What Are the Benefits of Meditation?
Meditation is supposed to be good for you. Is this true?
Let's look at some research. Over the past 40 years, dozens of universities in the United States, Europe and India have conducted hundreds of studies on the effects of meditation on human physiology and behavior. The research (link to noetic sciences, noetic.org) results point to meditation as producing benefits on many levels of life simultaneously – body, emotions, mental functioning, and relationships.
· Greater Orderliness of Brain Functioning
· Improved Ability to Focus
· Increased Creativity
· Deeper Level of Relaxation
· Improved Perception and Memory
· Development of Intelligence
· Natural Change in Breathing
· Decrease in Stress Hormone
· Lower Blood Pressure
· Reversal of Aging Process
· Reduced Need for Medical Care
· Reduction in Cholesterol
· Increased Self-Actualization
· Increased Strength of Self-Concept
· Decreased Cigarette, Alcohol, and Drug Abuse
· Increased Productivity
· Improved Relations at Work
· Increased Relaxation and Decreased Stress
· Improved Health and More Positive Health Habits
*The above list is culled from the “science-flavored advertising” used by meditation schools, in imitation of the kind of advertising drug companies use. There is considerable truth in it, even though after 45 years, most of the research is still preliminary. Scientific research is extremely expensive, and since meditation is not a drug, who is going to pay?
It is a summary of research conducted at many universities from 1970 to the present. Some of it is suspect, because it was conducted by or paid for by people with an agenda, and needs to be replicated under many different conditions, but in general, meditation can be this beneficial.
Both the research that is PRO meditation and the research that is ANTI meditation - that emphasizes negative effects - tend to be biased. Why would someone do research unless they had a bias, a pet peeve, to work out? So, take all the research with a grain or two of salt, and make your own decisions, but know that meditation definitely CAN be this beneficial.
What's the catch? The catch is, you have to spend time in meditation everyday to get these benefits. And usually, in order for that to happen, you have to want to meditate, and that means the approach you choose has to suit your individual nature so well that you love meditating. If you try to do a meditation that is not natural for you, or if you practice in a way that is inelegant, then you will want to stop, just as if you are wearing a shoe that almost fits but not quite, so it makes your toes hurt. You will want to stop wearing those shoes.
Adjusting someone’s meditation practice takes quite a bit of skill on the teacher’s part, and often several hours of listening to the person (the meditator) to find out what she is doing. Often there are tiny little inward attitudes that are getting in the way. Inner habits built up over a lifetime, perhaps self-criticism, that have inserted themselves into the individual’s meditation practice.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s, I interviewed several hundred people who had quit meditating, and appeared that they quit because they were doing the wrong technique, not because they were undisciplined. Or they had outgrown the technique - it worked well for them for a year, five years, even ten years, but then they outgrew it.
There are thousands of different ways and styles of meditating. This is because people are really, really different from each other. Unfortunately, this means that if you just randomly try this and that meditation you may not find an approach that works for you. The success ratio is so low that no one seems to even be studying it – but it may be as low as 5% or even 3% of people who start. Instinctive Meditation was created in part out of the study of how and why people fail at meditation. We interviewed hundreds of meditators of all kinds in the 1970's to find out what went wrong, and developed a system of instruction that lets people have a good chance of getting it right the first time.
How Can Meditation Be This Beneficial?
It is interesting to wonder, how could something as simple as meditation be so beneficial? The answer is in the physiology. Meditation is something the body knows how to do, and does willingly if you set up the conditions and allow it. The body knows how to enter a profound healing state. All you have to do is pay attention in certain ways, and tolerate the intensity of what you feel as you let go of stress.
So one answer is that meditation is a built-in ability of the human body. The word meditation is just a name we give to the situation where we give the nervous system, the brain and senses a chance to tune themselves up. More than a chance – meditation is giving total permission for the nervous system to do its healing thing. And since this is an innate thing, the body and brain are very good at it. People are naturally good at meditation, like cats are naturally good at hunting mice.
