It seems like everyone is enamored with meditation.
Every day articles come out touting new benefits, new uses, and new scientific discoveries about its effects. It’s as if meditation is the perfect antidote to all of life’s problems–all benefits and no side effects.
But we all know that the perfect antidote doesn’t exist.
So what do we really know about the benefits of meditation?
The research looks promising–and confusing. While popular media claims that meditation is the answer to almost every ailment, scientists are more cautiously optimistic. The data is interesting but in many cases, it’s too early to draw firm conclusions.
At this stage, it’s hard to know what is truth and what is myth. You’re left with a very unsatisfying conclusion that many benefits of meditation look likely to be true but we’re not yet sure. Not a myth, but not fact either.
To understand this divide between popular understanding and scientific proof, we have to dive into the world of research.
And understanding research is… complicated.
The Realities of Studying Meditation
One of the first challenges in scientific mindfulness research is defining mindfulness or meditation practices.
Many studies use the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program as the gold standard of mindfulness programs. This program has a long established history, is secular (making it accessible to people of all faiths and backgrounds), and is standardized so the training is consistent from group to group.
But with so many studies using this one technique to represent all of meditation practices, no one knows if different meditation techniques would get the same results.
A second challenge is that benefits of meditation are broad and vague.
For example, if you are studying the effects of meditation on stress, what do you mean? Are you looking at emotional benefits–that you “feel better”? Or are you examining a quantitative symptom of stress, like cortisol levels? Or are you looking at reducing a subjective symptom of stress, such as stress eating?
Scientists have ways to measure all these results but they’ll hesitate to draw broad conclusions from them.
One illustration is a study that looked at mindfulness programs for children aged 7 – 9 and reported good results:
The potential role of mindfulness as an early and preventive approach in children that targets both cognitive and affective aspects of self-regulation highlights considerable possible benefits for children. ~Mindfulness Training in Primary Schools Decreases Negative Affect and Increases Meta-Cognition in Children
The scientists limited their conclusions to say that children aged 7 – 9, in the UK, who went through this program, experienced a decrease in negative emotions.
Hardly a rousing endorsement of the benefits of mindfulness.
And finally, many mindfulness research studies don’t meet strict scientific standards. Often they draw broad generalized conclusions based on little or poorly controlled data. So many popular conclusions about meditation aren’t backed by true scientific methods.
To understand the true benefits of mindfulness, you need to take a broad approach. You need to look at scientific data carefully and at the same time, use common sense and personal experience.
Myth #1: Meditation stops stress
While it’s unlikely that meditation is a magic pill for stress, research often finds it gives some relief to some people, especially in carefully defined circumstances and with clearly defined results.
Without definitive support from science, the more important question is if meditation helps relieve your stress.
Meditation has been used for centuries to increase well-being and decrease stress and anxiety. Tradition is quite confident about the benefits of meditation for stress.
So until science catches up to tradition, it’s up to you to find out if meditation helps your stress. Conduct your own scientific study using trial and error. Find out what works best for you.
Myth #2: Meditation makes you healthier
In addition to reducing stress, meditation is credited with many other health benefits including:
- Lowering blood pressure
- Relieving some symptoms of ADHD
- Reducing anxiety
- Relieving PTSD
- Supporting the immune system
- Reducing inflammation
- Reducing Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Increasing the folds in the brain
- Helping stop smoking
This is just a small sample of current research. (The National Center for Health, a part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, has a nice summary of some major research on the benefits and effects of meditation.)
But the field of mindfulness research is young. We’re only beginning to understand how mindfulness affects the body.
So how can you tell what’s a myth? Stay abreast of the current research and use common sense. If you read an article that sounds too good to be true, find the original research source. Investigate if the study was done carefully and if its conclusions are sound.
And in your own body, use meditation with open curiosity. If you have a health condition, try meditation and see what happens. Experiment. See what you discover.
Myth #3: Meditation makes you happy
The current Happiness Trend in popular media implies that if you are anything less than joyful, there must be something wrong with your life.
The popular view of meditation is the perfect partner in this misunderstanding.
People think meditation can help you cope with work, with difficult relationships, and with challenging life changes. And if you meditate, you’ll be more confident, have a better attitude, learn to forgive, and be more open to life.
Can meditation do all that?
I think you know the answer.
Meditation is a tool which helps you know yourself better. You learn about your mind and when you do that, you are often less hooked by your thoughts and worries. You may find more contentment than before.
But this is no panacea and certainly no guarantee that you’ll be happy.
Even if you meditate, life will happen. You’ll have good times and bad. You’ll feel good about your circumstances and you’ll feel frustrated.
In other words, meditation helps you have a very normal life.
Myth #4: Meditation is always good for everyone
Because meditation is touted as a cure-all for the many health and emotional issues, it is recommended for virtually everyone. But can there be harmful side effects?
Like all the previous myths, science is not sure.
However looking beyond what scientists know, traditional meditation teachers suggest that there can be cases when meditation needs careful guidance.
Traditionally, a meditation student started their practice under the guidance of an experienced teacher and with the support of a meditation community. Because mediation brings awareness to your mind, it can bring awareness to the many uncomfortable, dark places of your psyche.
People with mental health issues are especially susceptible to this. For example, being aware of one’s depression can feed the depression or rumination. It can bring up fears or bad memories.
Having an experienced practitioner, counselor, or doctor to guide you through these difficult experiences can be very helpful.
Myth #5: It takes years of meditation to get its benefits
People used to believe that you had to meditate for years to get its benefits. More and more, scientists are reporting that the benefits start quite quickly.
There are a number of studies that find benefits from short meditations over a relatively short period of time. In this study by Moore, Guber, Derose, and Malinowski, participants meditated just 10 minutes/day over 16 weeks. At the end of the study, participants reported enhanced focus.
The best way to see if you get benefits from a short period of meditation is to try it. Commit to 10 minutes a day for the next 2 months. Keep a journal and by the end of the time, see if you are feeling better.
Many people report great benefits from meditation. Regularly, I hear stories about how meditation has helped clients with everything from balancing their moods and making them less reactive, to coping with pain and managing stress levels.
So while science can’t definitively debunk or support the benefits of meditation, your human experience can.
Start a meditation practice. Be consistent. Observe its effects in your life with curiosity and playfulness, without expectations or judgments. Let us know what you discover in the comments below.