While I was in India in 1971, I met a number of Indian yogis, Tibetan lamas, and Buddhist monks. I was struck by the relaxed warmth, openness, and alertness of these men and women, no matter what the situation. Each was the kind of person I enjoyed being with, and I felt nourished when I left them.
There were vast differences in their beliefs and backgrounds. The one thing they shared was meditation. Then I met S. N. Goenka, a teacher who was not a monk, but an industrialist who had been one of the richest men in Burma. Though he had been highly successful, Goenka found that his hectic pace took its toll in the form of daily migraine headaches. Medical treatments at European and American clinics had no effect on his headaches, and he turned to meditation as a last resort. Within three days of his first instruction, his migraines disappeared.
In the 1960s there was a military coup in Burma, and the new socialist government seized all of Goenka’s holdings, leaving him nearly penniless. He emigrated to India, where he took advantage of old business and family connections to start a new business. While his new enterprise was getting underway, he travelled throughout India giving 10-day courses in meditation. Some reservoir of energy allowed him to be both full-time meditation teacher and businessman. His example helped me to see that one needn’t be a monk to meditate. You can separate the physical effects of meditation from its monastic context.
When I returned to Harvard from India, I found that psychologist Gary Schwartz had begun research into meditation. He had found that meditators reported much lower daily anxiety levels than nonmeditators. They had many fewer psychological or psychosomatic problems such as colds, headaches, and sleeplessness.
My personal experience, and these scientific findings, suggested that meditators were able to roll with life’s punches, handling daily stresses well and suffering fewer consequences from them. With Schwartz as my thesis advisor, I designed a study to see how the practice of meditation helps one cope with stress.
I had two groups of volunteers come to our physiology lab. One group consisted of meditation teachers, all of whom had been meditating for at least two years. The other group of people were interested in meditation but had not yet begun to meditate. Once in the lab, each volunteer was told to sit quietly and either relax or meditate. If nonmeditators were assigned to the meditation treatment, I taught them how to meditate right there in the lab. After 20 minutes of relaxation or meditation, the volunteers saw a short film depicting a series of bloody accidents among workers in a woodworking shop. The film is a standard way of inducing stress during laboratory studies, because everyone who watches it is upset by the accidents depicted in the film.
The meditators had a unique pattern of reaction to the film. Just as the accident was about to happen, their heart rates increased and they began to sweat more than the nonmeditators. To get ready to meet the distressing sight, their heartbeats rose and their bodies mobilized in what physiologists call the fight-or-flight reaction. But as soon as the accident was over, the meditators recovered, their signals of bodily arousal falling more quickly than those of nonmeditators. After the film, they were more relaxed than the nonmeditators, who still showed signs of tension.
This pattern of greater initial arousal and faster recovery showed up in experienced meditators whether or not they had meditated before the movie began. In fact, the meditators felt more relaxed the whole time they were in the lab. Rapid recovery from stress is a typical trait of meditators. Even the novices, who meditated for the first time that day in the lab, were less anxious after the film and recovered more quickly than the nonmeditators.
Meditation itself seems the most likely cause of rapid stress recovery. If the rapid recovery among experienced meditators had been the result of some personality trait common to the kind of people who stick with meditation, the novices would have been as slow to recover as were the people who relaxed.
My study may explain the lower incidence of anxiety and psychosomatic disorders among meditators. People who are chronically anxious or who have a psychosomatic disorder share a specific pattern of reaction to stress; their bodies mobilize to meet the challenge, then fail to stop reacting when the problem is over. The initial tensing up is essential, for it allows them to marshal their energy and awareness to deal with a potential threat. But their bodies stay aroused for danger when they should be relaxed, recouping spent energies and gathering resources for the next brush with stress.
The anxious person meets life’s normal events as though they were crises. Each minor happening increases his tension, and his tension in turn magnifies the next ordinary event—a deadline, an interview, a doctor’s appointment—into a threat. Because the anxious person’s body stays mobilized after one event has passed, he has a lower threat threshold for the next. Had he been in a relaxed state, he would have taken the second event in stride.
A meditator handles stress in a way that breaks up the threat-arousal-threat spiral. The meditator relaxes after a challenge passes more often than the nonmeditator. This makes him unlikely to see innocent occurrences as harmful. He perceives threat more accurately, and reacts with arousal only when necessary. Once aroused, his rapid recovery makes him less likely than the anxious person to see the next deadline as a threat.