What are the benefits of mindfulness and meditation?
There are different ways of evaluating the benefits of meditation, they include personal experience, common sense and empirical measurement. Despite a great deal of scientific inquiry (see the Science of Meditation website), there is little consensus regarding a causal relationship between specific meditation methods and wellbeing. There are hundreds of studies that individually suggest meditation has a positive ‘effect’, however only when you look across a wide range of research do certain patterns emerge. For example we can be confident that regular meditation practice is connected to both functional and structural change in the brain. We generally know that compassionate practices lead to an increased sense of happiness and wellbeing and that mindfulness can lead to improved task performance and a reduction in self generated thoughts. But we are still at the stage where each meditation method needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis. I raise this point as a committed long term meditator, certain of the value of meditation to human kind.
A key point is not to simply believe claims made by individuals or organizations (spiritual or secular), this is an underlying principle of both Buddhist meditation and scientific investigation more generally. In all traditional forms of meditation each practice has a known relationship with a specific result or outcome, this should be understood by any reliable teacher. Contemporary meditation tends to be based on less certain theoretical frameworks but in every instance a teacher should have some clear insight into what a practice should do for you. For example if a meditation is linked to a reduction in stress or anxiety there is likely to be linked to certain brain structures which will impact on cognitive processes. Remember a meditation teacher is not necessarily going to be a cognitive psychologist or neuroscientist but they should have a general idea of how a meditation method works.
If you are thinking of joining a group you may wish to consider your meditation goals, what do you want from meditation? Are you looking for personal development, particular health and wellbeing benefits or improved brain health and reduced brain ageing? Consider if the experienced members of the group reflect the kind of development you are looking for. Most reliable meditation and mindfulness teachers will be happy to ask questions like ‘what will this meditation do for me?’ or ‘how do I know if it’s working?’. If you have a specific meditation practice in mind there is likely to be some information available that will enable you to do some research and consider if it is right for you. The Science of Meditation website reviews the latest research from contemplative science (both good and bad) which will introduce you to the current evidence regarding the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. My experience is that meditation offers fantastic opportunities, it is a life changing mental technology, but you need to get a reliable teacher and a reliable method.