Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

Meditation and health: Why do we tend to look toward the East?

Helpful meditative techniques can be found in the West as well as in the East

Research demonstrates that meditation is good for our body, mind, and spirit. Yet we tend to only look towards the East and ignore the West when it comes to learning, practicing, and valuing meditative skills. This is a big mistake.

All of the religious and spiritual traditions offer thoughtful and effective contemplative and meditative practices and techniques. Mindfulness meditation, associated with the Buddhist tradition, is the approach that has gotten a lot of attention in recent years and perhaps has been the most successfully integrated into secular mental and physical health care. Practitioners such as Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn from the University of Massachusetts Medical Center have helped to popularize this form of meditation and secularize it so that it is acceptable to both professionals and clients alike, regardless of religious tradition or involvement.

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Mindfulness meditation is an excellent example of how a particular religiously based technique can be adapted to help others when it is in a form that is both understandable and acceptable to people who have no particular religious or spiritual affiliations. Clients can use the principles and techniques of this form of meditation to lower stress, improve their psychological and physical health, and ultimately improve the quality of their lives. The same is true for yoga. Yoga studios can be found throughout the United States and even in shopping and strip malls. Yoga is a complative and meditative practice associated with the Hindu tradition but has often been secularized to the point that it can feel like an exercise class. The remarkable success of mindfulness meditation and yoga in popular and professional practice underscores the interest in Eastern approaches to meditation and contemplative practices.  

Curiously, most people seem to believe that meditation techniques are found only in the Eastern traditions and thus focus on approaches such as yoga, Taoism, prana, chi, Buddhism, Zen, mindfulness, and so forth. Many completely ignore meditative traditions from the Christian (e.g., centering prayer, the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius), Jewish (e.g., Hasidic and Kabbalistic dillug and tzeruf approaches), Muslim (e.g., Sufism's zikr approach), and other Western traditions. Perhaps the Western traditions haven't done as well in promoting their meditative techniques.

Sadly, many conclude that Eastern traditions alone (especially those from India, Japan, and China) offer anything of value when it comes to meditation.

This is problematic because 85 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian, 2 percent as Jewish, and about 3 percent as Muslim; thus about 90 percent of Americans identify with a Western religious tradition according to Gallup polling. Many feel that they have to abandon their tradition to secure meditative benefits or are fearful of trying meditative practices since they believe that they are from a tradition different from their own.

While almost anyone can learn from and certainly benefit from Eastern approaches, it seems reasonable to include Western approaches too. We should look to the West as well as to the East to learn and use meditative approaches. In doing so, we are likely to enhance our physical and mental health.

Doing the right thing for our body, mind, and spirit includes using meditative and contemplative practices...from the East or from the West.

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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