Meditation affects our physiology in subtle but obvious ways. Even a beginner can notice muscles relaxing, the breath becoming smoother and the mind slowing down during a meditation session. From these humble beginnings, many other benefits may accrue.

Meditation teachers often see such benefits first hand in the students they teach. Meditation can lead to huge improvements in physical and mental health, and it can transform people in ways that any psychologist or physician would envy.Doctors understand how a patient’s state of mind affects his or her health, but they are often cautious about recommending meditation as a treatment. There are many charlatans in the alternative health field, selling hope and promise but little else.

However, meditation itself has passed the test. Decades of scientific research has confirmed its usefulness. We know that it helps with many common ailments, and allows the body and mind to function better. Many doctors realize that this can be enough to markedly improve a patient’s health.

Although the connection between body and mind is self-evident, it is difficult to scientifically investigate. Psychologists evaluate mental states and scientists measure biological functions but there is no lingua franca between them. The units of measurement and methodologies used in these two disciplines are so different it is all but impossible to connect them.

We know, for example, that fear and anger (which are the province of psychology) activate the sympathetic nervous system (the province of medicine). We can measure the chemistry involved in exquisite detail, but how on earth do you measure fear or anger? Or even scientifically define the difference between them?

Managing one’s health is complicated. There is rarely a single cause to any illness. The body operates as an interlocking network of multiple functions. Staying healthy is not a matter of knocking out individual illnesses when they arise. It is more about paying attention to an array of small details on a daily basis and thereby slowing the rate of ageing, or “wear and tear” in the body.

While meditation can produce dramatic turnarounds in illness, it is even more valuable as a preventive measure. Meditation can help us maintain optimum function and delay the inevitable effects of ageing. It helps us keep our blood pressure under control before it leads to a stroke. By sleeping better, we have more energy and our immune system is more efficient. We breathe better, manage pain better and digest food better. Meditation helps us manage our health intelligently before the damage becomes irreparable.

Meditation is easy to do. It has clear physical results that you can see if you look for them. The medical evidence clearly shows how relaxation is essential for the healthy functioning of the body. Whether you are sick, or want to maintain your health, or simply want to enjoy life more, you will find that meditation is worth looking into.

Our bodies are extremely good at maintaining balance, so why do we still get sick? There are some causes that are largely beyond our control. The ravages of age or severe outer stressors such as war or starvation will wear us down, no matter what we do.

In theory, we could pace ourselves well and be in a balanced state all day long – eating, working, exercising and resting well. If we kept this going all our lives, there is a good chance we would live to a hale and hearty old age.

But, being conscious animals, we frequently ignore the signs of stress and overrule the intelligence of our bodies. We get overexcited and push ourselves to the limits. We eat and drink and work too much and eventually lose all concept of a balanced life. And though we often grind to a halt out of exhaustion, we usually don’t let ourselves fully recover before plunging back into the fray.

We can also be mildly stressed for years at a time. To be 10% more stressed than you need to be can make you just as prone to middle-aged illness as extreme stress. Because mild continual stress is so common, we often take it as being “normal,” and don’t realize how insidious it is.

Many people are ill because they look for purely physical solutions to their health. In many ways, the more specific the medical intervention, the less it contributes to total health, and vice versa. If you take pills for high blood pressure, they are unlikely to improve your insomnia or indigestion or chronic pain. So you need to take pills for each of those, and maybe some antidepressants as well.

However, if you meditate to lower your blood pressure, the effect is less direct but can have wider benefits. Your hypertension improves but you also have less abdominal gas, you sleep better and your pain bothers you less. Meditation is less precise in effect than a diuretic, but it goes one step further back to a more fundamental cause: our over-active anxious minds.

Perhaps the best foundation for health and long life is to be profoundly content or happy, and there aren’t any simple recipes for this. For most of us, a balanced and harmonious life usually requires decades of trail-and-error and a high degree of self-awareness. Fortunately, we don’t have to get everything right all at once. The meditation tradition is very clear in that you start right where you are. You just do what you can in the moment, rather than trying to plan the perfect life.

by Eric Harrison, Perth Meditation Centre

To find out more about why meditation is good for your health and how to use it for this purpose see Meditation & Health, available as a downloadable e-book.

You may also read about how meditation can help with cancer and other serious illnesses in this chapter excerpted from the same book.