I've meditated almost every day for thirty-four years. I like to think that those many, many hours of meditation (one to two hours a day for most of the time) have made me a better person.
But lots of stuff in my mind falls into the "I like to think..." category. This is true of everybody. We humans have a marvelous capacity for wishful thinking, rationalization, selective use of data, and confirmation bias.
A rigorous review of research on the effectiveness of meditation casts doubt on the buoyant claims of meditation advocates that it is good for just about anything that ails you: unhappiness, pain, inability to sleep, substance abuse, lack of concentration, etc. etc.
An interesting post on Tricycle, a Buddhist site, is well worth reading. "Meditation Nation" contains an interview about the study with a meditation researcher who also practices Buddhism.
For an insider’s perspective on these questions, Tricycle turned to clinical psychologist, neuroscience researcher, and Buddhist practitioner Willoughby Britton. Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University Medical School, Britton specializes in research on meditation in education and as treatment for depression and sleep disorders. Britton has long focused on sorting out confusion about meditation within the realm of science.
Several points made by Britton struck me as right on.
First, anecdotal evidence along the lines of "Meditation has done great things for me" is pretty much useless. A lot of people leave comments like this on my blog posts. It's pretty much the same thing as saying "I had a bad cold, but after taking zinc lozenges for a few days I felt much better. Zinc really works!"
Here's the problem with this sort of reasoning.
If you're at a low point in your life, either mentally or physically, chances are you're going to start feeling better no matter what you do. The alternative would be sinking irrevocably deeper into despair or ill health, which, thankfully, rarely happens.
People often start meditating because they feel something is lacking in their lives. Likewise, sick people search out cures. Simple pre-post "research" doesn't prove meditation has an effect, just as finding that a cold goes away after taking zinc doesn't.
Control groups are necessary. Yet the researchers found only 47 randomized clinical trials in the 18,753 research citations. Examining those, they concluded:
Mindfulness meditation programs had moderate evidence of improved anxiety (effect size, 0.38 [95% CI, 0.12-0.64] at 8 weeks and 0.22 [0.02-0.43] at 3-6 months), depression (0.30 [0.00-0.59] at 8 weeks and 0.23 [0.05-0.42] at 3-6 months), and pain (0.33 [0.03- 0.62]) and low evidence of improved stress/distress and mental health–related quality of life.
We found low evidence of no effect or insufficient evidence of any effect of meditation programs on positive mood, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep, and weight. We found no evidence that meditation programs were better than any active treatment (ie, drugs, exercise, and other behavioral therapies).
Second, note the last sentence above. Sometimes meditation programs were somewhat better than doing nothing, but they weren't better than other forms of "active treatment."
This gets at another important point that rings true for me, based on my three-plus decades of meditation experience. Usually people who meditate don't just sit in a room all by themselves doing their thing. For them, meditation has other connections.
Someone who meditates often accepts a religious or spiritual belief system that is comforting. They may go to meetings of like-minded people, feeling good because they now have a social support system. A teacher, leader, guru, guide, or whoever may become a friend of sorts, someone who understands their life problems and offers some solutions.
Lastly, and more specifically, I was struck by Britton's observations about meditation and sleep, given that he has done research in this area.
What I found from my study was that meditation made people’s brains more awake. From a very basic brain point of view, what happens in your brain when you fall asleep? The frontal cortex deactivates. Nobody agrees what meditation does to the brain, but across the board, one of the most common findings is that meditation increases blood flow and activity in the prefrontal cortex.
So how is that going to improve sleep? It doesn’t make any sense. It is completely incompatible with sleeping if you are doing it right.
...In the buddhadharma, meditation is never used to promote sleep. It is for waking up. Sleep is a hindrance.
Usually I don't have any trouble falling asleep at night. I just let my mind wander, mulling whatever I feel like mulling about, and bingo I'm in sleep land. But if I wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, then try to get back to sleep, often I attempt some form of meditation.
Like repeating a mantra. Or counting my breaths. Focusing on my breathing or some other bodily sensation.
But just as Britton says, I've found that becoming mindful in some way doesn't help me to get to sleep. What eventually works is letting my mind go, relaxing and letting thoughts and feelings flow wherever they want to, which is how I go to sleep when I first head to bed.
Anyway, read the whole Tricycle post. Anyone who meditates or is considering taking up meditation will find something of interest there.
If not... fire up the Google search engine. Type "meditation naked" in the search box. Then click on the "Images" option. The results could help explain why meditation is becoming so popular. Don't ask me why I thought of doing this Googling; it just popped into my wandering mind after I finished this post.