observed within the medical profession. In February 2012, rheumatologist Jean-Gérard Bloch launched the first European diploma in meditation intended for healthcare staff. He had to refuse many candidates. “I’m noticing a real interest from my colleagues, and I think that meditation techniques will help Western medicine to evolve. The seeds of change can be felt in the emergence of new disciplines such as neuropsychoimmunology, which combines the study of the mind, brain, nervous system and hormones to understand the impact of the brain on immune defences and vice versa. After having separated the body from the mind for centuries – which permitted huge progress – medicine is now re-combining them, thanks mainly to the proven effects of meditation.”

In addition to medicine, meditation could also transform other sectors of society, such as management and education. An increasing number of schools in the United States, Great Britain, France and the Netherlands are adding meditation to their programme. The results are reportedly better scholastic performance and less aggressiveness among pupils. Some prisons are also beginning to offer MBSR sessions to their inmates. “This interest brings hope,” says Jean-Gérard Bloch. “But it also entails risks: meditation is a complex practice that requires a lot of training. It can’t be taught by just anyone. In the current context, there are some self-professed teachers of meditation who have neither the experience nor the necessary knowledge.”