And when we don't meditate, it is as if we are "meditation-deprived." In other words, we are not adding something weird to our life – we are just giving ourselves something we need. What is weird is to NOT meditate. In other words, it is unnatural to go through life deprived of a time each day to rest more deeply than sleep, and let go of all the stresses that keep you wound so tight.
If this is true, then this is part of why meditation has such powerful effects – because it is a way of giving into the powerful mind/body healing dynamics that we already have within us, as part of our genetic heritage. Or, you could say, God put it there.
Meditation is one of the few things in the self-help arena you can do that produces measurable changes. In other words, you can take a few hours of meditation training, and then go into a medical lab and meditate, and they can meaure the changes in your breathing, your blood chemistry, your brain waves, and your response to stress. And if you were sitting in a medical lab, all wired up, and they saw you enter a state of rest deeper than sleep in 5 minutes, a knowledgable researcher would look at the instruments and say, "Oh, you just started meditating. I can see it on the meters."
One of the main reasons meditation is so beneficial is that it is instinctive and natural. When you meditate, you are accessing your body's own built-in ability to heal itself and tune itself for action.
Here is a summary of research findings cited at the Institute of Mind-Body Medicine (They recently changed the name to Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine. BHIMBM?
Mind/Body Medical Institute clinical findings include:
Chronic pain patients reduce their physician visits by 36%.
The Clinical Journal of Pain, Volume 2, pages 305-310, 1991
There is approximately a 50% reduction in visits to a HMO after a relaxation-response based intervention which resulted in estimated significant cost savings.
Behavioral Medicine, Volume 16, pages 165-173, 1990
Eighty percent of hypertensive patients have lowered blood pressure and decreased medications - 16% are able to discontinue all of their medications. These results lasted at least three years.
Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation, Volume 9, pages 316-324, 1989
Open heart surgery patients have fewer post-operative complications.
Behavioral Medicine, Volume 5, pages 111-117, 1989
One-hundred percent of insomnia patients reported improved sleep and 91% either eliminated or reduced sleeping medication use.
The American Journal of Medicine, Volume 100, pages 212-216, 1996
Infertile women have a 42% conception rate, a 38% take-home baby rate, and decreased levels of depression, anxiety, and anger.
Journal of American Medical Women's Association. Volume 54, pages 196-8, 1999
Women with severe PMS have a 57% reduction in physical and psychological symptoms.
Obstetrics and Gynecology, Volume 75, pages 649-655, April, 1990
High school students exposed to a relaxation response-based curriculum had significantly increased their self-esteem.
The Journal of Research and Development in Education, Volume 27, pages 226-231, 1994
Inner city middle school students improved grade score, work habits and cooperation and decreased absences.
Journal of Research and Development in Education, Volume 33, pages 156-165, Spring 2000
The following list of research is interesting, and most of the results will probably be proven to some extent in the future, but right now this is a mixure of preliminary results and solid data.
Greater Orderliness of Brain Functioning
EEG coherence increases between and within the cerebral hemispheres during meditation. EEG coherence is quantitative index of the degree of long-range spatial ordering of the brain waves. In a new meditator, the EEG coherence increased during the period of meditation. In a person who had been meditating for 2 years, spreading of coherence occurred even before meditation began, spreading of coherence to high and lower frequencies about half way through the meditation period, and continuing high coherence even into the eyes-opened period after meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine 46: 267-276, 1984.
Broader Comprehension and Improved Ability to Focus
Field independence has been associated with a greater ability to assimilate and structure experience, greater organization of mind and cognitive clarity, improved memory, greater creative expression, and a stable internal frame of reference. The results show that practice of meditation techniques develop greater field independence. This improvement in meditators is remarkable because it was previously thought that these basic perceptual abilities do not improve beyond early adulthood. Perceptual Motor Skills 39: 1031-1034, 1974, and 62: 731-738, 1986.
This study used the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking to measure figural and verbal creativity in a control group and in a group that subsequently learned meditation. On the post test five months later, the meditation group scored significantly higher on figural originality and flexibility and on verbal fluency. Journal of Creative Behavior, 13: 169-190, 1979, and Dissertations Abstracts International, 38: 3372-3373, 1978.
