Seven common “myths” about meditation

“Meditation is becoming increasingly popular, and in recent years there have been calls for mindfulness (a meditative practice with Buddhist roots) to be more widely available on the NHS. Often promoted as a sure-fire way to reduce stress, it’s also being increasingly offered in schools, universities and businesses.

For the secularised mind, meditation fills a spiritual vacuum; it brings the hope of becoming a better, happier individual in a more peaceful world. However, the fact that meditation was primarily designed not to make us happier, but to destroy our sense of individual self – who we feel and think we are most of the time – is often overlooked in the science and media stories about it, which focus almost exclusively on the benefits practitioners can expect.

If you’re considering it, here are seven common beliefs about meditation that are not supported by scientific evidence.”

So reads the introduction to a recent article from the Guardian Online. A Facebook friend of mine drew my attention to the article, but on reading it I quickly realised that it is just a giant straw-man argument, perhaps looking to manufacture some sort of controversy and gain publicity on the back of the current mindfulness craze.

Anyway, this is my response to the “myths” raised in the article. No doubt there will be other points that could be made in addition to these, but these are my initial thoughts.

Myth 1: Meditation never has adverse or negative effects. It will change you for the better (and only the better)

Any experienced practitioner knows that meditation can be quite unpleasant at times. It forces you to see things as they really are, and real life isn’t always pleasant. At least in the short term, meditation can occasionally be profoundly disturbing for some. I can only go by my own personal experience that the net effects have been positive. I don’t know of any meditation teacher who teaches that meditation is only ever a positive experience for everyone.

Myth 2: Meditation can benefit everyone

The way the article paints this is that meditation is regarded as a “cure-all”. That may be the thinking of someone who has jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon, but those who have studied or practised in any depth know that this is simply not the case. In therapeutic terms, it is one tool among many that can help many people, but certainly not all.

Myth 3: If everyone meditated the world would be a much better place

The article itself admits that there is no clear scientific evidence either for or against this statement. As such, painting it as a myth in an argument against meditation is dubious at best.

Myth 4: If you’re seeking personal change and growth, meditating is as efficient – or more – than having therapy

No qualified meditation teacher that I know of would ever make such a claim. Again, it is just one tool among many that can be combined to achieve a therapeutic goal.

Besides, who the hell has therapy to seek personal change and growth anyway? We have therapy when we have mental illnesses and we want to recover, not just because we want to improve ourselves.

Myth 5: Meditation produces a unique state of consciousness that we can measure scientifically

No-one, as far as I’m aware, is claiming that meditation’s effects are unique. It’s just a fairly reliable way of achieving desirable mental states repeatedly and more consistently.

Myth 6: We can practise meditation as a purely scientific technique with no religious or spiritual leanings

The existence and popularity of secular mindfulness therapies gives the lie to this one. This is really clutching at straws now.

Yes, for some of us our experience with meditation can lead us to explore its Buddhist roots, but that is by no means true of everyone. Even among those who do explore Buddhism, by no means all of us end up becoming Buddhists (even though I did).

Myth 7: Science has unequivocally shown how meditation can change us and why

Since when is science unequivocal on anything? There are studies that show beneficial effects of meditation, but there may well be some that show the contrary (although I’m not personally aware of any). As for why meditation affects people, I suspect that nobody really knows the definitive answer to that yet, given that the human brain is such a complicated system.

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