Just Breathe: Confirming Meditation’s Benefits
IN THE SPRING OF 1985 THINGS STARTED TO GO WRONG. A jittery teenager held a pistol to my wife’s head and robbed us a few blocks from our home in Houston. A few months later, I had too much to drink at a party and felt as though I was asphyxiating. At the emergency room, they decided I was just hyperventilating but the next morning I woke up feeling disoriented, with tingling extremities. Our doctor thought I had mononucleosis, so I spent the next three weeks resting, obsessing about what was wrong. Before long, I was taking antidepressants and seeing a therapist. We spent months unraveling the skein of childhood dysfunction I had long taken for granted. Divorced parents? Check. Domestic violence? Check. Catholic upbringing? Check. Therapy gave me a deeper understanding of what made me tick, but brought little relief. I still spent most of my waking hours registering every wayward thought and physical sensation.
One day I came across a copy of Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, by Joan Borysenko. A biologist and psychologist, Borysenko had collaborated at Harvard with Herbert Benson, who in the late 1960s began investigating how mental states can affect physical well-being. Her book, published in 1987, perfectly described the intense anxiety I’d been experiencing. The author suggested something novel: sit down, relax the belly, and follow the breath as it comes and goes; when a thought arises, let it go and return to following the breath. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I gave it a try. And for the first time in two and a half years I found some respite, some intervals of feeling whole and relaxed.
Curious about the roots of meditative practice, I started reading about Buddha’s quest to diagnose the cause of human suffering, and came across the idea that we suffer because we are attached—we always want things to be other than the way they are. Soon I was pulling out a cushion every morning and evening to meditate for 30 minutes. I certainly felt better, yet I couldn’t help wondering why meditation “worked.” How might modern science explain the benefits of a mind-focusing technique taught 2,400 years ago by an Indian spiritual teacher? It turned out that a lot of scientists wondered the same thing.