Australia’s first woman Nobel Prize winner, Elizabeth Blackburn, thinks it would be a very good idea to use the term healthspan instead of lifespan. As she says, there are many things that limit the length of human life, and so aiming to live a healthier life instead of much longer one is more fulfilling. Blackburn’s groundbreaking work underlines the physiological link between good health and meditation.
How stress affects our health
Professor Blackburn is a microbiologist and her prize winning discovery involved her work with chromosomes. Rather like shoelaces, they have a protective tip at each end which holds the genetic material intact while cells divide. Just as a shoelace can fray without its protective tip, so too can chromosomes fray as they age because their tips get progressively “whittled down”. Without the protection of these tips, called telomeres, the cells eventually die.
stress can affect our health even at a cellular level, causing damage to chromosomes… but this is not necessarily a one way street
Her great discovery is that the fraying of these telomeres is not necessarily a one-way street. There is an enzyme which slows down this process and which can even replenish the telomeres, making it more possible to maintain health at the cellular level. This is necessary if we are to stay healthy as we age. Blackburn’s focus is not on extending our lives however, but on enabling us to live what she likes to call a healthspan – enabling us to stay healthy into our latter years.
It has become very clear in the evidence which has been collected about telomeres, that their ability to maintain themselves is very badly influenced by psychological stress. As Blackburn points out, stress is generated by our mental states and has a huge effect on our overall health. Her exact words are, “It is not la-la land, it is very serious and has been recognised”. It is now widely acknowledged for example that socio-economics is the biggest risk factor in cardiac disease, not our genes, and that the health of the telomeres plays an important part in this. Blackburn recommends meditation as playing a key role in reducing and relieving stress.
Mind and body together
In the meditation tradition our minds are not seen as separate from our bodies. In our own culture there have been two main ways of thinking of ourselves; either as completely material, with consciousness viewed as an outgrowth of our brains, or as divided – as an immaterial soul in a material body. And this has caught us in endlessly confusing philosophical arguments, along with unbelievably detrimental ways of treating ourselves and the world we live in.
When you study and experience consciousness in the meditation tradition, you discover that your body is integral to your experience of consciousness. So much so, that our senses are seen to be the foundation of all of our conscious experience. And from this point of view we have six senses – not five, as our culture believes.
These include (as you would expect) our eyes, ears, nose, tongue and our skin. We tend to forget that our sense of touch is our whole skin, not just our fingers, and so we “feel” everything around us with our whole body.
The sixth sense is our mind. And to us, as Westerners, this is an extraordinary idea. However, it doesn’t take too much observation while you are meditating to notice that all of your thoughts are sensory experiences. They come as images and conversations – so you literally see and hear your thoughts. They can also be associated with smells, tastes and feelings, especially while you are dreaming.
So, as far as your body is concerned, it makes no difference whether a sensation comes from one of your five senses or your mind, it reacts in exactly the same way. What you discover in meditation is that whether something around you stimulates one of your senses, or something happens in your mind, your body reacts. And, as far as our bodies are concerned, anything coming from our minds is just as real as anything coming from any of the other senses – it reacts in exactly the same way.
What exactly is stress?
Stress is a state of arousal, when your body is on high alert to face danger. Under natural circumstances this would not last a very long time. If your body is facing an outer emergency all of its resources are directed towards the emergency and so it produces adrenaline and cortisol which both repress any pain you might feel and suppress the functioning of the immune system. The body’s self-healing mechanism is switched off and is not switched on again until you relax.
through meditation you can let your mind settle and your body relax, giving a deep release from stress
When you are stressed you also breathe in tight, short, jerky patterns and your muscles tighten, restricting blood and oxygen flow to all the organs. Your muscles and organs then become starved of oxygen.
Under normal circumstances this would only last for a short time. The emergency would be over fairly quickly and then you would naturally give a sigh of relief. Your body would relax and return to its normal function where the immune system switches back on and the blood flows smoothly.
With psychological stress however, the signals for being on full alert are not coming from the reality of the situation we live in but from our minds. They are coming from the cage of thoughts and the stories which we habitually get caught in. What this means is that our bodies are reacting to these thoughts and stories in exactly the same way as if there was an emergency. But, unlike any normal situation, there is no signal for the body to let it know the danger is over. It just goes on and on and our bodies stay on full alert.
Meditation gives the cues for calm and relaxation
When you meditate your body returns its natural state of balance. Your body relaxes, sometimes to the point of sleep. However, unlike when you just relax, your mind becomes calm because it is focused on the meditation. This is the key to why meditation is so effective for releasing stress, because when we just relax our minds keep wandering down the tracks they normally take. It’s only through the focus which meditation provides that your mind becomes calm.
So when you meditate your body receives the cues to let go of being on full alert. Because your focus moves from your thoughts to whatever sensations you are experiencing, you are freed from the cage of thoughts we normally live in. Your body relaxes, and it is only when we are relaxed that our immune system can function properly. By providing the opportunity to become relaxed and calm whenever you choose, meditation can have a profound effect on stimulating the immune system and protecting the health of your cells. It can lead to living a rich and fulfilling healthspan.