Does Meditation Really Work?
From the East, to the West
It's said that the Buddha achieved enlightenment during a deep meditation under the Bodhi tree .
Seeking enlightenment through meditation is a deeply rooted practice in many Eastern cultures and it actually predates the Buddha.
Initially, the Silk Road helped the practice travel around Asia and, eventually, it began its journey towards the West where, in recent decades, it has really taken off as a mainstream phenomenon .
Improved focus, greater emotional control, improved immunity, reduced suffering, weight loss, and improved sleep are just some of the benefits that are often sold to Westerners.
In short, you can become a better you.
Is this true? What does the science actually say about meditation?
The Science of Meditation
For starters, the science of meditation is very preliminary. Most of the studies we have are of low quality. To rigorously examine the benefits of meditation, we need many more carefully controlled longitudinal studies that follow people over a long period of time before and after beginning meditation .
Furthermore, a lot of the really impressive feats of meditation are found in yogis, monks, and other experts who spend their lives meditating. Not only is this unrealistic for the average person, it's difficult to understand how many of these amazing traits they have are a product of meditation.
Monks and yogis live in completely different cultures, with likeminded people who support their practice. On top of that, they often hold strong religious beliefs that undergird these practices. How do you separate the effects of these deeply rooted cultural influences from the practice of meditation?
Although the science so far isn't all that great, there's no reason to doubt that meditation has at least some utility. For thousands of years, the idea has continued to be passed down and practiced for generations: there must be a reason.
The Primary Benefit: Presence
That said, let's take a look at what seems to be the primary benefit. Specifically, let's take a look at mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is the act of focusing on the present moment. It's all about pure awareness.
Your brain has a default mode network (DMN) that comes online when you're not concentrating on anything . It's thought that the DMN helps us retrieve memories, think about the future, and understand the thought processes of other . It's that narrator in your head: the one that always ruminates. It's constantly constructing narratives about the past, other people, and generating potential solutions to future problems. When you practice being mindful of the present, such as when you focus on your breath, the DMN quiets down. Naturally, you become more focused and attentive to what's going on in the present moment. Studies show that with greater mindfulness practice, an individual can gain greater control of the DMN and get better at keeping it quiet and thus be more attentive in the present moment [2, 4, 6, 7, 10, 11].
I think it follows quite easily that if you can gain greater control over that narrator in your head, you can ruminate less, think less about the past and the future, be in the present and that might explain a lot of the other reported benefits such as lowered stress, greater compassion, and more focus [2, 8, 10, 11]. But, there seems to be a perverse love for constantly being in the present growing in the West.
There are times where being present is great. But, there are also times where it's more enjoyable to allow your mind to wander and to be somewhere else. In fact, some studies show that a wandering mind is important for creativity [15, 16, 17, 18]. Furthermore, one could argue that it's our ability to mentally time travel and retrieve important lessons from our past, and project ourselves into a multitude of potential futures that makes us so powerful as a species.
With that said, let's just drop the labels such as mindfulness, and let's just consider two states: one where you're attentive to what's going on right now, and one where you're preoccupied with the past and the future. Let's call these the experiential-self and the narrative-self, respectively. Both states are useful and necessary.
But, if mindfulness is pure awareness of the present moment, you can practice it at anytime. You don't need a special ritual but, more importantly, this capacity for presence was always available to you. My question to you is why aren't you already present in the moments you may be seeking to be? Whether it's your job, your relationships, and so on, there may be more fundamental issues underlying your lack of presence which a mindfulness practice is not going to fix. If you're not already present, the only thing that's going to change that is a change in belief or a change in environment.
In the West, mindfulness has been commodified and in order to sell it to the individual, we place the problem on them.
"You're distracted, and stressed because you're not mindful."
But, this statement is more true in the reverse: you're not mindful because you're stressed and distracted. Change your environment to one that pulls you into the present and you'll naturally be more mindful. But, if a change in environment isn't possible or desirable, you need a change in belief; you need a reason to be present.There are an infinite amount of beliefs that you could adopt to make yourself believe that being more present is valuable, but I want to share one with you and it brings me back to the origins of meditation.
Not For Me
This idea of what mediation can do for me, is very Western. In the East, meditation wasn't developed to improve productivity, or to cure illness. Originally, it was meant to be used as a pathway to selflessness, compassion, and enlightenment [2, 3, 11].
What if you didn't meditate for yourself? Instead, what if you did it so that you could be present for the people around you? How much better could you make that moment for them by being completely attentive, present, and giving them your most honest reaction? Now, imagine if you did that for everyone around you? How much happier could they all be as a result of these repeated interactions? How would this affect their interactions with others? How big could this chain of events get and how much of an impact could you have by simply being present? Realize that these people make up your environment. If that compassion radiates out from you to them, and they're all around you, how could it not find its way back to you? Maybe meditation is something you do for others, and not for yourself.
Does it Work?
So, mindfulness is just being in the present and yes, it does work. Naturally, there are benefits to being attentive to the present moment, and as you practice being present more, you may find yourself having an easier time doing it. However, if you're not already present you may need a change in environment or belief. But, there are also benefits to being in the past, the future, and just letting your mind wander in general. It's really up to you to decide, in each moment, which time you want to live in.