Stop crucifying those who don't believe in meditation

I am being stalked by meditation evangelists.

They approach with the fervour of a football fan attacking a keg at a tailgate party. "Which method of meditation do you use?" I admit that I don't meditate, and they are incredulous. It's as if I've just announced that the earth is flat. "How could you not meditate?!"

I have nothing against it. I just happen to find it dreadfully boring.

"But Steve Jobs meditated!" Yeah, and he also did LSD - do you want me to try that, too? "LSD is dangerous. Science shows that meditation is good for you. It will change your life." Will it?


According to the writer, meditation is not snake oil. For some people, meditation might be the most efficient way to reduce stress and cultivate mindfulness. But it is not a panacea, he says. PHOTO: REUTERS

Meditation is exploding in popularity. There are classes to learn meditation in all its flavours: Mindfulness-based stress reduction, transcendental meditation, Zen and more.

There are meditation events with power-networking opportunities built in. Drop by the Path in New York and you can mingle with people in tech, film, fashion and the arts. Pay a visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and you get to do an early-morning guided meditation with global leaders.

As Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post, has said: " CEOs are increasingly coming out of the closet - as meditators."

Before we're all swept into this fad, we ought to ask why meditation is useful.

So I polled a group of meditation researchers, teachers and practitioners on why they recommend it. I liked their answers, but none of them were unique to meditation. Every benefit of the practice can be gained through other activities.

This is the conclusion from an analysis of 47 trials of meditation programmes, published last year in JAMA Internal Medicine: "We found no evidence that meditation programmes were better than any active treatment (i.e., drugs, exercise and other behavioural therapies)."

The primary reason people meditate, the experts tell me, is that it may reduce stress. Fine. But so does quality sleep and exercise. And you can reduce stress simply by changing the way you think about it. When you're feeling anxious, it's a signal you care about the outcome of an upcoming event - and it can motivate you to prepare for it.

In an experiment led by Stanford psychologist Alia Crum, when people had only 10 minutes to prepare a charismatic speech, simply reframing the stress response as healthy was enough to relax them and reduce their physiological responses, if they tended to be highly reactive.

In a nationally representative eight-year study, adults who reported a lot of stress in their lives were more likely to die, but only if they thought stress was harmful. Over 100,000 Americans may have died prematurely, "not from stress, but from the belief that stress is bad for you", as health psychologist Kelly McGonigal noted.

Okay, so meditation is just one of many ways to fight stress. But there's another major benefit of meditating: It makes you mindful. After meditating, people are more likely to focus their attention in the present.

But as neuroscientist Richard Davidson and psychologist Alfred Kaszniak recently lamented: "There are still very few methodologically rigorous studies that demonstrate the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions in either the treatment of specific diseases or in the promotion of well-being."

And guess what. You don't need to meditate to achieve mindfulness either. After spending the past four decades studying mindfulness without meditation, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer has identified plenty of other tech-niques for raising our conscious awareness of the present.

For example, it turns out you can become more mindful by thinking in conditionals instead of absolutes.

In one experiment, when people made a mistake with a pencil, they had access to one of several different objects, like a rubber band, sitting on the table.

When they were told, "This is a rubber band", only 3 per cent realised it could also be used as an eraser. When they were told, "This could be a rubber band", 40 per cent figured out it could erase their mistake.

Change "is" to "could be", and you become more mindful.

Meditation isn't snake oil. For some people, meditation might be the most efficient way to reduce stress and cultivate mindfulness. But it isn't a panacea.

If you don't meditate, there's no need to stress out about it. In fact, in some situations, meditation may be harmful: Willoughby Britton, a Brown University Medical School professor, has discovered numerous cases of traumatic meditation experiences that intensified anxiety, reduced focus and drive, and left people feeling incapacitated.

Evangelists, it's time to stop judging. The next time you meet people who choose not to meditate, take a deep breath and let us relax in peace.

NEW YORK TIMES

• The writer is a professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2015, with the headline 'Stop crucifying those who don't believe in meditation'. Print Edition | Subscribe