Reflections of Death Buddhist Hospices & HIV/AIDS

HIV/AIDS Prevention & Care

Buddhist Meditation and Health

Disease of the modern age, such as cancer, AIDS or psychological conditions caused by the stress and strain of daily life, have complicated symptoms and are progressively more difficult to treat. Consequently, modern medicine has started to look for different methods of treatment to cure such conditions and to help people get their lives back on an even keel again. This kind of research is carried out objectively within the confine of the medical science. However, on a more spiritual level, we can find within Buddhism various principles and practices which can be used to bring peace and happiness to the mind and the good health to the body. In particular, meditation has brought beneficial effects to the many people who have learned how to practice it.

Thus, many modern doctors admit that the mind can control the body’s performance. The mind can be an important cause of sickness in the body and it inevitably follows that it can also provide the cure. Learning how to meditate can develop both the body and the mind, bringing improvements to the health at the same time. Nowadays, treating a disease like cancer depends on science and technology, and the use of such procedures as radiation and surgery. Even although these modern procedures constitute the progress of medical science; in Thailand at the present one method of treating these diseases which is attracting much attention is holistic. In fact, a group has been established which practices according to the methods of treatment purposed by Dr. Sathit Intharakamhaeng. These methods place an emphasis on understanding how nature works in our lives, including maintaining a correct diet. Nevertheless, importance is also placed on our mental processes and on learning how to meditate. As Dr. Sathtit once stated:

“Actually, living a holistic life doesn’t only mean eating a natural diet. It also means changing and correcting your lifestyle by learning how to meditate, learning how to reduce stress in everyday life …” (‘Cheowit’ 1998 pp.37)

In this way, Dr. Sathit has taken hold of the Buddhist precept which teaches us that rust, which comes from iron, can corrode and destroy that same iron. Human minds are the same. If we have learned how to meditate and have minds which produce positive thoughts then our bodies will become stronger and healthier if our minds produce negative thoughts then, like the rust on the iron, this will inevitably be a danger to us. As he stated:

“It is bad thinking which damages us. To take a particular example; if a cancer patient keep having bad thoughts then eventually these thoughts will be like he rust that erodes, allowing death to destroy the patient even quicker…because such thoughts are one of the causes of cancer. From a holistic point of view, cancer grows from both physical and mental causes. If one cannot change one’s mind then it follows that one cannot change one’s body.” (‘Goo-ne-ne’ 1998 pp.127)

It is the sense of imbalance in both body and mind that can be an important cause of illness and the spread of disease. The body is able to treat these diseases itself. Dr. O. Carl Simonton, of the Simonton Cancer Care Center in California, U.S.A., an expert in the use of tradition therapy for the treatment of cancer, has also studied the relation between mind and body in curing and treating cancer. He tested for over 10 years and found that the body has a natural ability to cure and treat itself. Efficacious medical treatment can build up the body to enable it to look after itself but the most important factor is that the patient must be willing to participate. The onset of cancer merely points out to us that our bodies need adjustment and improvement. For example, we may need to release tension to find contentment or we might need to transform our bodies. Dr. Simonton has demonstrated the effectiveness of meditation in treating cancer. “Most of all we need meditation and visualization to initiate these transformation. They are the basic tools used when we determine to establish and develop a new set of beliefs until they become part of our subconscious mind. Although meditation and visualization are used for releasing tension and attaining spiritual fulfillment, they can also be used as a first step to setting up changes in one’s life and health, starting with the determination to change our beliefs about illness and treatment, and about the ability of the body to cure and treat itself.” (1995 pp.101-102)

The doctor has added another point to the ides that the body can treat itself (ref. Chatkaew 1998 pp.51-52). He has stated that the benefits of learning meditation and also, perhaps, prayer and a sense of determination will help create a place of resistance in the body which is able to manufacture the white blood cells which fight against cancer and AIDS: “Ordinary people like ourselves don’t have to learn any special subjects. We can use our minds to control or affect our heartbeat, our blood pressure, or the manufacture of the white blood cells that fight disease. We can improve the quality of the cells which protect us, the cell known as ‘T’ cells which fight cancer and AIDS.”

There are the treatments that can cure cancer but one disease for which there is no cure today is AIDS. Meditation has been brought in to help with patients. Donald K. Swearer has said: “Meditation is also promoted in Thailand as a treatment for patients with AIDS. Beginning in 1989, a team of psychologists, social workers and nurses utilized meditation techniques as part of a hospital training program to help care workers who treat HIV and drug dependent patients.” (1995 pp.144) Even though it is not directly treating the AIDS patient or curing the disease, the meditation still has a good effect on the patient: “Result from questionnaires, self-reports, and observation of colleagues show positive results among the majority of health care workers: higher altruism and empathy among trainees; less verbal abuse toward clients, and a greater personal sense of tranquility, happiness and patience.” (see refs.)

