Research

Contemporary Western Applications of Meditation

Meditation Room Sign
     Photo by Joe Shlabotnik

Contemporary Western researchers, medical professionals, and practitioners of meditation have discovered what ancient meditators knew – the capacity for awareness prior to discursive thinking at the heart of all meditation is an innate human skill available to anyone. Philosophers and clinicians have observed that, as children become socialized, they learn to cope with life experiences through adaptive functioning. While important for healthy survival in modern culture, adaptation is a different behavioral paradigm from that encouraged in awareness – simply being present and meeting a situation in its entirety without attempting to protect against or modify it. Not only can adaptive skills become habitual or dysfunctional, they also can limit the range of human experience.

Increasingly, researchers and clinicians are studying and experiencing the beneficial effects of learning, or remembering, the skill of unmediated awareness in an ever-widening variety of applications relevant to the modern Western lifestyle. Early well-known studies include the work of Brown and Engler on the stages of consciousness of long-term mindfulness meditators; research into the physiological and developmental benefits of Transcendental Meditation; and the clinical research of Jon Kabat-Zinn and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

Today, meditative practices are incorporated into a wide variety of programs that deal with specific situations or conditions: stress-related illnesses; chronic pain and illness; weight loss and eating disorders; couples therapy; adolescent issues; depression; cancer; AIDS; medical and other care-provider stress; corporate stress management; motherhood and parenting; addictions; and post-traumatic stress. This list is not inclusive, and new programs are constantly being developed and researched. Many researchers are making efforts to conduct more rigorous research studies that include better operational definitions, some combination of self-report, biological, and implicit/objective measures, active controls, and investigations of mechanisms of action.

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