How Meditation Heals

By Lucille Enix with Allan Vreeland, Ph.D.

About 20 years ago after abdominal surgery, I learned to meditate in an effort to relieve pain. After several months, when I felt better, I stopped meditating. Little did I know.

Fast forward 15 years when Idiopathic Fibrosing Mediastinitis visited itself on my body. First came the cough. Then my lungs and pericardial sac filled with fluid. I could not breathe. Then a blinding rage took over that this had happened to me. Next the terrible sickness followed with a long list of misdiagnoses and my inability to sleep. Sound familiar?

That's when two friends asked me to see Dr. Allan Vreeland, a clinical psychologist trained at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. Dr. Vreeland specializes in trauma and the use of meditations that can lead toward healing. The first time I met Dr. Vreeland, he taught me a simple meditation that, when practiced, put me to sleep instantly. By the third time I met him, he had helped me to accept what had happened to me. Now I could move on.

Much to my gratitude, Dr. Vreeland invited me to join one of his small meditation classes. First I learned that meditation is hard work. It took at least six months before I felt comfortable meditating more than five minutes.

Why is it so hard? It's about letting go, clearing your mind. Try relaxing your mind without thinking of anything. Instead of going away, your thoughts go crazy. Some call it the monkey mind because it chatters all the time while it jumps around.

Meditation is like any other learned skill. It takes practice and persistence to succeed. Once I moved beyond five minutes, I began to experience the benefits.

I learned that there are different kinds of meditation for different benefits in healing your body and mind. I began learning peace of mind, slowing my respiration and blood pressure. In this more calm and peaceful frame of mind, I began rethinking my life, creating a new one. My body could no longer tolerate my other life of travel, and my bicycling hobby.

After about two years of studying meditation, we began using guided imagery to achieve physical healing and personal growth.

Meditation isn't a cure-all. It is not a substitute for medication or medical procedures. As Dr. Benson of Harvard Medical School clearly demonstrated, the foundation of meditation is relaxation. Relaxation away from coping with the outside world allows you to work with your mind directly. Meditation does not involve any sort of religious belief. Meditation is something you can do to help yourself toward wellness.

As one of my physicians so kindly explained to me, my form of FM acts like an idiot. You never know what it will do next. So, after having this disease for almost six years, I had a heart attack. Tests showed my arteries are clear and I have no evidence of heart disease. The idiot was at work again. My physicians could only speculate that maybe the fibrosis had grown into my heart muscle. Or, maybe I started breathing so hard while riding my bike that I threw a transitory clot.

I didn't panic. I did not get overly excited about having a heart attack . I didn't get depressed, which often happens to those who have heart attacks. This is how meditation helped me.

My physicians sent me to cardiac rehabilitation where I have followed a prescribed exercise routine to build my heart and body strength. Presently I feel the best since I got sick six years ago. My cardiologist believes that the meditation, plus medications and exercise, have led me toward healing. The fibrosis around my aorta, pericardial sac and chest do not appear to be as dense as before. My lungs have expanded and that helps my breathing.

After three years of meditation, I'm still a beginner. Dr. Vreeland has studied it in various forms for most of his adult life. In addition to his work in consult-liaison psychology at UT Southwestern Medical School, Dr. Vreeland learned to integrate meditation with medical treatment from Herbert Benson M.D., a cardiologist at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Benson was the first scientist who studied Tibetan Buddhist Monks as they altered their body physiology using meditation. Dr. Benson coined the phrase, Relaxation Response.

In Dr. Vreeland's lectures, we learned that relaxation can alter the body's response to trauma. A diagnosis of FM can produce a powerful reaction to the traumatic disease that threatens the sense of self, i.e. survival and identity. When you experience this sort of reaction, you may feel betrayed by your body. It can help substantially to engage in a self care system to face the trauma. Meditation allows you to have a clear mind as you cope with the threat.

Meditation is what Dr. Vreeland calls, "Pure caring for yourself." The first simple meditation Dr. Vreeland taught me allowed me to free my mind from the constant sense of threat of the disease. As I lay in bed, I visualized a bright blue ball of light in the center of my heart. Slowly, I imagined opening my heart and moving the blue light out in front of me. Soon the ball moved into space and in seconds, I had fallen asleep.

What happened? I had let go of worry about survival and mortality, and I just sat with my own identity.

Forward-thinking physicians like Dr. Herbert Benson and Dr. Andrew Weil have shown through careful scientific method that we ourselves, the patients experiencing illness, constitute a potent treatment modality. Afflictive emotions that often arise with serious illness can interfere with the natural healing process as well as with medical treatments. Depression, fear, and confusion are symptoms as important as shortness of breath and palpitations.

Meditation is not difficult to understand intellectually. A relaxed focus on your own mind is a simple concept. But there are cultural factors that you will find to be exasperating as you try to follow the instructions to simply relax your mind. Those cultural obstacles cluster around two issues: first, our western culture pronounces it "selfish" to take care of ourselves directly; and second, our rational, scientific approach dictates that we "do something" to change the cause-effect chain of illness. It is a cultural contradiction to follow the prescription to sit still and purposefully do absolutely nothing.

I prefer to close my eyes and look into empty space. If a distraction comes into my mind, I acknowledge it respectfully and let it go. Dealing with distractions is the dynamic of change in meditation. In an undistracted mental state, you can open up and connect with your real self, which is the source of emotional energy and simple happiness. Your real self never feels vulnerable.

The last meditation we learned uses mental energy to help heal your body. Once you feel stable, with your mind clear, you can visualize a white light above your head. Then imagine the crown of your head opening and the light moving into your mind. Use your emotional energy to guide the light, which carries healing energy. You can move the light anywhere in your body. I move the light into my chest and watch it glow and dissolve the fibrosis around my heart.

Many recent scientific studies have shown that meditation is quite helpful, with lasting effects. I recommend that you try it for yourself. Make an undistracted space and time in your life for yourself, and you can discover a great many nice things.