News & Perspectives

Om in to Better Health

Columbia-Presbyterian Center for Meditation and Healing, New York, NY

Joseph Loizzo exudes a certain calm. This New Yorker doesn't suffer from nervous jitters or grinding teeth--it's just straight equanimity. And considering what he does for a living, that's a blessing. Dr. Loizzo is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, as well as the director of the Center for Meditation and Healing at Columbia University. Open since spring 1998, the center has seen some 175 patients, many suffering from serious illnesses such as cancer and AIDS, as well as others simply looking for ways to cope with life’s stressors.

Dr. Loizzo is well prepared to direct the center. In addition to his training as a psychiatric M.D., he has studied Indian and Tibetan healing practices. To him, combining these interests seems a natural fit.

Numerous studies
A number of scientific studies have confirmed the healing benefits of meditation. Medical pioneers such as Herbert Benson, M.D., of the Mind-Body Medical Institute at Harvard, for example, have shown how relaxation decreases blood pressure. And Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., of the Stress Reduction Center at the University of Massachusetts, has demonstrated that meditation techniques decrease anxiety and increase the pain threshold.

Many types of people visit Columbia's Center for Meditation and Healing, and their ailments are numerous: Cancer, AIDS, heart disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, back pain, delusional disorders, substance abuse, manic depression, and everyday stress are just a sampling. Physicians, nurses, and psychologists interested in learning about complementary therapies have been signing up for sessions as well. The people who benefit most from the program, says Dr. Loizzo, are the motivated ones. A firm intention, discipline, and a positive outlook are key, he says. "It almost doesn't matter how sick they are. It's a result of people's attitudes."

Beyond therapy
Visitors to the center meet in groups of 10 to 15 people for two hours once a week for eight weeks. The first four weeks cover pain, illness, stress, and healing behaviors. Patients learn the basics of meditating: how to breathe, relax, maintain proper posture, and pay attention to their minds and bodies. Each session also focuses on a particular theme. Participants, for example, might discuss their attitudes about suffering--whether it's mechanical, a punishment from God, a wake-up call, or a blessing.

In the second four weeks, participants examine their lives and try to identify counterproductive and addictive behaviors that may lie at the root of both mental and physical illnesses. To help thwart these potentially destructive behaviors, they learn to integrate advanced meditative and yoga techniques into their everyday lives. They also attempt to let go of hostilities and defensiveness in order to achieve peace of mind.

How do I meditate?
A meditative state, Dr. Loizzo explains, is an optimal time to examine yourself and think about which behaviors may be healthy and which are not. But how does one learn to meditate? First, he advises, pay attention to your posture, taking care to relax any tensed muscles. Then, breathe through your nose slowly and into your belly. A further step is to focus on a single image that has positive associations for you, such as Christ, the Dalai Lama, or your mother. The aim is to become relaxed, but alert. The biggest obstacle to meditation, Dr. Loizzo says, is the fear of performance: "I'm not doing it right. I can't do this. This is not going to work." It's important to move beyond these fears.

"When you combine analysis with a relaxed, focused mind, the outcome can be remarkable. Otherwise, if you’re just focusing and relaxing but not looking at your mind, you're not learning. You change and learn a different way of being," Dr. Loizzo says, "and realize you are the medicine." Once self-awareness is achieved, the goal is to sustain the positive thinking and new lifestyle.

Dr. Loizzo has been surprised by the positive results. "If a person is motivated and disciplined, a lot can happen." He has seen, for example, AIDS patients increase their T-cell counts. Those in chronic pain have found relief. People have discontinued their antidepressants. Insomniacs sleep better. And one more sign of success: Time-starved, stressed-out New Yorkers are returning for one-on-one consultations after the program is complete.

For more information, contact: Center for Meditation and Healing, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, 16 E. 60 Street, New York, NY 10021; 212-326-8435.

Further reading: Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., Wherever You Go, There You Are (Hyperion, 1995); Herbert Benson, M.D., The Relaxation Response (Avon, 1990).

Date Published: 07/15/2001
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