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Psychologists are trying to discover whether meditation can reprogram minds with an antisocial bent. A study at the Kings County North Rehabilitation Facility, a jail near Seattle, asked prisoners serving time for nonviolent drug-or alcohol-related crimes to sit through Vipassana meditation for 10 days, 11 hours a day, alternating sitting and walking meditations. They were chosen for their extreme rehabilitation needs and because, really, who else are you going to get to bear with 11-hour meditation sessions? Approximately 56% of the newly enlightened prisoners returned to jail within two years, compared with a 75% recidivism rate among nonmeditators. The meditating cons also used fewer drugs, drank less and experienced less depression. At Cambridge University, John Teasdale found that mindfulness helped chronically depressed patients, reducing their relapse rate by half. Wendy Weisel, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors and author of Daughters of Absence, took anxiety medication for most of her life until she started meditating two years ago. "There's an astounding difference," she reports. "You don't need medication for depression or for tension. I'm on nothing for the first time in my life."
Contentment and inner peace are nice, but think how many Americans would start meditating if you could convince them they would live longer without having to jog or eat broccoli rabe. More than a decade ago, Dr. Dean Ornish argued that meditation, along with yoga and dieting, reversed the buildup of plaque in coronary arteries. Last April, at a meeting of the American Urological Association, he announced his most recent findings that meditation may slow prostate cancer. While his results were interesting, it's important to note that those patients were also dieting and doing yoga. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who studied Buddhism in the '60s and founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the UMass Medical Center in 1979, has been trying to find a more scientific demonstration of the healing power of meditation. Over the years, he has helped more than 14,000 people manage their pain without medication by teaching them to focus on what their pain feels like and accept it rather than fight it. "These people have cancer, AIDS, chronic pain," he says. "If we think we can do something for them, we're in deep trouble. But if you switch frames of reference and entertain the notion that they may be able to do something for themselves if we put very powerful tools at their disposal, things shift extraordinarily."