Sit Still, Live Longer?

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Research suggests that meditation may extend your lifespan, but anyone who embraces a serious mindfulness practice will soon discover it’s not about their life at all.

Many thoughts float in and out of my monkey mind each morning as I sit zazen within the knotty-pine walls of my upstairs office. Cellular function is not one of them.

Judging by recent research, however, plenty of other folks are obsessing over the notion that a mindfulness meditation practice can curb inflammation, lengthen your telomeres, and generally postpone the inevitable. It’s getting to the point where I can almost imagine the infomercial: Walter was pushing 80, but after only eight weeks of meditation, he now has the body and brain of a 40-year-old!! His kids don’t even recognize him anymore!! Call now for your free brochure!!

I’m guessing this is not really what the Buddha had in mind when he talked about enlightenment, but why be attached to concepts, right? Besides, if a little concentrated time on the cushion can ease the migraine that is modern life, science probably has some sort of responsibility to explore the possibilities.

And, as James Kingsland put it in a recent piece in The Guardian, scientists are on the case. “There is a small but growing body of evidence that regular meditation really can slow aging — at least at the cellular level.”

Kingsland goes on to describe how chronic stress and inflammation combine to shorten our telomeres, the protective caps on our chromosomes, and accelerate the aging process. Citing a Spanish study, he argues that meditators can slow all that down.

“Even beginners can start protecting their telomeres from the ravages of time and cell division,” he writes. “A study published in 2013 found that just 15 minutes’ meditation in novices had immediate effects on the expression of many genes, for example increasing the activity of the gene that makes telomerase and reducing the activity of genes involving inflammatory and stress responses. It’s amazing what sitting still with your eyes closed and focusing on your breath can do for your cells.”

These results echo those of a 2009 report from the University of California, San Francisco, and a June 2016 study out of the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The most recent contribution to this growing body of knowledge arrived last month from The Ohio State University, where psychologists Stephanie Fountain-Zaragoza and Ruchika Shaurya Prakash published a review of 27 studies focusing on the effects of meditation on three areas of particular interest to geezers: attentional control performance, psychological well-being, and inflammatory processes.

Their conclusions, however, were mixed. The lack of random-controlled trials among the studies they reviewed make further research necessary, they noted. Still, they did find reason for optimism:

“The reviewed evidence suggests that mindfulness may be advantageous for promoting cognitive, emotional, and physical health within the context of advanced aging. Moreover, these beneficial effects are conferred to those with little to no psychological symptoms as well as those with diagnosed psychological or medical conditions. This suggests that mindfulness training might be easily integrated into a variety of contexts, such as senior centers and group homes, and that it would be valuable and appropriate for such heterogeneous audiences.”

I’ve been practicing Vipassana meditation for nearly 25 years now without bothering to measure my telomeres, so I’m hardly qualified to critique the anti-aging evidence these and other scientists have submitted in recent years. As far as I’m concerned, anything that helps elderly folks improve their lives is worth pursuing. But I suspect those geezers who take the time and effort to delve at all into the fundamental philosophy behind their mindfulness practice will soon realize that life extension is not really the point.

In fact, to borrow a popular phrase, it’s not about you at all. As the Dalai Lama reminds us in The Compassionate Life, the primary reason to train your mind through meditation is to cultivate compassion for others. All bodhisattvas, he notes, aspire to enlightenment only “for the benefit of all sentient beings.”

And I guess if you happen to live to be 105 while you’re at it, that’s OK too.

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