Deeper Level of Relaxation
A comprehensive statistical "meta-analysis" was conducted that compared the findings of 31 physiological studies on meditation and on resting with eyes closed. (A meta-analysis is the preferred scientific procedure for drawing definitive conclusions from large bodies of research). The study evaluated three key indicators of relaxation and found that meditation provides a far deeper state of relaxation than does simple eyes-closed rest. The research showed that breath rate and plasma lactate decrease, the basal skin resistance increases, significantly more during meditation than during eyes-closed rest. Interestingly, immediately prior to the meditation sessions, meditating subjects had lower levels of breath rate, plasma lactate, spontaneous skin conductance, and heart rate than did the controls. This deeper level of relaxation before starting the practice suggests that reduced physiological stress through meditation is cumulative. American Psychologist, 42: 879-881, 1987.
Improved Perception and Memory
College students instructed in meditation displayed significant improvements in performance over a two-week period on a perceptual and short-term memory test involving the identification of familiar letter sequences presented rapidly. They were compared with subjects randomly assigned to a routine of twice-daily rest with eyes closed, and with subjects who made o change in their daily routine. Memory and Cognition, 10: 207-215, 1982.
Development of Intelligence
University students who regularly practiced meditation increased significantly in intelligences over a two-year period, compared to control subjects. The finding corroborates the results of two other studies showing increased IQ in meditation students. Personality and Individual Differences, 12:1105-1116, 1991, and Perceptual and Motor Skills, 62: 731-738, 1986.
Natural Change in Breathing
Subjects were measured for changes in breathing rate during the practice of meditation. Breath rate fell from 14 breaths per minute to about 11 breaths per minute, indicating meditation produces a state of rest and relaxation. The change in breath rate is natural, effortless, and comfortable. American Journal of Physiology, 22: 795-799, 1971.
Decrease in Stress Hormone
Plasma cortisol is a stress hormone. The study shows that plasma cortisol decreased during meditation, whereas it did not change significantly in controlled subjects during ordinary relaxation. Hormones and Behavior, 10: 54-60, 1978.
Lower Blood Pressure
In a clinical experiment with elderly African American (mean age 66) dwelling in an inner-city community, meditation was compared with the most widely used method of producing physiological relaxation. Subjects who had moderately elevated blood pressure levels were randomly assigned meditation, Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), or usual care. Over a three-month interval, systolic and diastolic blood pressure dropped by 10.6 and 5.9 mm Hg, respectively, in the meditation group, and 4.0 and 2.1 mm Hg in the PMR group, with virtually no change in the usual care group. A second random assignment study with the elderly conducted at Harvard found similar blood pressure changes produced by meditation over three-months (11 mm Hg for systolic blood pressure). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57: 950-964, 1989.
Reversal of Aging Process
Biological age measures how old a person is physiologically. As a group, long-term meditators who had been practicing meditation for more than five years were physiologically twelve years younger than their chronological age, as measured by reduction of blood pressure, and better near-point version and auditory discrimination. Short-term meditators were physiologically five years younger than their chronological age. The study controlled for the effects of diet and exercise. International Journal of Neuroscience, 16: 53-58, 1982.
Reduced Need for Medical Care
A study of health insurance statistics on over 2,000 people practicing meditation over a five-year period found that meditators consistently had less than half the hospitalization than did other groups with comparable age, gender, profession, and insurance terms. The difference between the meditation and non-meditation groups increased in older-age brackets. In addition, the meditators had fewer incidents of illness in seventeen medical treatment categories, including 87% less hospitalization for heart disease and 55% less for cancer. The meditators consistently had more than 50% fewer doctor visits than did other groups. Psychosomatic Medicine, 49: 493-507, 1987.
A longitudinal study showed that cholesterol levels significantly decreased through meditation in hypercholsteolemic patients, compared to matched controls, over an eleven-month period. Journal of Human Stress, 5: 24-27, 1979.
