Meditation is a form of self-hypnosis that can complement traditional medicine and is thought by practitioners to bring about a degree of self-healing. The term itself applies to a number of practices that largely come from ancient Eastern traditions.  Some meditation involves stillness, while other types, particularly those related to martial arts, require movement.  The goal of these practices is generally self-awareness and a separation of the mind from the external world.

Meditation may aim to clear the mind of conscious thought, or it may focus on one specific word or image.  The use of a mantra, the repetition of a word or phrase, is associated with Transcendental Meditation and is supposed to prevent distracting thoughts.  On the other end of the spectrum, mindfulness meditation allows the practitioner to entertain whatever thought, emotion, sensation, or perception arises without judging its worthiness.  Meditation may also be a guided process of visualization, a technique similar to therapeutic imagery.

History of Meditation

India, China, and Japan all have long traditions of meditation, but similar practices can be found in all cultures.  The modern form of Transcendental Meditation practiced in the West was brought to the U.S. by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1968.  Though practitioners were unable to lower their own blood pressure at will, as they claimed to be able to do, meditation as a relaxation activity for cancer patients soon became popular.  Some hospitals and training programs offer meditation as a form of behavioral medicine.

Benefits of Meditation

While meditation has not been shown to prevent, slow the progression of, or treat cancer, it does improve the quality of life of many cancer patients.  Clinical trials have observed meditation reducing anxiety, stress, blood pressure, chronic pain, and insomnia.  Mindfulness meditation in particular was effective for symptoms of anxiety, and also allowed practitioners a better immune response to a flu vaccine.  In a study of cancer patients who used meditation, 31% experienced reduced stress and 65% had fewer mood disturbances.

Meditation is unlikely to have any negative side effects, though patients with other health conditions may want to consult with their doctors to see if they are healthy enough to participate in some of the movement-based types of meditation like tai chi or qigong.  As with most complementary and alternative treatments, doctors do not recommend stopping or delaying standard medical care.