Why Meditation Is Not What You Think

Meditation has been on the rise in America and in many countries. Profoundly interconnected to Buddhism and other religions, meditation, especially mindfulness, has sparked an interest in many of the Eastern practices and its benefits. From retrieve centers for meditation to legit scientific studies, the world is starting to notice what Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh called The Miracle of Mindfulness.

But the story doesn’t end there. Meditation has been introduced to many aspects of our everyday life. Either is in businesses, schools, hospitals and even the military, the proliferation of mindfulness has finally entered our society. Many see this as a positive, but others see it as a negative. They argue that we are stripping the morals and ethics of the practice and turning it into a market-driven product that promises miracle cures. Moreover, meditation and its scientific studies around it are being used to promote more whacky practices that don’t have the scientific baggage the meditation has. Consequently, the public is confused about what meditation is. Why do we practice it? Is it worth a try? Am I joining Buddhism in the process?

Why Mindfulness is Not What People Think

Jon Kabat-Zinn and Others Hold Your Answer to Meditation

Zen teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn in his 2018 book, Meditation is Not What You Think, tackles our main questions when gazing our eyes towards meditation. The book is an updated version of his mid-2000’s book Coming to Our Senses (divided into four separate books), in which he tackles different aspects of meditation, Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, Buddhism and many other topics. As he explains in one of its chapters, “Meditation is a way of being, not a technique.” Moreover, Kabat-Zinn debunks the incorrect notion that meditation is for relaxation and calmness by stating that “meditation is not relaxation spelled differently.”

Meditation Is Not What You Think
Courtesy of Hachette Books.

On the topic of mindfulness, which is one part of the vast versions of meditation, Kabat-Zinn explains that it has more to do with nature of the human mind than with any ideology, beliefs, or culture. In fact, he is responsible for stripping the whole religious coat that surrounded the practice. Back in the 1970s, after completing his Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he started what is now known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in the University of Massachusetts’s Hospital. The eight-week meditation intervention has proven to be effective for pain, stress, and anxiety. Moreover, a study by Britta K. Hölzel and her colleagues found that Zinn’s MBSR reduced stress and correlated with structural changes in the amygdala, which is the part of our brain in charge of emotional regulation and the fight-or-flight situation.

Zinn explains why his Stress Reduction Clinic works so well with many people in the hospital:

“I learned from this listening that our patients came to the Stress Reduction clinic for a lot of different reasons that, in the end, were really just one reason: to be whole again, to recapture a spark they once felt they had, or felt they never had but always wanted. They came because they wanted to learn how to relax, how to relieve some of their stress, how to lessen physical pain to live better with it; how to find peace of mind and recover of well-being.”

It is profoundly true that many promise miracle healing through mindfulness, but Kabat-Zinn is not one of them. He has always been more on the side of the empirical journey to find the real effects of mediation on our mind and body. Kabat-Zinn has even collaborated with the best researcher for this kind of topic, Richard J. Davidson, whose laboratory in Wisconsin-Madison has really shed light on the real power of meditation.

Promising Research

In September of 1999, Davidson and Kabat-Zinn collaborated in a study to find the power of MBSR in the workplace. In a study done in Promega, a corporation outside of the University of Wisconsin, the duo studied how an MBSR intervention could affect the health of many of the employees. What did they find? Davidson explains in his 2011 book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain:

“The first thing we found was that anxiety symptoms fell about 12 percent among other people who took the MBSR class but increased slightly among the wait-list control group. The MBSR group also showed a significant shift toward left-side frontal activation. Compared with what it had been before the course, the level of the left-side activation had tripled after four months.”

Moreover, Davidson also found that the MBSR intervention had affected the immune system of the employees. This, because Davidson injected a flu shot to both control and experimental groups. They found that “Meditators produced five percent higher levels of antibodies to the vaccine, an indication that their immune system responded more effectively than those of the control group.”

Other scientists have found real effects of mindfulness, not just Davidson. Tania Singer et al. in the Max Plank Institute in Germany found that just short periods of Loving-Kindness Meditation lead to different brain pathways for compassion than people who received instructions on empathy. John Teasdale, one of the founders of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) in Oxford, found that their method, MBCT, significantly reduced risk of relapse/recurrence in severe depression.

Last Word on Meditation

This in no way saying that meditation will substitute medicine or that is better than other treatment. What I’m exposing is what meditation really does. There’s still a lot of work to be done, as Daniel Goleman and Davidson explained in their 2017 book, Altered Traits, “Historically, meditation was not meant to improve our health, relax us or enhance work success.” They later added, “The true contemplative goal has always been altered traits.” Altered traits are based on the neuroplasticity of the brain (the brain is not a set structure, is malleable).

So, the next time you’re confused about what meditation can or can’t do, remember there’s a whole new field of contemplative neuroscience and even neurotheology (founded by Andrew Newberg) that can bring you closer to your answers. Many are now employing what it’s been called McMindfullnes, which is really capitalism’s way of owning such a practice. But don’t let that stop you from trying. Meditation and even mindfulness can now be found on scientific journals and the constant studying on its effect on the general public and individuals.

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