Meditation and physical health

Linda E. Carlson


There are many styles of meditation practice honed through millennia by practitioners from many countries and regions, as discussed in earlier chapters. These have traditionally been used for purposes of self transcendence, liberation, and being of service to others, rather than specifically for treating symptoms of physical diseases, or even achieving optimal physical health. However, in Western applications of meditation, since the 1960s when Eastern practices were first introduced to the West en masse, one of the key applications has been not only mental health and stability, but also achieving optimal physical health. The two best examples of this are the creation of the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program by Jon Kabat-Zinn and colleagues at the Massachusetts Medical Centre in 1979 (Kabat-Zinn 1990), followed by various adaptations collectively known as mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) and the application of transcendental meditation (TM), specifically for the treatment of high blood pressure (Schneider et al. 2005).

This chapter will focus on the mindfulness-based interventions, largely because the bulk of the work has been conducted in this area. The idea of mindfulness stems from traditional Buddhist conceptions, and is typically defined in the West as non-judgmental present-moment awareness (Kabat-Zinn 1990). Shapiro and Carlson (2009) developed the “IAA” model of mindfulness, specifying three components of Intention, Attention, and Attitude. The intention can vary but is typically one of intending to be in the present moment. Attention is the quality and focus of awareness, which is typically on the moment-to- moment fluctuation of the breath, bodily sensation, sound, or thought. Attitude emphasizes the need for the attention to be kind, open, non-judging, curious, and accepting, rather than harsh or critical. Mindfulness is thought of as both a way of being in the world, and a specific practice (mindfulness meditation) that promotes and supports this way of being.

There are several compelling reasons that meditation practices, particularly mindfulness, might be useful in helping people cope with physical illness and pain. One is simply because mindfulness turns out to be a good antidote to stress, which is known to be associated with a range of illnesses and symptoms. Specific psychological characteristics of the illness experience itself also respond well to a mindfulness approach, such as loss of control, uncertainty about the future, existential worries and life threat, unwanted changes in plans and priorities, and coping with specific treatments and symptoms. In this chapter I will first discuss the rationale for applying mindfulness techniques in the treatment of physical diseases and symptoms in general, and then review the literature on the application of mindfulness- based approaches for specific conditions, ending with suggestions for future research priorities.

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