21 Mar 2013
A growing body of medical research is showing that stress – the body’s reaction to what the mind perceives as a threatening situation – either directly triggers or significantly contributes to the virulence of far more diseases and disorders than was once thought. Perceptions, in other words, matter. This connection between mind and body was once believed to apply only to a relatively limited range of psychosomatic conditions. It’s now known to have much broader relevance – a realization that is gradually but perceptibly changing the way medicine is taught and practiced.
Psychological research, meanwhile, is similarly demonstrating that high levels of unrelieved stress may also adversely affect judgment, leading to poor decisions. Business leaders and management educators, and others with a keen interest in decision-making and its economic consequences, are starting to take notice.
As a result of all this published research, many contemplative practices which were at one time considered exotic, foreign and even somewhat weird, are now finally receiving serious attention in what until recently would have been the most unlikely of places. Why? Because such practices and disciplines are uniquely suited ways to deal with stress and its consequences.
There will, of course, be scams and false claims accompanying this explosion of interest in contemplative practices, as there always are whenever public attention turns to something new. Unscrupulous teachers and purveyors of services will attempt to mystify and monetize what is essentially simple and free; others, with good will but little formation, will no doubt spout a lot of nonsense.
We should nevertheless rejoice in the general direction of this development. Meditation and most other contemplative practices are simple to explain, cost nothing to engage in, are accessible to all, have no side-effects, and – even when executed poorly – can be remarkably effective not only in relation to specific conditions, but for general well-being and happiness as well.
Perceptive, self-aware individuals have known all along about this connection between stress and health – at least as it relates to themselves. They know, too, that when they’re angry, frustrated, distracted, or fearful – or just tired – they make poorer decisions. They don’t need a clinical trial to convince them that this is the case.
There is something rather perversely comic, in fact, about instinctively trusting only third-party confirmation for what can and ought to be directly apprehended – like the obsessively bureaucratic functionary who, before allowing himself to express any emotion at the news of the death of his wife, asked, “Is it official?”
On the other hand, we know that what matters in the evolution of public policy is not personal experience, but rather what well-structured studies and credible, direct observation show is effective. If we want our schools, businesses and (why not?) our government to be more mindful, helping to form and serve a calmer, healthier, more balanced citizenry, then we should welcome and, where possible, promote this broader embrace of the inner work of meditation and allied practices.
Ironically, one large institution that has, with some exceptions, been slow to recognize the potential of meditation is the Church. Someone quite correctly noted that you’re more likely today to hear about meditation from your doctor or therapist than from your parish priest or pastor. This is odd because there is an ancient Christian tradition of imageless, silent prayer that goes back millennia, to apostolic times (see the JMC events announced below). John Main helped to show that this practice of meditation, preserved in the Western monastic tradition, is both authentically Christian and also compatible with contemplative traditions from around the world. (Here at the John Main Center, where Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, agnostics and others meditate together, we confirm this fact daily.)
And as for the larger Church, it’s as if the old proprietor of an enormous, historic estate had just noticed the growing stream of neighbors who have been jumping over the wall and eating the fruit from a neglected orchard at the back of the house. The old man is bewildered: why doesn’t everybody doesn’t just buy the processed, sugared fruit candy on sale in the gift shop? Well, he may be old, the owner of the place, but he’s no fool. Sooner or later he’ll conclude that it makes more sense to rehabilitate that nearly-forgotten orchard, punch a hole in the wall, and let the people in.
In the meantime, it’s all right to pick and eat the fruit. If anyone stops you, tell them I said it was OK.