Nowadays, we see people promoting meditation everywhere. From corporate organizations to self-help, everybody seems to tout the benefits of meditation. But is meditation really the magical pill it’s advertised or is it overrated?
Meditation is not overrated. Although the scientific evidence isn’t (yet) enough, that’s not to say it doesn’t work. Meditation has stood the test of time and transformed millions of lives. If anything, meditation is under-funded, i.e. there hasn’t been enough good-quality research in this area.
But how does meditation work? What is the current research on mindfulness meditation? Read on to discover the value of meditation and how you can experience it in your life. We’ll also discuss why meditation isn’t the answer to all your problems.
Is meditation overrated?
No, meditation is not overrated. The fact that this ancient practice has been there for thousands of years says it all. People have been practicing it for at least 5000 years. Meditation has its roots in Hinduism, which is the oldest religion in the world. However, neuroscientists and psychologists have been studying meditation only for the last few decades.
These days, Buddhist meditation practices, such as Vipassana, Mindfulness meditation and loving-kindness, are popular, especially among Western practitioners. But other religions, such as Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism, also offer unique forms of meditation.
It’s well-known that meditation makes us more peaceful and content. It also gives us a break from the ever-flowing stream of thoughts. We develop a stronger control over the functioning of the mind and a deeper understanding of how it works.
Over time, meditation increases our concentration and detaches us from our thoughts and emotions, which are usually a source of unhappiness. Gradually, if we have a structured lifestyle, the benefits of meditation start to appear in our day-to-day life. We learn to distance ourselves from our fear, anger, and worry instead of getting agitated.
If we practice meditation correctly for a long time, it can lead to states of higher consciousness. This is the goal of meditation in all religions. If you want to learn more about it, read the article on the true purpose of meditation.
Is meditation scientific?
Meditation is not a placebo; its effects are real. Various scientific studies prove that meditation changes the brain structure for the better. A 2011 study shows that only two months of meditation thickens the brain in several vital areas. These include the hippocampus which is related to memory and learning, and the temporoparietal junction, which processes compassion and empathy.
Meditation also reduces the size of the amygdala. It is the fight-or-flight center of the brain that controls fearfulness and anger. The smaller it is, the less fearful and aggressive you are. Another study reveals that meditation increases the gray matter in our brain associated with memory, learning, and introspection.
Also, scientists have discovered that every time we think or learn something new, a neural connection is formed in the brain. The more we repeat certain actions, the stronger their neural pathways become. These strong neural connections are called habits and dictate most of our everyday behavior. Over time, the connections we don’t use grow weaker and eventually disappear.
Meditation helps us change our old patterns of being by creating new neural pathways in the brain. Regular mindfulness practice for a long time has lasting effects on the brain.
Western science has yet to catch up with meditation though. Many mindfulness studies include only a few people and lack proper follow-up. Scientists require much more research before they can conclude which individuals, and what physical and mental illnesses, can be treated with meditation.
Although the current research doesn’t provide compelling evidence for the efficacy of meditation, that’s not to say that it doesn’t work. Meditation is not overrated. If anything, it is under-funded and under-invested.
Meditation is not a panacea
Mindfulness is a billion-dollar industry, and it’s often promoted as the answer to all life’s problems. Such promotions result from the commercialization of spirituality. They have nothing to do with what the ancient sages had in mind when they developed this practice.
While meditation has many benefits, it’s not the solution to all our problems. If you’re meditating only to feel better, it can help you achieve that. However, if your lifestyle choices and structure of the day are detrimental to your well-being, it won’t do much.
You may continue to meditate, but those 15 minutes of meditation won’t affect the remaining 23 hours and 45 minutes of your day. Structure your day to suit your purpose in life. Then, and only then, meditation will act as salt in the meal of your life. Again, meditation can help you gain the clarity required for peace, but it won’t get you far if the rest of your day is counterproductive.
If you have a spiritual goal in mind, meditation is still not the only thing you need to do. You also have to study the dharma and imbibe the teachings. Practicing virtues and living a mindful life is just as important as meditation.
How to start your meditation practice
Hopefully, you now know the right place of meditation in a person’s life and are ready to practice. Let’s discuss a simple yet effective form of meditation: breath meditation.
Here is how you practice breath or mindfulness meditation:
- Sit in a comfortable posture, preferably cross-legged. You can also sit on a chair. Just make sure your back is straight at all times. To learn more about this, read the article on the difference between sitting cross-legged and on a chair.
- Take a few deep breaths to settle in. You can close your eyes or keep them half-open. Make sure you’re breathing from your belly instead of your chest.
- Watch your breath. Notice the sensations caused by every inhalation and exhalation at your nostrils. Or watch the rising and falling of your belly with every breath. Don’t interfere; just watch.
- If your mind wanders, gently bring it back. Do not try to control your breathing or thoughts. Let the body breathe. If thoughts pop up and you drift away, bring your attention back to the breathing. To learn how to handle your thoughts while meditating, read this article: What Should You Think About When Meditating?
That’s the gist of breath meditation. For more detailed instructions and tips, read the complete guide on mindfulness meditation.
Meditation has been claimed to have many wonderful benefits. There has been some research in this area, but scientists do not fully understand what meditation does to the brain and how it produces these changes. Western science has a lot of catching up to do.
For this reason, many people conclude that meditation is useless. Without any scientific evidence, how can we believe that it produces these benefits?
Just because something doesn’t have enough scientific evidence (yet), doesn’t mean it has no value. Meditation has undoubtedly benefited millions of people throughout history, and new researches continue to explore the positive effects of meditation on the human brain. So it’s safe to say that meditation is not overrated.
I encourage you to try it out and see how you like it. You don’t have to know how meditation influences your brain cells or transmitters. If it feels good and makes you calmer, go for it.