Self-actualization refers to realizing more of one's inner potential, expressed in every area of life. A statistical meta-analysis of 42 independent studies indicated the effect of meditation on increasing self-actualization is markedly greater than that of other forms of relaxation. This analysis statistically controlled the length of treatment and quality of research design. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6: 189-248, 1991.
Increased Strength of Self-Concept
One month after beginning meditation, subjects experienced an improved self-concept in comparison to before learning meditation. Meditation participants developed a more strongly defined self-concept and also came to perceive their "actual self" as significantly closer to their "ideal self." No similar changes were observed for matched controls. Journal of Psychology, 4: 206-218, 1976.
Decreased Cigarette, Alcohol, and Drug Abuse
A statistical meta-analysis of 198 independent treatment outcomes found that meditation produced a significantly larger reduction in tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drug use than either standard substance abuse treatments (including counseling, pharmacological treatments, relaxation training, and Twelve-Step programs) or prevention programs (such as programs to counteract peer-pressure and promote personal development). This meta-analysis controlled for strength of study design and included both heavy and casual users. Whereas, the effects of conventional programs typically decrease sharply by three months, effects of meditation on total abstinence from tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drug ranged from 50% to 89% over a 18 to 22 month period of study. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 11: 13-87, and International Journal of the Addictions, 26: 293-325, 1991.
In this study subjects practicing meditation showed significant improvements at work, compared with members of a control group. Job performance and job satisfaction increased while desire to change jobs decreased. People at every level of the organization benefited from practicing meditation. Academy of Management Journal, 17: 362-368, 1974.
Improved Relations at Work
This study found significant improvements in relations with supervisors and co-workers after an average of eleven months practicing meditation, in comparison to control subjects. And while meditators reported that they felt less anxiety about promotion (shown by reduced climb orientation), their fellow employees saw them as moving ahead quickly. People at every level of the organization benefited from practicing meditation. Academy of Management Journal, 17: 362-368, 1974.
Increased Relaxation and Decreased Stress
This three-month study of managers and employees who regularly practiced meditation in a Fortune 100 manufacturing company (Puritan-Bennett Corporation) and a smaller distribution-sales company in Philadelphia showed that meditation practitioners displayed more relaxed physiological functioning, greater reduction in anxiety, and reduced tension on the job, when compared to control subjects with similar job positions in the same companies. Anxiety, Stress and Coping International Journal, 6: 245-262, 1993.
Improved Health and More Positive Health Habits
In two companies that introduced meditation, managers and employees who regularly practiced meditation improved significantly in overall physical health, mental well-being, and vitality when compared to control subjects with similar jobs in the same companies. Meditation practitioners also reported significant reductions in health problems such as headaches and backaches, improved quality of sleep, and a significant reduction in the use of hard liquor and cigarettes, compared to personnel in the control groups. Anxiety, Stress and Coping International Journal, 6: 245-262, 1993.
From personal experience, I can say that these kinds of benefits sometimes happen, and even often happen, when people meditate every day, if they are doing the right meditation for their individuality.
This life-transforming quality of meditation is not all that mysterious – just imagine how your life would change if you spend 45 minutes a day in the greatest relaxation you have ever known, resting more deeply than sleep, giving your body, nervous system, and brain a chance to tune for action.
So why don't more people meditate? Why do only 10 million Americans meditate? For one thing, there are thousands of different kinds of meditation, and many of them will grate on your nerves. You will only feel at home with certain ones. Many of these other techniques are like kinds of music you just do not like, flavors of food you will never grow to love. You can't do someone else's meditation and you can't live someone else's life.
Keep in mind that meditation (the way I teach it) leads to a kind of restfulness and ease greater than you have ever known. This is a natural experience and you have not been getting it, most likely. So the pervasive benefits which are reported make sense. Often, when a person starts meditating every day, 20 minutes in the morning before breakfast, 20 minutes in the evening before dinner, you can watch them change visibly over the next three months. People start looking more rested and relaxed, as if they just came back from a vacation. They get a kind of glow about them, as if they are in love. I have seen this over and over again in the past 36 years of teaching meditation – it's what keeps me interested in meditation.
