I often get asked about the benefits of meditation. I've been practicing for 12 years although not consistently. I prefer yoga to be my moving meditation, after all that's exactly why the ancient yogis developed it. However today, mindfulness meditation (MM) has been hailed as the cure for everything from depression to autism, from chronic pain to diabetes. In the business world MM is thought to mediate stress at work and increase mental functioning. This apparently means we can be more productive for longer. One of the most unexpected applications I discovered is its use in the military. For example, snipers have been taught to meditate so they can steady their hand and detach themselves when killing the enemy.
All of this is a far-cry from the original purpose of meditation. Arising from the Eastern Euro-Asian philosophical and spiritual practices, meditation was and is synonymous with an ethical code. It was never developed to improve our performance at work or mitigate the stressors in life. Meditation is a practice designed to help us to learn about our mind and let go of the idea of ‘the self’. Ultimately it will allow us to realise our inter-connectedness with everything else thereby encouraging us to become a better person.
I have no doubt that meditation is a good thing, but not necessarily for everyone. I also have a healthy scepticism, given the hype around mindfulness workshops. Yet we live in unprecedented times with technological devices deliberately designed to be addictive. Our attention is continually bombarded by social media and we are helplessly carried away by our every thought and the emotions they evoke, both the good and bad. Aside from taking away our phones and tablets, meditation may be an antidote. I decided to do a bit of research to understand the benefits of MM beyond the hype. This is what I've learnt so far :-)
- It's difficult to compare one MM workshop with another as there is little agreement on the content of the workshops. The content will often be a reflection of the background and skillset of the teacher.
- The most effective outcomes in the research were those where the teacher was also the author of the study. For example, compassion and empathy increased only in those studies where the author was also the teacher of the workshop. Such a bias often results when there is a personal or financial investment of the provider in the workshop.
- An over-reporting of marginal positive results skews the data considerably.
- Hardly any studies reported negative results (why would you? Who would publish them?). This is a very important consideration in statistical research and therefore I'm hesitant to recommend many of the results.
I feel comfortable listing the following benefits of MM:-
+ Strengthens meta awareness, which positively affects your ability to focus your mind and gives you the ability to detach from your thoughts (e.g. this is important, particularly as social media has been shown to have a significant effect on anxiety and depression because we tend to believe the highly curated stories we read.)
+ Helps us with 'attentional blink’. This enables us to scan the environment more and can improve our ability to interact socially because we notice more social cues.
+ Reduces the emotional perception of chronic pain (which makes it more manageable).
+ Reduces cortisol. This is the hormone released when we are stressed. The ability to reduce it is helpful especially in social situations e.g. interviews or public speaking.
+ Reduces activation of the flight/fight/fright/ loop. This can positively impact our stress response, trauma, distress and our ability to manage extremely unhelpful emotions. However it will take 1000+ hours of practice.
+ Inhibits the default mode in our brain. This is the part of the brain responsible for reliving our past, day-dreaming, creativity and thinking about our future. Inhibition is useful because it's the part of the brain closely related to depression, anxiety and obsessional thinking.
+ Combined with cognitive therapy MM can benefit depression and anxiety disorders. Specifically it can prevent depression relapse (more effective than medication for severe depression).
+ Can increase the frequency and longevity of ‘insight and intuition’ (again we are talking years of practice here).
+ Slows brain ageing!!!!! Yep that's right but it needs to be a long term commitment to meditation practice.
So folks there appears to be some real benefits to be gained from MM if practiced in the long term on a regular basis. There are some negatives but I've chosen not to record them here. The negatives are most relevant in situations where the teacher is not proficient at dealing with anxiety disorders, depression and other mental illnesses. If you are in this camp, my advice is, choose your teacher carefully.
My conclusion from reading the literature is that MM can be helpful in dealing with the challenges of modern life, those that result in pain, stress, depression, attention and concentration issues and addictions. However I don't believe it's the antidote when practice is devoid of an ethical code. So much of our chronic lifestyle illnesses, both physical and psychological, are the result of the values we adhere to in society. So in many ways MM without the ethical code is a sticking plaster for covering over the wounds. On the other hand, invoking an intention to calm our mind so that we are able to support others and contribute positively to the world is powerful ethical stance that may actually change our behaviour. When we are more tuned into ourselves we can hopefully learn to be of service to others. I have decided to continue my mindful yoga but I'm also going to increase my sitting meditation practice (I prefer mantra meditation) with the intention of calming my mind and offering my talents and skills in service to the world.