People are living longer, but are they living better? What are those last years like? Most people fear disability, debility and decline more than death itself. Is there some way to ease the aging process
and help elder Americans maintain their independence and resilience longer as their age advances? The practice of meditation may be the answer.
Meditation is a practice of familiarizing oneself with one’s own mind, of cultivating awareness and insight. Mindfulness refers to resting the mind in the bare awareness of thoughts, feelings and sensory experiences. Simply put, it is the practice of resting in the present moment. This can be more challenging than it sounds. That’s why they call it “practice”. But learning to rest in the present moment serves us well through all our days, up to and including the final ones.
Meditation as anti-inflammatory
The inevitable changes and losses we experience as we age can be stressful. Stress leads to inflammation throughout the body. Meditation has been shown to reduce inflammation, a condition involved in any number of diseases, including arthritis, diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis, depression and stroke, just to name a few. As Shelly Young
mentioned in her post on meditation and inflammation, Emory University researcher Charles Raison, M.D. found that compassion meditation diminished the inflammatory response to psychosocial stress.
Meditation for brain health
A recent study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease
showed that meditation improved cognition in people with memory loss and increased brain activity in areas central to memory. With so few options currently available to slow, much less prevent memory loss, anything that can help individuals and reduce our already overburdened health care system should be considered. Meditation is free; no co-pays, no insurance necessary. You can’t lose it. There are no negative side effects.
Dr Sara Lazar
of Harvard University found an increase in the thickness of the prefrontal cortex of people who practiced meditation, a finding contrary to previously held beliefs about the brain and aging. As a result, Dr Lazar said she believes, “The effects of meditation can counter the effect of age.”
How to do it
There are many different meditation styles and techniques. It is important to have a qualified teacher. Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche is a Tibetan meditation master who has a fresh and accessible approach to meditation that makes the practice very easy for modern people to understand and apply to their daily lives. His book, The Joy of Living, is a New York Times bestseller. Pema Chodron’s amazing book, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, is especially relevant in the context of aging. Jon Kabat-Zinn established Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, a complementary medicine program that uses mindfulness to promote physical and emotional well-being. His books, such as Wherever You Go, There You Are and Full Catastrophe Living have introduced many Americans to the practice of mindfulness.
In Chicago, we are very fortunate to have many places where meditation is being practiced and taught. The Tergar Meditation Community, under the guidance of Mingyur Rinpoche, meets on the Northwest side in the Irving Park neighborhood. Shambhala Meditation Center in Rogers Park offers a wide variety of meditation programs. Chicago KTC has a meditation center in Cicero, where they often host Tibetan masters and have regular sitting groups and teachings.
New research on the physical and mental health benefits of meditation seems to come down everyday, but perhaps the greatest benefit of older people learning this most basic skill could be much more far reaching. Imagine the impact on families and on our health care system if each individual was able to turn toward the inevitabilities at end of life with conscious awareness. Imagine planning proactively with calm centeredness, instead of unconsciously waiting for a crisis that puts the responsibility for making these very important decisions in the hands of others.