Meditation and Medicine: Thoughts from the Front Line

In recent years, research has exploded on the subject of meditation and health, and much has been written both in the lay press and academic journals. Parvati Magazine also recently reviewed David O’Connell et al.’s “Prescribing Health: Transcendental Meditation in Contemporary Medical Care”. All these serve as inspiration and springboard for my perspective.

I prescribe meditation and mindfulness practice regularly to my patients suffering from a host of conditions including chronic pain and headache, traumatic brain injury and multiple sclerosis. Indeed, the purported health benefits include reduced self-reported levels of anxiety, depression and pain, improved attention and emotional regulation, and perhaps even reduced inflammation. Neuroscience research is exploring the mechanisms by which meditation can affect brain signaling and remodeling of neural pathways. Studies are also examining a possible role for meditation as treatment in a number of non-brain diseases such as menopause and cancer.

Of course, there are criticisms of the methodology of this research, and not all patients are receptive to the idea of a meditation practice. However, as one who routinely encounters a number of associated with pain, anxiety, depression for which current therapies are imperfect, I have concluded that meditation and mindfulness are indeed safe, probably effective and completely accessible—the cornerstones of any good treatment. I have witnessed patients in end-of-life who are remarkably present to their illness and pain, to the credit of their mindfulness practice. I have witnessed patients who have similarly found greater peace with their damaged brains and broken bodies.

And yet, meditation and mindfulness practice are not systematically supported within our current healthcare landscape. There are few or inadequate resources dedicated to supporting patients in developing a lasting, self-sustainable practice.

I believe that some of the obstacles include lack of or inadequate formal education in medical schools, a misperception of meditation as nebulous, difficult or immeasurable and therefore useless, insufficient strength of biomedical evidence to effect policy change that will affect healthcare resource funding.

While this may be the current state, I am also heartened by the research that is being conducted, in the hope that scientists will one day confirm what Tibetan monks and yogis have known for millennia. I remain hopeful that science will change the mainstream medical ethos, and public perception.

In the meantime, I continue to prescribe meditation to all of my patients for whom I believe it will be of benefit. I encourage you to try it out, and to bring this conversation into your doctor’s office at your next visit.

Karen HoKaren Ho, MD, is a neurologist practicing in Kingston, Ontario. She also works with the Queen’s University Centre for Responsible Leadership.