The benefits of daily meditation practice are sometimes dramatic, when people find a technique that truly suits their individual nature. This is a big IF, though. There really does have to be a good match between the meditation practice – and there are thousands of techniques and variations – and your unique individual needs and preferences. Otherwise you won't want to meditate, you won't feel comfortable doing the technique, and you won't thrive.
Can Meditation Be Harmful?
Let's use an analogy. When a shoe does not fit, it can make your toes sore, even make your toenails fall off. If you get blisters, they can get infected. If you force yourself to wear the shoe anyway, in spite of the pain, you might eventually "break it in," but more likely it will just break your foot. With shoes, they can be too large, making you trip and fall, or too small, damaging or even crippling your foot.
When a meditation technique does not fit you, the main damage is usually in your relationship to yourself. You damage your ability to skillfully pay attention to your internal life. First of all, you will not want to do a meditation that does not suit you – which is good. But usually people blame themselves when they "fail" at meditation. And if you make yourself do it anyway, you will probably do some kind of harm to yourself. It's not really "the meditation" that is harming you, it is that you have bought into the idea that if you impose an unnatural technique on yourself, that it will be "good for you."
Let's use another analogy. Most meditation techniques have a "medicinal" quality to them. A medicine is something, often an herb or plant, that has toxic qualities. If you take the right medicine in the right doses, over the right course of time, and if you have a certain disease, the medicine can kill the disease more than it kills you.
Almost all meditation techniques were developed for male monks living in monasteries or ashrams or lamaseries, thousands of years ago. Monks need to kill off their sexuality, their desire to live, their attachments to anything other than their robes and their vows, and kill off any creative urges they may have. Monks have to kill off not only their procreative impulses, but their creative impules as well, any inclination to improve the way things are done in the monastery.
If you are not a monk and you study with a monk, it is very likely that you will be damaged in important ways.
Read the Science For Yourself
If you want to read further in the research, see The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation (opens in new window) online at the Institute of Noetic Sciences. I used to hand out thousands of copies of these kinds of research reports at the TM lectures I gave from 1970 to 1975.
With all scientific research, it helps if you know the conditions in the lab and the expectations of the researchers. I was a lab subject for meditation research from 1968 through 1978. One study I was in focused on serum cortisol, a stress hormone. This meant that I was asked to drive over to University of California Medical Center in Irvine or Tustin, and sit in a chair and let Archie Wilson stick needles in my arm to take blood samples. In one of the labs I meditated in, about 30 feet away from the chair I was sitting in, was a wall of cages with white mice or rats in them, and the smell of ether was in the room. The noise, having people in white coats hoovering over me, the stink of the mice, the chemical smells in the room, and having a big catheter in my wrist, all made it a bit challenging to go deep into meditation. The ether in the room may have made me go to sleep for a few seconds here and there during the half hour meditation, I don't know. I normally nod off for a few seconds here and there in meditation. But the overall stress of meditating in such a weird place may have raised my cortisol levels somewhat before meditating, so perhaps there was more of a drop during meditation, which would make for more "before and during contrast." Who knows. Has anyone studied that? So whenever you read the research, especially physiological research on meditation, imagine that someone, God knows why, volunteers to go into a lab and meditate under those conditions. I did it as part of my general evangelism for meditation, because the researchers were desperate for subjects, and because they were friends of mine and when they called I couldn't say no.
Meditating scientists, especially members of the TM organization, conducted much of the early research on meditation (1970-77) and quite a bit of it has not been fully replicated, so you should take these results with a grain of salt. In the late 1970's some scientists got tired of reading all the glowing, evangelical reseach reports on the benefits of meditation and decided to debunk it. So they invited a bunch of meditators to come into their lab and meditate, and they found - voila! - significant amounts of sleep during meditation, much more than anyone else had found. This was published in a journal, and I heard gloating comments from various scientists, ha ha ha, meditation is just sleep, you meditators have really been put in your place. The image is really funny, if you think about it – there is a meditator sitting in a lab, all these instruments wired to her body to measure these supposedly remarable physiological effects, and then what . . . instead of meditating, she just falls alseep. ZZZZzzzzzz instead of OMmmmmm. Then I happened to be talking with a researcher who had stopped by the lab where this study was conducted, and he found it had a very strong smell of ether, for they were anesthetizing rats nearby and there was quite a strong smell. He said none of the researchers there even noticed the ether smell anymore – they were all used to it. They dismissed the idea that the ether was putting the meditators to sleep. All these things happen during research – scientists are just human, and they want to prove things, and sometimes they want to prove other scientists are wrong.
