06/20/2012 02:53 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2013

Just Breathe: Confirming Meditation's Benefits


A jittery teenager held a pistol to my wife's head and robbed us a few blocks from our home in Houston. A few months later, I had too much to drink at a party and felt as though I was asphyxiating. At the emergency room, they decided I was just hyperventilating but the next morning I woke up feeling disoriented, with tingling extremities. Our doctor thought I had mononucleosis, so I spent the next three weeks resting, obsessing about what was wrong. Before long, I was taking antidepressants and seeing a therapist. We spent months unraveling the skein of childhood dysfunction I had long taken for granted. Divorced parents? Check. Domestic violence? Check. Catholic upbringing? Check. Therapy gave me a deeper understanding of what made me tick, but brought little relief. I still spent most of my waking hours registering every wayward thought and physical sensation.

One day I came across a copy of Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, by Joan Borysenko. A biologist and psychologist, Borysenko had collaborated at Harvard with Herbert Benson, who in the late 1960s began investigating how mental states can affect physical well-being. Her book, published in 1987, perfectly described the intense anxiety I'd been experiencing. The author suggested something novel: sit down, relax the belly, and follow the breath as it comes and goes; when a thought arises, let it go and return to following the breath. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I gave it a try. And for the first time in two and a half years I found some respite, some intervals of feeling whole and relaxed.

Curious about the roots of meditative practice, I started reading about Buddha's quest to diagnose the cause of human suffering, and came across the idea that we suffer because we are attached--we always want things to be other than the way they are. Soon I was pulling out a cushion every morning and evening to meditate for 30 minutes. I certainly felt better, yet I couldn't help wondering why meditation "worked." How might modern science explain the benefits of a mind-focusing technique taught 2,400 years ago by an Indian spiritual teacher? It turned out that a lot of scientists wondered the same thing.

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