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Lately Kabat-Zinn has been studying a group of patients with psoriasis, an incurable skin disease that is often treated by asking patients to go to a hospital, put goggles on and stand naked in a hot, loud ultraviolet light box. Apparently, many people find this stressful. So Kabat-Zinn randomly picked half the patients and taught them to meditate in order to reduce their stress levels in the light box. In two experiments, the meditators' skin cleared up at four times the rate of the nonmeditators. In another study, conducted with Wisconsin's Richard Davidson, Kabat-Zinn gave a group of newly taught meditators and nonmeditators flu shots and measured the antibody levels in their blood. Researchers also measured their brain activity to see how much the meditators' mental activity shifted from the right brain to the left. Not only did the meditators have more antibodies at both four weeks and eight weeks after the shots, but the people whose activity shifted the most had even more antibodies. The better your meditation technique, Kabat-Zinn suggests, the healthier your immune system.
Meanwhile, the evidence from meditation researchers continues to mount. One study, for example, shows that women who meditate and use guided imagery have higher levels of the immune cells known to combat tumors in the breast. This comes after many studies have established that meditation can significantly reduce blood pressure. Given that 60% of doctor visits are the result of stress-related conditions, this isn't surprising. Nor is it surprising that meditation can sometimes be used to replace Viagra.
But meditation does more than reduce stress, bring harmony and increase focus. As the Beatles demonstrated in 1968 when they visited the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in his Himalayan ashram (they had met him in London in 1967), it can also give you much needed gravitas. Actress Heather Graham started meditating at the suggestion of director David Lynch, another Maharishi student, 12 years ago on the set of his studiously bizarre Twin Peaks TV series. "It's easy to spend a lot of time worrying and obsessing, but meditation puts me in a blissful place," says Graham, who typically meditates for 20 minutes when she wakes up and then again in the afternoon. "At the end of the day, all that star stuff doesn't mean anything. Transcendental Meditation reminds you that it's how you feel inside that's important. If you have that, you have everything." Lynch, who also directed Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, has been sitting for 90 minutes twice a day since 1973. "I catch more ideas at deeper and deeper levels of consciousness, and they have more clarity and power," he says. Imagine the messed-up stuff Lynch might come up with if he meditated for four hours a day.
Goldie Hawn, who says she has been practicing for 31 years, has a dedicated meditation room in her house filled with her favorite crystals, flowers, incense and pictures of the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa. She meditates twice a day for at least 30 minutes. "How do you learn to witness your destructive emotions?" she asks. "You can only do this by being able to sit quietly and quiet your mind."