by Alan J. Steinberg M.D.
The science is clear: Meditation reduces stress and helps manage mental illness.
- Meditation has been associated with reduced stress, improved mental health, and greater empathy and creativity.
- Meditation originates from ancient Ayurvedic philosophy, but can also fit into modern medical care as an adjunct treatment.
- Patients struggling with depression, anxiety, stress, or other mental health challenges could see significant improvement from meditation.
Because May is Mental Health Awareness Month, this is an excellent time for mental health professionals to become reacquainted with meditation’s potential as an adjunctive treatment for most mental illnesses. As a practicing primary-care physician for over 35 years, it is clear to me that the single greatest cause of suffering in my patients has been mental illness. Cancer causes pain—emotional and physical. Colds and flus cause discomfort and annoying symptoms. Heart disease results in disability and early death. But mental illness towers over all of these as a life-long, difficult to treat medical problem.
The research on meditation is clear. Multiple studies have shown that have shown that people who meditate are less stressed, more relaxed, more empathetic, more creative, and less mentally ill. It is my contention that mental health professionals, including primary-care physicians, should routinely recommend meditation to our patients because of its proven ability to calm and stabilize our physiology.
What is Meditation?
Meditation was first was described in Ayurvedic philosophy. Ayurveda is a natural system of medicine which originated in India more than 3,000 years ago. The term Ayurveda is derived from the Sanskrit words ayur (life) and veda (science)—science of life.
Ayurvedic theory suggests that in every instant of our perceptions there are three elements: the subject, the “I,” the experiencer, or the Self with a capital “S.” Then, there is the object of our perceptions—which includes our sensations, our feelings, our memories, and who we see as ourselves—our self with a little “s.”
Finally, between the subject and object there is the process of perception. That self with a little “s” is an object of perception. According to Ayurveda, the self with a little “s” is not the subject, the “I,” or the real Self. I will explain.
I am a primary care physician working with the Cedars-Sinai Medical Group in Beverly Hills. Yes I am one of the team physicians for the Los Angeles Clippers. And I am a father. I am a husband. All of those things that “I am” are things I see myself as being. Behind all those things that I am is the I, the subject, the Self. The physician, the father, the husband—all are objects of perception that I see myself as; those are my self.
Thousands of years ago, Ayurvedic philosophers posited that contacting or experiencing the I, or the Self, through meditation would result in a state of deep relaxation; this, in turn, would be healing to the meditator’s mind and body, or self with a little “s.”
What is it about experiencing the I that would lead to such a prediction? Ayurveda posits that the I, or the Self, of each of us, at our core, is an ocean of silence that is beyond problems, anxiety, fear, and stress. Coming into contact with that, even for a moment, would provide sanctuary and respite from the outside world that contained those issues.
And indeed, current-day meditators do report that the problems of our world seem to be a less problematic after meditating. Even if you don’t accept Ayurveda’s explanation of how meditation works, the studies show (look here, and here, and here) that meditation does work—and works well.
Ayurvedic theory anticipated that the effects of becoming aware of your I during meditation would have profoundly beneficial effects on mental health. Ayurveda hypothesized that meditators becoming directly aware of their I would cause a deeply relaxed but non-drowsy state of restful alertness. This deeply relaxed yet wakeful state of physiology described in ancient Ayurvedic texts was confirmed and demonstrated by one of the original studies done on a widely practiced form of Ayurvedic meditation called Transcendental Meditation (TM), which is an easy to learn, easy to do mental technique.
This simple, and at the time, groundbreaking experiment  was done in 1971. The study showed that subjects who practiced TM even for a short time became physiologically calmer, more stable, and less labile. Even when they weren’t meditating. This physiological calming and stabilization outside of meditation has been repeatedly demonstrated during subsequent studies on TM and some other forms of meditation.
In summary, Ayurvedic philosophy correctly predicted thousands of years ago that meditation would produce a unique, wakeful hypometabolic physiological state. It said that this state of mind and body would be easy to induce with a simple mental technique it called meditation. That relaxed state was theorized to heal many of the afflictions that commonly cause pain and suffering. Over the last fifty years, that theory has been supported by multiple scientific studies.
Based on this scientifically confirmed theory, mental health professionals should be open to recommending not only modern treatments to improve mental health but also open to recommending the Ayurvedic practice of meditation. Mental Health Awareness Month is an excellent time to start recommending meditation to all our patients.