Home > Uncategorized > Meditation, Medication, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? The Answer is Clear to Me

Meditation, Medication, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? The Answer is Clear to Me

February 20, 2016

Earlier this week the NYTimes “Well” blog reported on a study that provided scientific evidence that formal training in mindfulness meditation relieved the stress adults experienced as the result of extended unemployment. The study compared two groups of unemployed individuals who had no background in mindfulness meditation: half of the 35 participants “were taught formal mindfulness meditation at a residential retreat center; the rest completed a kind of sham mindfulness meditation that was focused on relaxation and distracting oneself from worries and stress.” The result? All expressed relief from their tensions immediately following their training experiences, but those who received the formal meditation training had a substantial change to the way their brains functioned:

…follow-up brain scans showed differences in only those who underwent mindfulness meditation. There was more activity, or communication, among the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm. Four months later, those who had practiced mindfulness showed much lower levels in their blood of a marker of unhealthy inflammation than the relaxation group, even though few were still meditating.

This gibes with my own personal experience and the experience of many mindfulness practitioners I know. I began engaging in meditation practices nearly a decade ago and since doing so have had the longest stretch of relief from colitis, a stress-related auto-immune condition, in my lifetime. I was initially drawn to mindfulness meditation practice intellectually. Unlike traditional religions, Buddhist practices value direct experience more than mythology. For example, there is no future “heaven and hell” that will result from one’s accumulation of life experiences or spiritual awakening. These “mental formations” are seen as intellectual constructs that divert our attention from the present moment which is invariably precious. Through meditation one learns to be a witness to the thought patterns that govern our habitual behavior and create narratives about our personal experiences… narratives that ultimately delude us. I stayed with the practice because I witnessed how it was favorably effecting my well-being.

As indicated in earlier posts (including this one from two days ago), I am distressed by the reliance on medication to control the behavior of young children and have advocated the use of other interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy. But if this study can be replicated among children and teens— and I see no reason why it would not result in the same findings— it is conceivable that three day mindfulness meditation retreats followed by daily sessions of mindfulness meditation would be far superior to a lifetime of medication and the development of self-discipline through cognitive behavioral therapy.

Alas, even if impartial scientific analysis proved the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation beyond a doubt it would face an uphill battle in our culture. As some school districts have already seen, religiously minded parents and community members see mindfulness meditation as  “religious” training. Religiously minded groups have pushed back against mindfulness meditation and even yoga programs in public schools. There would also be formidable opposition would come from the pharmaceutical industry who benefits mightily from managing the behavior of children and adults. If children and adults attended three day meditation retreats instead of taking ritalin or the array of stress-relieving medications offered to adults the pharmaceutical industry would experience substantial challenges to their bottomline. Finally, the most daunting challenge: our culture’s belief that there is a quick and easy way to relieve suffering… a belief that leads us to accept get-rich-quick schemes, to buy lottery tickets, and to repeatedly seek short-term relief through drugs— prescription drugs or recreational ones. Alas, until one accepts that suffering exists and the end of suffering can only occur through hard work we will continue the cycle of spending countless dollars on worthless medications.

  1. Elyssa
    February 20, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    I agree that mindfulness meditation makes a difference. It’s definitely not an escape from challenges, but shows us how our thoughts impact us and how we can let them go and become the silent witness.

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