Meredith Rose had just moved to Los Angeles when the advertising saleswoman decided to give meditation a try. The reason?
"I. Was. Stressed," she says matter-of-factly.
But a few years later, that's no longer the case for the 27-year-old New York City transplant, thanks to her 20-minute, twice-daily Transcendental Meditation sessions.
Rose's experience with meditation - offering the mind something to focus on, such as her breathing, an object or a word - is hardly a unique one. Forty years after the Beatles caused a sensation with TM and their involvement with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, experts say a growing number of Westerners are turning to the technique as a means of relieving stress and illness.
"I suppose that many people who sit down to meditation think, 'I'm going to have this amazing transcendental experience, and I'll see God and colors, and my chakras will all become enlivened,' and that could happen," says Roger Nolan, a psychoanalyst who leads mindfulness meditation classes in the Los Angeles area.
But, he explains, "Most of the time it brings with it all the joys and all the other stuff that we may not want to face. And unfortunately, the stuff that we don't want to face is usually the stuff that is the cause of disease."
Help for HIV, cancer patients
It's no wonder meditation and other relaxation techniques have become the focus of many in the mental health and medical communities in recent times.
"Meditation in Western medicine has good evidence behind it to show that it improves outcomes in many stress-based illnesses like hypertension or anxiety, even Type 2 diabetes, chronic pain, migraines," says Lisa M. Schwartz, medical director of the integrative medicine program at the Roy and Patricia Disney Family Cancer Center in Burbank, set to open in the spring.
"It's not so much a part of our culture as it is in the Eastern part of the world, where it's a part of their daily routine," she says. "They understand that this is a healthy thing to do. As Americans, we've just come around to that." When the Disney center opens, treatment will include nontraditional practices such as mindfulness meditation - having an awareness of one's thoughts and actions in the present moment, without passing judgment - which has been shown to be effective in battling cancer.
More recently, researchers at UCLA have discovered that daily mindfulness meditation slows the progression of HIV.
HIV grazes on CD4 T cells, which researchers describe as the brains of the immune system, coordinating its activity when the body comes under attack. Stress makes matters worse by accelerating the process.
But mindfulness meditation stopped the decline in the study's 48 HIV-positive subjects. If the findings hold true in larger samples, meditation could become a low-cost complementary treatment for HIV, foresees lead study author David Creswell, a research scientist at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA.
Studies such as Creswell's show meditation is beneficial for people whether they're suffering from an illness or stress.
Rose can vouch for the latter.
Whether at home or in the middle of a rock festival, she will stop whatever she's doing, she says, to sit with her eyes shut and repeat a looping mantra to herself.
"It's mind-boggling to me how simple the process is and how great the reward is," says Rose.
Find a center
To find meditation centers near where you live, go to yp.yahoo.com, set your location and search "meditation."