So there needs to be a study on the effect of small amounts of ether on meditation. And physiologists need to publish more details of how they actually do the studies. In the serum cortisol study I was a subject in, the subtitle should have been, "Effects on serum cortisol of meditating in a room full of rats and ether while needles are stuck in your arm and doctors hoover over you taking blood samples every five minutes."
Any one scientific study does not mean much, except to point out a field of inquiry. The results are often somewhat wrong, and the reasons given for the effect are often wrong. But when many people replicate the results, eventually they figure out what is going on. Right now the only meditation research I give high credibility to is that associated with the Harvard Medical School labs of Herbert Benson and The Mind Body Medical Institute. Benson is a real physician and a scientist, and I don't believe he would publish anything that is not replicable. So when you read the science collated at the Noetic sciences site, check back at MBMI to see what subset of the exploratory studies have been validated.
Science is clear thinking that gets done in spite of the fact that money, politics, and religion are involved. In terms of scientific research, there is a good news/bad news situation. The good news is that meditation is not a drug. It is a built-in instinct of the human body. The bad news is that it not a drug. There is no way for a drug company to make billions of dollars selling meditation pills, so why should they invest millions of dollars doing research on it? Eventually, insurance companies may spend a lot of money on meditation research, because they wind up paying for what happens when people don't meditate. There is another good/bad situation, which is that many researchers are passionate about meditation and figure out how to do low-budget studies. This is interesting. The bad news is that they may skew the results, or try to prove that their type of meditation, whether it be Buddhist, Hindu, or nondemonational, is better, and then the study is not replicated. This will eventually bring dishonor to the field. Science advances through confusion and controversy, but only if people keep working to clarify things.
How Do I Get These Benefits?
You only get the benefits of meditation if you actually meditate everyday – that is one key. And in order to meditate every day, you need to find a technique and an approach that truly suits your individuality and the rhythm of your day. That is where Instinctive Meditation is so useful – because you don't just learn a technique, you learn how to adapt meditation to fit the direction of your life.
What is meditation? It is a skill of paying attention in a restful way to the flow of life in your body. This triggers a natural response, a built-in instinct. There are thousands of different meditation techniques that can serve to elicit a similar physiological response.
Meditation is a built-in capacity of the human body. That means you can do it, and it can feel natural to you. The thousands of different techniques of meditation are just different ways of letting yourself love what you love. Learning to meditate is a matter of learning to cooperate with your individual nature, learning to give in to the way that you love life. Because meditation is invisible behavior, hardly anyone gets coaching. So you need to have some understanding as you set out, so that you get the feel for what it means to go with your own essential nature, rather than go against it.
Here is a simple truth to consider: meditate in accord with your nature. Let your technique be what you love. That is why the term, "instinctive meditation" suggests itself for the path of letting one's inner nature suggest the type and tone of one's meditation practice.
How Do I Learn?
Some people are naturals, and need no instruction. If they need a teacher, it is more to help prevent bad habits from forming.
The best way to get started is one-to-one instruction. about 90 minutes a day for five consecutive days, then every other day for the next week, then once a week for a few weeks. In these sessions, we explore what techniques work the best for you. Then, as you meditate each day, you get immediate feedback on how to handle experiences.
Some people – maybe one in twenty – can just meditate, and need no instruction. Others need a little coaching. Whenever you begin meditation, or begin again, you get a fresh start. All my books are written in such a way that you can start meditating and building the skills you need.
A good way to begin is to read about the varieties of meditative technique: