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  • Written by  Ian Gawler
  • // Monday, 21 January 2013 11:19
Ian Gawler

The history of meditation part five – From the mystical to the DNA

This is the last in a series of 5 posts on the history of meditation, adapted from Meditation- an In-depth Guide by Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson.
See here for the first, second, third & fourth part.

One of the most exciting new developments in meditation research has been the realization meditation can prolong life in an extraordinary way.

This knowledge has emerged from the remarkable Shamatha Project, a high level investigation of the effects of intensive meditation. During a closed, 3 month retreat led by Alan Wallace, a renowned meditation teacher, writer and researcher, a vast amount of scientific research data was recorded. Analysis is ongoing but already some remarkably significant findings have been recorded. 

Telomeres are protective DNA—protein complexes at the end of chromosomes. Telomere shortness is emerging as a prognostic marker of disease risk generally, along with the progression, and premature mortality in many types of cancer.  Once telomeres become too short, we die! Happily, telomere shortening is counteracted by the cellular enzyme telomerase, but it remains one of the root causes of aging. Delay telomere shortening, delay aging.

While in 2008, Dean Ornish showed that a lifestyle-based program, very similar to the one I have been involved with for 30 years could increase telemorase and lengthen telomeres (and to date no drug is available that can do this), Wallace showed meditation could also achieve this outcome.

Collaborating with Elizabeth Blackburn, an Australian Nobel Prize laureate, Wallace demonstrated that meditation may improve a person’s psychological wellbeing and that when it did, these changes are related to telomerase activity in cells. Telomerase activity was 30% higher in the meditators compared to matched controls, and these changes have the potential to promote longevity in those cells.

The development of all this academic research has been underpinned by the pioneering and ongoing influences of Michael Murphy and Stephen Donovan, and the famous personal development centre they established in 1961, the Esalen Institute.

While many of the pioneers in mind–body medicine and meditation in the West were either nurtured at Esalen or passed through it, Murphy and Donovan have themselves provided their own wonderful contribution to this field with their work The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation. Along with an excellent introduction and a review of meditation, in this book Murphy and Donovan have compiled a comprehensive bibliography of the scientific research published around the world on meditation.

First released in 1988, a second, updated edition was published in 1996, and now this resource is available free online at www.noetic.org/research/medbiblio/ biblio.htm, courtesy of the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS). This online bibliography is regularly updated, and currently includes over 6,000 scientific articles.

No wonder then that meditation has been so widely accepted by the medical mainstream. The body of research evidence is huge and powerfully attests to meditation’s many benefits in the prevention, management and treatment of a wide range of physical and psychological conditions. This evidence base is arguably more extensive than that relating to many well-accepted treatments carried out daily in medical practices around the world.


Avenues for future research

The research currently available on the health benefits of meditation is extensive and convincing. However, it is important to point out that often the word ‘meditation’ is being used quite loosely in the arena of medicine, just as it is more generally.

Surprisingly, much of the published research on meditation gives scant attention to the type of meditation practised or even how much meditation the subjects who were studied actually completed. Of even greater significance is that currently there is no widely accepted or used measure that quantifies the depth or quality of meditation people actually do practise.

This poses real problems for empirical research. When attempting to evaluate and compare meditation research outcomes, often it is not clear if we are comparing apples with apples or apples with oranges. This is somewhat akin to publishing research saying that a new antibiotic was tested in the treatment of pneumonia, without specifying what type of antibiotic, how much of it was administered in each dose and how often each dose was taken.

Clearly the evolution of meditation as a therapy is at a point where more specific research is needed. What type? How much? How often? Are specific methods preferable for specific conditions and outcomes? These are all challenging and fertile areas for future investigation.