Seven common myths about meditation

The Independent, UK/May 23, 2015

By Catherine Wikholm

Meditation is becoming increasingly popular, and in recent years there have been calls for mindfulness (a meditative practice with Buddhist roots) to be more widely available on the NHS. Often promoted as a sure-fire way to reduce stress, it’s also being increasingly offered in schools, universities and businesses.

For the secularised mind, meditation fills a spiritual vacuum; it brings the hope of becoming a better, happier individual in a more peaceful world. However, the fact that meditation was primarily designed not to make us happier, but to destroy our sense of individual self – who we feel and think we are most of the time – is often overlooked in the science and media stories about it, which focus almost exclusively on the benefits practitioners can expect.

If you’re considering it, here are seven common beliefs about meditation that are not supported by scientific evidence.

Myth 1: Meditation never has adverse or negative effects. It will change you for the better (and only the better)

Fact 1: It’s easy to see why this myth might spring up. After all, sitting in silence and focusing on your breathing would seem like a fairly innocuous activity with little potential for harm. But when you consider how many of us, when worried or facing difficult circumstances, cope by keeping ourselves very busy and with little time to think, it isn’t that much of a surprise to find that sitting without distractions, with only ourselves, might lead to disturbing emotions rising to the surface.

However, many scientists have turned a blind eye to the potential unexpected or harmful consequences of meditation. With Transcendental Meditation, this is probably because many of those who have researched it have also been personally involved in the movement; with mindfulness, the reasons are less clear, because it is presented as a secular technique. Nevertheless, there is emerging scientific evidence from case studies, surveys of meditators’ experience and historical studies to show that meditation can be associated with stress, negative effects and mental health problems. For example, one study found that mindfulness meditation led to increased cortisol, a biological marker of stress, despite the fact that participants subjectively reported feeling less stressed.

Myth 2: Meditation can benefit everyone

Fact 2: The idea that meditation is a cure-all for all lacks scientific basis. “One man’s meat is another man’s poison,” the psychologist Arnold Lazarus reminded us in his writings about meditation. Although there has been relatively little research into how individual circumstances – such as age, gender, or personality type – might play a role in the value of meditation, there is a growing awareness that meditation works differently for each individual.

For example, it may provide an effective stress-relief technique for individuals facing serious problems (such as being unemployed), but have little value for low-stressed individuals. Or it may benefit depressed individuals who suffered trauma and abuse in their childhood, but not other depressed people. There is also some evidence that – along with yoga – it can be of particular use to prisoners, for whom it improves psychological wellbeing and, perhaps more importantly, encourages better control over impulsivity. We shouldn’t be surprised about meditation having variable benefits from person to person. After all, the practice wasn’t intended to make us happier or less stressed, but to assist us in diving deep within and challenging who we believe we are.

Myth 3: If everyone meditated the world would be a much better place

Fact 3: All global religions share the belief that following their particular practices and ideals will make us better individuals. So far, there is no clear scientific evidence that meditation is more effective at making us, for example, more compassionate than other spiritual or psychological practices. Research on this topic has serious methodological and theoretical limitations and biases. Most of the studies have no adequate control groups and generally fail to assess the expectations of participants (ie, if we expect to benefit from something, we may be more likely to report benefits).

Myth 4: If you’re seeking personal change and growth, meditating is as efficient – or more – than having therapy

Fact 4: There is very little evidence that an eight-week mindfulness-based group programme has the same benefits as of being in conventional psychological therapy – most studies compare mindfulness to “treatment as usual” (such as seeing your GP), rather than one-to-one therapy. Although mindfulness interventions are group-based and most psychological therapy is conducted on a one-to-one basis, both approaches involve developing an increased awareness of our thoughts, emotions and way of relating to others. But the levels of awareness probably differ. A therapist can encourage us to examine conscious or unconscious patterns within ourselves, whereas these might be difficult to access in a one-size-fits-all group course, or if we were meditating on our own.

Myth 5: Meditation produces a unique state of consciousness that we can measure scientifically

Fact 5: Meditation produces states of consciousness that we can indeed measure using various scientific instruments. However, the overall evidence is that these states are not physiologically unique. Furthermore, although different kinds of meditation may have diverse effects on consciousness (and on the brain), there is no scientific consensus about what these effects are.

Myth 6: We can practise meditation as a purely scientific technique with no religious or spiritual leanings

Fact 6: In principle, it’s perfectly possible to meditate and be uninterested in the spiritual background to the practice. However, research shows that meditation leads us to become more spiritual, and that this increase in spirituality is partly responsible for the practice’s positive effects. So, even if we set out to ignore meditation’s spiritual roots, those roots may nonetheless envelop us, to a greater or lesser degree. Overall, it is unclear whether secular models of mindfulness meditation are fully secular.

Myth 7: Science has unequivocally shown how meditation can change us and why

Fact 7: Meta-analyses show there is moderate evidence that meditation affects us in various ways, such as increasing positive emotions and reducing anxiety. However, it is less clear how powerful and long-lasting these changes are.

Some studies show that meditating can have a greater impact than physical relaxation, although other research using a placebo meditation contradicts this finding. We need better studies but, perhaps as important, we also need models that explain how meditation works. For example, with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), we still can’t be sure of the “active” ingredient. Is it the meditation itself that causes positive effects, or is it the fact that the participant learns to step back and become aware of his or her thoughts and feelings in a supportive group environment?

There simply is no cohesive, overarching attempt to describe the various psychobiological processes that meditation sets in motion. Unless we can clearly map the effects of meditation – both the positive and the negative – and identify the processes underpinning the practice, our scientific understanding of meditation is precarious and can easily lead to exaggeration and misinterpretation.

• Catherine Wikholm is the co-author, with Dr Miguel Farias, of The Buddha Pill

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