Meditation Finding Converts Among Western Doctors

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According to a prepared text of the speech, the Dalai Lama believes that modern neuroscience understands the brain's wiring for attention and emotion. Meditation, he says, offers techniques for refining attention and regulating and transforming emotion.

"The meeting of modern neuroscience and Buddhist contemplative discipline, therefore, could lead to the possibility of studying the impact of intentional mental activity on the brain circuits that have been identified as critical for specific mental processes," he said.

The talk was followed by several presentations, including one by Lazar, the Harvard neuroscientist. She addressed whether meditation can change the brain's structure and function, thereby offering health benefits.

Psychologist Paul Fulton is the president of the nonprofit Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy in Newton, Massachusetts. He said "the barriers are falling" for the incorporation of meditation into the treatment of conditions such as stress and high blood pressure.

As these barriers fall, Fulton says, some people may begin to explore how meditation can complement Western medicine.

As an example, he pointed to the Stress Reduction Program at the University of Massachusetts' Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society in North Worcester.

The center aims to teach people how to integrate meditation into their everyday lives to overcome stress, pain, high blood pressure, fatigue, and other ailments.

Different Approach

Robert Thurman is the religion department chair and a professor of Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University in New York. He says meditation can teach people how to become more aware of their minds and their emotions.

Such ancient traditions, he adds, can offer tremendous amounts of insight to Western science.

As an example, in a Pulse of the Planet radio program broadcast today, he compares the difference between a Western and Tibetan doctor taking a patient's pulse.

(Pulse of the Planet and this news story are sponsored, in part, by the National Science Foundation.)

"The Western doctor who's taking the pulse is just timing the beating of the pulse," Thurman said in the broadcast. "Now, the Tibetan doctor takes not only the pulse but the warmth, the degree of tautness in the vein, the quality therefore of the blood, thick or thin."

The Tibetan doctor also analyzes the subtle variations in the pulse, each one a potential indication of an ailment—a flaw in an artery or a buildup of plaque, for example.

The Tibetan doctors build on these observations "by not only their own personal knowledge of anatomy, but also it comes in a long empirical tradition that's come from thousands of years of people observing different types of pulses and correlating those observations to different types of internal phenomena, symptoms, and so forth in their patients," Thurman said.

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