Dr. Benson of the Havard Medical School has researched and tested the effects of meditation on the health and body. In the book called ‘The Relaxation Response’ (1975) (ref. Braphan Ukranun 1998 pp.111), which has introduced the concept of meditation to many Americans, he states that meditation can treat diseases such as cancer because it helps the patient to release tension, bring the will power to fight and the consciousness of being in control of the life. He has found that depression, hopelessness, loneliness and despair, psychological conditions very prevalent in westerners, can be alleviated with meditation. Apart from this, meditation cam also helps heart conditions and high blood pressure. But most interesting of all is that meditation can help people who have difficulty conceiving children. Dr. Benson states that such people are generally unhappy, anxious and hot-tempered but with the regular practice of mediation, they can become healthy and strong, more cheerful and more able to conceive children. The meditation that Dr. Benson advocates to bring such results is one that uses breath control and the silent repetition of a mantra to bring peace and tranquility. Dr. Benson acknowledges that this technique of ‘insight meditation’ can be most effective.

Meditation is beneficial to our bodies and our minds once it has been firmly established and our minds have become calm. Professor Thepnom Muangman has listed the physical benefits as a slowing down of the pulse, a lowering of blood pressure and a boost to the immune system. The psychological benefits come from a slowing down of the brain waves which makes us feel relaxed and can relieve muscular aches, pains and headaches (1985 pp.269.)

According to Wallace and Benson (Wallace and Benson 1972; ref. Naiphinit Khachaphakdi 1989pp. 269), learning to meditate builds mental power. They have demonstrated that a practice of meditation similar of Buddhist mediation has a beneficial effect on a body. It can stop the body from burning out, reduce stress and transform the workings of the brain. Eliminating stress brings the mind and the body to a state of profound relaxation that constitutes complete rest and is different from sleep and dreaming.

Buddhadasa Bhikku has stated that meditation can treat diseases of the body and the mind. He has demonstrated the importance of breath control called the mindfulness of breathing; the more we can regulate our breathing the more able we become to fight disease. Breathing is a fundamental human function and therefore bears a relation to the normal balance of our bodies. As he stated: “We have to realize that our breathing affects our nervous system, our thoughts, our awareness and the different mechanisms within our bodies. The liver, the kidneys, the intestines and the stomach are all related to our breathing.” (Buddhadasa Bhikku M.B.B. pp.21)

Phattaya Jitsuwan (1992) has also done research into ‘the effect of learning mindfulness of breathing meditation techniques on anxiety and depression in patients who have had chronic kidney failure and received a kidney transplant.’ This research was based on ‘quasi experimental design’, using a total of 45 subjects who were then separated into an experimental group of 21 subjects and a control group of 24 subjects. The experimental group were visited, engaged in light conversation and were also taught how practice mindfulness of breathing meditation. The control group were visited and engaged in light conversation for a period of 6 weeks. The results and conclusions from the research found that the experimental group who were taught mindfulness of breathing meditation techniques suffered less anxiety and depression and their level of stress and anxiety were clearly lower than those of the control group.

Buddhadasa Bhikku has always maintained that breathing is important with regard to other parts of our bodies, such as the lungs. Nathi Guagungijgan (1987) has carried out research on ‘the effect of learning mindfulness of breathing meditation techniques on the efficiency of the lungs of patients who suffer asthma after physical exertion.’ This experiment (‘quasi experimental design’) used a group of 24 subjects, separated into 2 groups of 12. The experimental group received medical treatment and studied mindfulness of breathing meditation techniques. The control group also received medical treatment but was not taught how to meditate. The experiment lasted 16 weeks. It was found at the end of the experiment that the group who has been taught mindfulness of breathing meditation techniques had more efficient lungs than those of the control group.

Duangjai Gasandigun (1986) has carried out research on how our moods affect our mental health: ‘the effects of meditation on mental health, measured by comparing depression in individuals between 15 and 25 years of age at the Buddhist Center for the practice of Religious Precepts (Phrathamgai Temple) in Phatumthani province. A control group of 156 people who had been instructed in meditation, had to take a test that measured their level of depression both before and after meditation. The average score showed that depression was lower after meditation. This suggests that meditation relieves stress, bringing with it the ability to analyze, understand problems and alleviate the cause of depression.

It should be pointed out that all kinds of diseases are treated with medicine or with many procedures of medical science. Some treatments use our own intentions and will power, for example, psychotherapy or the practice of meditation. In such treatments, the patient must play a part in helping himself, not simply depending on medicine. These treatments demonstrate that the mind can look after itself and have an effect on the treatment of physical disease. In this way, if a patient receiving treatment is able to understand that his sickness is physical and doesn’t allow it to affect his mental health, staying calm and cheerful, then that his sickness will inevitably improved and be cured more quickly. But if a patient reverts to being low-spirited, depressed or self-piteous then the sickness will be more difficult and take longer to treat. Therefore, staying calm, clear-headed and cheerful at all times is something that can protect us from disease. Phra Dhebhavedhi (Prayut Payuddho 1993 pp. 15-16) has listed all the benefits meditation can bring both to mental and to the development of the personality: will-power, determination, stability, politeness, gentleness, dexterity, liveliness, nimbleness, cheerfulness, dignity, altruism and the ability to know oneself and others truthfully. These are the attributes of a person who has achieved perfection in both in body and mind.