We’ve learned a lot about mindfulness—and specifically meditation, which is one of the most effective strategies to cultivate moment-to-moment awareness of ourselves and our surroundings—over the last two decades.
According to research, practising mindfulness meditation for just a few weeks can have physiological, psychological, and social effects in our lives. The benefits of mindfulness and meditation practise in general have been advocated for everyone from executives to schoolchildren, ranging from increased grey matter in the brain to easing physical problems such as migraines and fibromyalgia.
While some have questioned the science underlying mindfulness meditation because of poor study designs and tiny effect sizes, this hasn’t dampened public enthusiasm. A recent study looked at print media coverage of meditation from 1979 to 2014 and found “near ubiquitous positive coverage of meditation.”
It might be difficult to tell which claims have the most evidence behind them and which are still exploratory or speculative when there are so many good claims regarding mindfulness meditation. Indeed, there is still a lot we don’t know about mindfulness and meditation. Here’s a list of questions we’re still looking into, as well as some advice on how to consume news and research carefully.
What exactly are the advantages of mindfulness meditation?
I’ve recently seen stories claiming that mindfulness and meditation practises might “prevent holiday excess,” “lower your risk of cancer,” and “help athletes ascend to the top.” Are these assertions correct?
When possible, rather than depending on single research, “meta-analyses” (statistical evaluations of a number of studies in a particular subject) might be valuable. A recent meta-analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine, for example, sparked some debate in the meditation community. This meta-analysis looked at a total of 3,515 people who took part in 47 randomised controlled trials of mindfulness meditation programmes. Meditation sessions only resulted in mild to moderate improvements in anxiety, despair, and pain, according to the researchers. These results are “similar to what would be expected from the use of an antidepressant in a primary care population but without the attendant toxicities,” according to the authors.
Surprisingly, there was little evidence of improved stress, distress, or quality of life in this study. Furthermore, the influence of meditation programmes on positive mood and feelings, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep, and weight was shown to be poor, insufficient, or non-existent. Meditation programmes, according to the authors, were not demonstrated to be more useful than active treatments, such as exercise, counselling, or using prescription medicines, on any of the outcomes studied. Meditation, on the other hand, did not appear to be hazardous.
Is there such a thing as too much practise?
“How much meditation practise is enough?” is a question I get asked a lot as someone who teaches meditation (mindfulness and compassion-based). Most people expect a CDC-style response (e.g., three times per week for 45-60 minutes), but I frequently use an old Zen proverb: “You should meditate for twenty minutes every day—unless you’re too busy.” After that, sit for an hour.” But, more often than not, I respond with the unsatisfactory “it depends.” Empirical study has yet to come to an agreement on how much is “enough.”
Many meditation programmes recommend that participants meditate for 15-30 minutes per day, 5-7 days per week in formal meditation (the “on the cushion” practise). Many studies, including some of our published research on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford University, have found that some (but not all) of the benefits from these programmes are “dose dependent,” meaning that the participants who report the most meditation practise show the most gains. This is not always the case; some results do not appear to be influenced by the number of minutes spent practising, and many published research reveal no “dose” effects at all. The research is mixed, as is often the case.
Aside from the raw number of minutes, other factors such as the type (e.g., formal sitting meditation practise vs. informal meditation practises, mindfulness vs. compassion, etc. ), frequency (e.g., multiple times a day, multiple times a week), and quality (e.g., sitting and actually doing the practise vs. doing the practise “on the go”) may interact to influence the benefits of mindfulness practise. I frequently use the gym as an example: It’s not enough to just think about going to the gym, or talk about going to the gym, or wear gym clothes around town, or go to the gym and sit on the gym equipment while checking your email, or only do cardio or weights, or only go to the gym for a few weeks after making New Year’s resolutions. To get the most out of going to the gym, one must commit to visiting on a regular basis and performing the exercises.
Is there a side to meditation that isn’t so pleasant?
One of the most common misconceptions regarding mindfulness and meditation is that they will bring us feelings of serenity, calm, and stress reduction. While this may be the case for some, it is not the case for everyone. Sitting alone with oneself can be a challenging—even painful—experience at times. Sitting and meditation might bring up difficult memories and experiences for those who have been through trauma, which they may not be ready to tackle.
We don’t know much about these negative consequences right now. Willoughby Britton of Brown University established “The Varieties of Contemplative Experience” project a few years ago with the goal of examining, documenting, analysing, and eventually publicising any reports of negative consequences of meditation and contemplative activities. While data collecting is underway, early data on the negative impacts for specific individuals will most likely be available soon.
When practising meditation, it may be necessary to seek outside help, such as short-term counselling, support groups, or meditation sangha groups. It’s also feasible that some techniques are “difficult” in comparison to others. If you were abused as a youngster, for example, visualisation exercises in which you imagine yourself as a small child may be extremely tough. Rather than rushing through the exercises, take the time to consider whether a certain kind of meditation is right for you at this point in your life.
How to approach research with scepticism?
There is frequently a discrepancy between what scientific research actually finds and what the media ends up reporting in the journal-to-journalism cycle. We’ll undoubtedly continue to be bombarded with beautiful magazine covers, headlines, and social media posts about the latest and greatest research on mindfulness and meditation in general. As a knowledgeable consumer of mindfulness meditation research, you may want to undertake the following in addition to reading news from credible sources.
- Read the original research paper: Look up the original research paper that was cited and read it completely. Pay special attention to the section on methods: What are the names of the participants? What was the total number of attendees? What methods were used to assess or alter mindfulness? What are the differences, if any, and how significant are they?
- Ask how this fits in with the larger literature: The latest mindfulness meditation research will undoubtedly make headlines, but it’s vital to consider how the findings fit into the greater body of knowledge: Does this study corroborate or contradict previous research? Have these results been confirmed? When at all feasible, read meta-analyses.
- Remember that publications are biased: Academic publications have a history of favouring new and novel research that reveals some sort of correlation or impact rather than none at all. As a result, the majority of news items and study papers you read will claim that some modifications or improvements have occurred. While this is gradually improving, research in which no differences or improvements were found are still unlikely to be published. It’s crucial to remember that what gets published is only a small portion of the total amount of research done.
- Revisit Stats 101: Remember that research is probabilistic; averages are presented in studies, but there are always persons who fall far above and far below the norm (often to the point of being called outliers). Remember that you could be an outlier—just because something “works” for the majority of people doesn’t mean it will “work” for you. We must be willing to act as our own laboratory, testing things on ourselves, collecting data, and determining whether or not they “work” for ourselves.
- Proceed with caution: Remember to use caution when interpreting whatever you read—researchers and journalists have biases, too! Researchers are rewarded for publishing findings that present a logical and consistent storey that are consistent with existing research. Journalists are rewarded for creating captivating headlines that entice you to click on their articles, and they are frequently bound by word count constraints and tight deadlines, all of which might affect the final product you read. We must be willing to do our own homework as intelligent consumers of mindfulness research and carefully assess what, if any, implications the latest study findings have for us in our lives.