Whether you meditate frequently, have been meaning to try it, or have no interest in the practice, it’s difficult to deny meditation’s increasingly widespread observance and the claims people make about its positive effect. But does it really “work,” for lack of a better word? Are there real benefits to be realized from meditation? If so, what are they? In this article we’ll consider this question.
What is meditation?Meditation is a very personal practice, and it means different things to different people. There are also many forms of meditation. However, it can be generally stated that meditation is a set of techniques or observances aimed to increase or achieve personal awareness, focus, mindfulness, relaxation, and other beneficial states.
How does one practice meditation?There are many forms of meditation. These included individual meditation, guided meditation, meditation with a mantra, religious prayer, and even forms of movement-based meditation such as Tai Chi and Yoga. Some would argue that simply sitting down and being at rest for short periods of time qualifies as meditation. Others would say that meditation takes a great deal of effort to practice it properly, including lengthy and complex training. Again, meditation can be a very personal and individual subject, but keeping with general terms, meditation usually consists of some form of quiet repose (sitting, lying down, or assuming a meditative pose), being aware of one’s body (especially one’s breathing), and being aware of one’s own thoughts without necessarily dwelling on them. Meditation is usually practiced in discrete blocks of time, with a set starting time and ending time.
What is the history of meditation?The practice of what we now term meditation is thousands of years old and may have originated in 4th-century India as part of the practice of an early form of Hinduism. Other spiritual and philosophical systems (such as Buddhism) are known to have developed or adopted meditation techniques as well.
What are the benefits of meditation?Anecdotally, those who practice meditation report that regular meditation can reduce stress and bring calm and increased clarity. Those who meditate say their sessions make them feel better physically, mentally, and spiritually. Creativity, productivity, and personal motivation are said to benefit from regular meditation.
But are there proven benefits to meditation?
StressThe answer is yes. Let’s start with an issue that many struggle with: stress. Many meditation practitioners self-report that meditation leads to reduced stress, but this claim has also been confirmed by science. For example, a peer-reviewed study appearing in the medical journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity in 2013 showed conclusively that meditation reduced physical and mental stress in test subjects. The experiment centered around a topical irritant applied to the skin of test subjects. This was observed to induce both psychological stress and physical pain in all subjects. However, the subjects who had undergone eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training were able to mitigate their stress responses using the meditation techniques they had learned. This was measured by the release of cortisol (known as “the stress hormone”) in the subjects who meditated, compared to control subjects who did not meditate. The reduction in stress during the study was also self-reported by the test subjects.
AnxietyAnother benefit that meditation practitioners self-report is a reduction in anxiety, a common mental disorder. In a study by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, MBSR training was again furnished to a randomized group of subjects with anxiety. Those who practiced the MBSR were shown to have reduced anxiety symptoms (according to various accepted clinical scales and measurements) when compared to those test subjects who did not practice MBSR.
DepressionAccording to the U.S. National Institutes of Mental Health, 21 million people suffered at least one episode of major depression in 2020–it’s a very serious problem, and meditation has been shown conclusively to help. In a review of dozens of clinical trials and studies involving more than 3,000 subjects, the U.S. National Library of Medicine concluded that meditation benefited those who suffer from depression, though it classified the evidence as “moderate.”
In an article published by the online zine Healthline, after numerous reviews of clinical studies about depression and various health disorders, the authors report that meditation has been proven to help with such disorders as sleep problems, high blood pressure, pain, and age-related memory problems.