Doctors and Meditation

Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati, MB, BS (Syd.)

Forty doctors sat in a darkened room; the atmosphere was quiet and peaceful. At a given signal they all started chanting the mantra 'Om Namaha Shivaya'.

These doctors were not radicals or dropouts, but members of the Australian Medical Association attending sessions of the 6th Annual Medical Congress in Tasmania in March 1981. Dr Malcolm Caruthers, a visiting British chemical pathologist, was teaching them meditation and explaining, in scientific terminology, its advantages. He stated that meditation is 'the prescription of the '80's'.

The conference went into details on the effects of stress, as well as other subjects of medical interest. Stress has wide ranging effects on the body and mind. It raises cholesterol, suppresses the immune system, increases blood pressure and heart rate, decreases the level of testosterone in the bloodstream and causes imbalance in the milk-regulating hormone prolactin. In fact, all body systems are adversely affected by excessive stress.

Many of the doctors who attended the packed lunchtime session on meditation must have been acutely aware of the effects of stress, as their profession is one of the most highly stressed in our society. This accounts for their lowered life expectancy, high drug addiction rate, and very high suicide rate. Many of the doctors at the meditation session could have been with their colleagues engaged in other forms of 'recreation'. So the message must be getting through.

Doctors, more than many other professionals, require a method of coping with the pressures of their responsibility: The purpose of the meditation session was stated to be mainly to teach doctors techniques which they could give to their patients. And, indeed, in Australia now doctors can prescribe meditation and their fees will be covered by the national health scheme. However, in order to teach it, they must first learn the methods-and practise themselves. This has a two-fold benefit, one for the doctor and one for the patient.

We know that stress, in excess, can be lethal. Science is now investigating methods to either reduce its effects, or increase our ability to handle it effectively. Investigators have found that certain types of people are more prone to the effects of stress. One group of researchers has called this personality 'Type A'. This group of people have certain characteristics in common. They may explosively accentuate certain key words in ordinary speech, even when there is no need, or move, walk and eat rapidly. They may always feel vaguely guilty when they relax and do absolutely nothing. Competitiveness, aggression, impatience and ambition typify this personality.

Doctors tend to fit into this personality group, in general, because in order to be successful in medicine and to wade through the mountains of facts available, and increasing every day, a certain amount of Type A is necessary. This may explain their high rate of illness, especially heart disease, and suicide.

There is, today, no lack of evidence that meditation helps to soothe the effects of stress. Doctors are becoming increasingly interested in its effects and are using it, for example, in the treatment of cancer, heart disease, and to alleviate anxiety, insomnia, and other mental conditions. Caruthers did one experiment in which senior members of the National Coal Board in Britain were the subjects. They were divided into three groups. The first continued its normal routine; the second performed physical activities; and the third performed physical activities as well as meditation.

The results of this experiment showed that group one exhibited no changes, group two showed a fall in uric acid and cholesterol, and group three showed not only a marked reduction in these chemicals but also a reduction in blood pressure and resting pulse rate. According to Caruthers, 'Those who meditated also said they felt calmer and better able to do their job.'

Meditation is not only a better, drug-free method of coping with the stresses of life, but it can help the doctor as well as the patient.