Every day Americans do virtually nothing in deafening silence. This is the face of modern meditation. A kind of inner contemplation gaining mainstream attention, not necessarily for spiritual enlightenment, but for matters of mind and body.
The unlikely town of Fairfield, Iowa, has become a mecca for transcendental meditation, reports CBS News correspondent Mika Brzezinski.
The Maharishi School and Maharishi University are named after the guru the Beatles followed — remember Maharishi Mahesh Yogi? Here, students practice his technique of transcendental meditation, or tm for short.
One student defends the school's focus, saying that the regimen is neither weird or freaky. "If it makes you feel good, then what's the problem?" the student asks. She adds, "It's just a natural experience. And I think anybody that tried it and felt the effects that it had in their life, would not think it was weird at all."
Along with the basics and the classics, lower grades do a walking meditation. Higher grades sit for 15 minutes, twice a day. Each student has a personal mantra. The goal: to calm the mind.
"I am somewhat hyper. And like, if I have chocolate or anything, I like completely change. And if I just meditate, and — ooh — I'm totally normal again," student Toby Walker says.
Think what you will, but Headmaster Ashley Deans says the school's report card speaks for itself.
"I've been here 15 years. And I'm amazed every single day at what these students accomplish. When I go to a tennis competition, they'll say, 'Oh you're a tennis academy.' We've won 17 state tennis championships in the last 16 years. If I go to speech and drama, they say, 'Oh, you're a theater school.' We've won more of the top awards than any other school in the history of the state," Deans says, adding that the school has also captured top titles in numerous statewide math and science competitions as well.
Deans explains the school's source for success. "If you want to send your child to a good school, usually you're thinking they'll learn more. They'll learn more information, more facts. They'll work them harder. But what that creates is stress.
"It actually damages the brain physiology," Deans says. "What we do is doing totally unexpected. We have the children do nothing, literally for a few minutes of the morning and the afternoon. It allows the mind to settle down to its quietest level. And just that experience enlivens the brain physiology and prepares them for activity."
Of course, there is no proof of a link between smarts and meditation, but Fred Travis, professor of psychology at Maharishi University, says brain waves do behave differently during TM.
Travis points to a concept called "coherence" — when the brain waves in the front and back of the brain rise and fall in sync. "When this is happening, it means that the front and the back of the brain are functioning as one," Travis says.
Travis explains, "It means they're talking to each other. They're not doing separate things, they're completely integrated. And what happens over regular TM practice is we begin to see this type of pattern, even when people are engaged in tasks. So when you're engaged in the task, you -- you no longer have tunnel vision, you're no longer lost in the project, you actually have a broader awareness."
But it isn't just in the brain, where meditation is holding promise.
Mena Boulanger is one of a growing number of Americans embracing meditation for possible health benefits.
Practicing mindfulness meditation — a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, Boulanger participated in an NIH-funded study at Loyola University in Chicago, examining the effects of meditation on immune cells in breast cancer patients.
Professor Linda Janusek is the lead investigator.
"Our emotions by way of changing chemicals in the brain, by changing nervous activity in the brain, alters the immune cell function," Janusek says. "Because we have nervous connections that link the brain with the immune cells. So it does make sense that if we change the chemistry of the brain or the neural output of the brain we can expect to see changes in the immune function."
While there is no hard number on how many Americans meditate, research on all kinds of mind-body meditation is growing. There are more than a dozen NIH-funded studies examining its effects on everything from heart disease, chronic pain, rheumatoid arthritis, eating disorders, diabetes, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to obesity.
National Institute's of Health is funding meditation research now at the levels of tens of millions of dollars. This was unthinkable 25 years ago.
For Jon Kabat-Zinn, best-selling author of "Coming To Our Senses," meditation's time has come.
"We're talking about something that's universal. Paying attention, and awareness are universal capacities of human beings. And that's what awareness does, so that we don't get caught in our thinking," Kabat-Zinn says.
A pioneer in the field of mindfulness, his mind body stress reduction technique is now used in hospitals across the country, but you don't have to wait until then, he says, to appreciate its real world benefits.
"There's a beautiful line from James Joyce, in one of his short stories in Dubliners, that goes like this: 'Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.' You know? So, that's like the story of most of us; that we're outside the body. We're in our heads. We're in the future, a lot of the time. We're in the past. Always planning. A lot of worrying," Kabat-Zinn says. "It's a little bit like driving your car with the brake on. If you just take the brake off, the car goes much, much better."
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