Mindfulness for Skeptics: Is Meditation a Waste of Time?

Sean Wallace

As an enthusiastic meditator, I am delighted that mindfulness is now a household word. An increased awareness of the benefits of meditation has led more people to try mindfulness practices to help combat stress, anxiety, and other afflictions, often at the suggestion of health care professionals. Mindfulness is a form of meditation that typically involves sitting quietly and focusing the attention on the sensation of the breathing. Experienced meditators claim that this practice helps to cultivate desirable mental states, including feelings of tranquility, equanimity, and even bliss. This practice may result in lasting changes in everyday life, including increased ability to focus on a task without being distracted, to deal with stressful situations in a detached manner, and to avoid getting caught up in negative emotions. In a nutshell, mindfulness makes you happier.

Meditation is an ancient practice that is traditionally associated with Eastern religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism. Meditation, like all religious practices, involves a fair amount of ritual and is accompanied by certain beliefs about the nature of the universe that do not sit well with a modern scientific worldview. When meditation was introduced to the West in the 1970s, its association with mysticism was met with skepticism by the scientific community. Western students of meditation were associated with the psychedelic hippie culture of the 1960s and 70s, which further reduced the credibility of meditation as a serious practice. Despite the flourishing of secular approaches to meditation, its origins as a mystical practice and its ongoing association with “spirituality” (whatever that may mean to you) can still be off-putting for some people. Meditation in its most fundamental form, however, is simply a technique that involves using attention in specific ways to train the mind. There is no need to sit cross-legged on a cushion, burn incense sticks and chant in Tibetan to meditate (although by all means do if you find it helpful). Modern approaches to meditation have adapted the ancient practice of mindfulness for a secular audience.

Today mindfulness is a billion-dollar industry. Overblown claims about its utility as a cure for all modern ailments can make mindfulness seem like a trendy health fad. A comparison is often made between meditation and physical exercise. Just as physical exercise improves the health of the body, so does mental exercise improve the health of the mind. The problem with this analogy, from the point of view of the skeptic, is that the benefits of physical exercise are obvious for all to see, while the benefits of meditation are primarily mental and much more difficult to ascertain. When faced with an Olympic athlete and a couch potato, nobody doubts that physical exercise can improve the functioning of the body. When an experienced meditator claims that their practice makes them feel better, the skeptic is not so easily convinced. To make things worse, most people find their first attempts at practicing mindfulness to be underwhelming. Focusing on the breath or any other subject for a period of time is surprisingly difficult. Novice meditators may doubt whether the effort is worthwhile.

The benefits of meditation take some time to become apparent. There are countless examples of anecdotal evidence for these benefits. I have an anecdote of my own; I have been practicing mindfulness meditation for several years now, and I am convinced that it helps me feel less stress, sleep better, and has improved my overall mental well-being. But there are also countless examples of people who are convinced of the healing powers of crystals or homeopathy. For a skeptic who has tried to meditate and found no benefit, why persist with a practice that takes up valuable time?

Fortunately, we do not need to rely on anecdotes to be confident that mindfulness practice results in tangible benefits. Despite the initial hesitation of the scientific community to take meditation seriously, there has been an explosion of research papers on the subject in recent years. A PubMed search for ‘mindfulness’ has approximately 20,000 hits today. There is, however, still plenty for the skeptic to object to even here. Most scientific studies on meditation are epidemiological in nature and involve comparing groups of meditators to non-meditators for the traits of interest. Controlling for confounding variables is notoriously difficult in these kinds of studies. Individuals who choose to take up meditation practices are likely to be more health conscious than the general population and separating the effects of meditation from those of diet or exercise, for example, is challenging. There is, therefore, a great deal of variation in the quality of the research papers published on mindfulness. However, there have been many rigorous, well-controlled studies that have been able to attribute improvements in mental function to specific mindfulness practices.

Mindfulness practice is often undertaken in the form of a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, as pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn. These programs typically involve thirty minutes of daily meditation over an eight-week period, including mindfulness of the breath and body scans, where the attention is focused on bodily sensations. There have been hundreds of studies that show beneficial changes in individuals who participate in one of these courses. One study used fMRI to assess the brain activity of participants who had completed MBSR courses. Participants were presented with disturbing images as stressors and researchers found significant decreases in amygdala activity that correlated with reduced self-reported stress reactivity. A similar study found reduced levels of stress hormones when individuals who completed a MBSR course were exposed to stressful situations. A third study found that after completing the course, participants demonstrated increased ability to concentrate on specific sensory inputs. These changes were observed following about thirty cumulative hours of mindfulness practice, but improvements in attention have been observed in novice meditators who have been instructed in mindfulness meditation for as little as ten minutes. While these effects are certainly transient, they show that even small doses of mindfulness can be helpful.

For those who wish to take their meditation practice deeper, there have been studies of long-term meditators with thousands of hours of practice under their belt, showing profound changes in the brain, including a reduction in baseline activity in regions of the prefrontal cortex that are associated with wandering minds. These studies demonstrate that experienced meditators are less likely to be lost in thought even when they are not actively engaged in their meditation practice. For a comprehensive and critical analysis of the scientific studies of meditation, I strongly recommend reading Altered traits: science reveals how meditation changes your mind, brain and body, by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson.

I hope that this article has convinced skeptics that meditation is an activity that is worth considering. Even hard-nosed materialists who balk at the idea of spirituality can benefit from training the mind. If you are starting out with a meditation practice, it is important to have realistic expectations. The benefits of meditation are gradual, and patience is required. Novice meditators often give up because they are unable to focus on their breath for more than a few seconds and they realize how thoroughly out of control their mind is. This realization is actually a sign of progress. Most people are not aware that they spend most of their life in a state of distraction. Once you notice you are distracted, you can choose to return the awareness to the breath, even if only for a few seconds before you are lost in thought again. Repeat this process indefinitely, and the ability to notice what is going on in your mind will gradually strengthen. Everything you experience, feel, and care about takes place in your mind. Often it is your reaction to life’s events, and not the events themselves, that influences the quality of your existence. The ability to observe your inner mental state at any moment is a skill that allows you to get off the rollercoaster of reactivity that so often dictates your responses to situations. This enables you to respond in more positive ways to events as they occur, and ultimately improves the quality of your life and the lives of the people you interact with.

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