The 21st century has witnessed a surge in mindfulness meditation in the US and Europe. This trend has been supported by scientific studies validating the benefits of meditation for a number of physical and mental conditions. This study in 2013, for example, concluded that mindfulness meditation led to a significant reduction in anxiety and may be a viable treatment for generalized anxiety disorder. Alvin Powell at Harvard recently summarized the state of meditation research in a recent article.
Studies have shown benefits against an array of conditions both physical and mental, including irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, psoriasis, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But some of those findings have been called into question because studies had small sample sizes or problematic experimental designs. Still, there are a handful of key areas — including depression, chronic pain, and anxiety — in which well-designed, well-run studies have shown benefits for patients engaging in a mindfulness meditation program, with effects similar to other existing treatments (link).
Meditation is also being studied for its powerful anti-aging effects. In a study conducted at the University of California, researchers observed that “age-related gray matter loss was less pronounced in meditators than in controls, both globally and locally. . . our findings seem to add further support to the hypothesis that meditation is brain-protective and associated with a reduced age-related tissue decline. “
When it comes to meditation, one size does not fit all. There are those who meditate for spiritual reasons while others are in it exclusively for the secular benefits. Mindfulness meditation, which involves directing awareness to the present moment, can be practiced any number of ways. Some meditators focus on their heart, others their breath, and there are those who focus on the present moment more generally. Some meditators practice mindfulness at the expense of all other activities, while their counterparts incorporate the discipline into their ordinary life. The latter make an effort to keep their attention from wandering away from the present moment of whatever activity they may be performing at the timing, be it reading, working exercising, washing the dishes, or taking out the dog.
Mindfulness is by far the most common form of meditation, but it does not have a monopoly on the discipline. Other forms of meditation, like lovingkindness meditation (i.e. metta meditation), seek to improve well-being using different techniques. Loving-kindness meditation works by increasing the user’s love, empathy, and goodwill for all living things through imagination and the repetition of strategic affirmations. This meta-analytic review of the data concluded that loving-kindness meditation effectively cultivates positive emotions.
Most meditators don’t need science to confirm that meditation increases well-being, a conviction they have arrived at through experience. But science does deserve credit for strengthening this conviction, and for encouraging those unfamiliar with meditation to consider giving it a try.
Life change takes time, and meditation does not promise an immediate cure. See my next article on why it sometimes gets worse before it gets better for those just beginning their meditation journey.