November 24, 2005 2:42 PM   Subscribe

OmFilter: What's so great about meditation?

After looking at some past threads and looking through google, it seems pretty clear that meditation is a good idea. There are various claims that it provides relaxation, peace of mind, mindfulness, etc...all good stuff, but kind of vague. So, what are the SPECIFIC benefits of meditiation? Scientific studies would be ideal, but personal accounts that highlight some specific benefits that people have noticed are great, too...
posted by johnsmith415 to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Good question. At this point the only thing I have to add is that several insurance companies offer discounts for meditation practitioners, so the actuarial effect must exist.
posted by wilful at 2:51 PM on November 24, 2005

If this recent story is correct, it actually restructures the human brain in some beneficial ways.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:02 PM on November 24, 2005

another article on that same study... anecdotally i can report that it calms and refocuses the mind in a way that kind of integrates the multichannel chatter that is generally going through the overloaded circuits. i don't have a daily practice or anything, but friends that do report it better prepares them to handle sudden crises or big emotional experiences, and this makes sense to me from the little practice i've done.
posted by judith at 3:22 PM on November 24, 2005

(Nice page title!)
posted by Robot Johnny at 3:45 PM on November 24, 2005

I've never been any good at it, but from what I have read about meditation its primary benefit is this: you train yourself to actively control your state of mind, rather than being buffeted along by it.

That is both emotionally helpful (coping with stress and what not) as well as physically helpful (many recent studies show that an active brain is more resistant to brain disease, and meditation might fall into the kind of thinking that exercises the brain).

Considering that, to me at least, the kind of things that you are taught in behavioral therapy are just as helpful at combatting depression as drugs, and that meditation has a lot in common with said behavioral therapy, I think it spills over into many areas of your life in a positive way. Most people never give the idea of actively controlling their mind a second thought.
posted by teece at 4:00 PM on November 24, 2005

Zen and the Brain, written by a neuroscientist, is a good book length treatment.
posted by Gyan at 5:38 PM on November 24, 2005

At this point the only thing I have to add is that several insurance companies offer discounts for meditation practitioners, so the actuarial effect must exist.

I don't think that proves anything about meditation per se. It's entirely likely that people who practice meditation are more mindful of their health than the general population.
posted by pompomtom at 7:04 PM on November 24, 2005

I second the recommendation for "Zen and the Brain," with the minor quibble that it's not so much a book-length treatment as a three-books'-length treatment. It's a hefty chunk of paper. :) Also, about half of it is a pretty good layman's overview of currentish neuroscience in general which is simply fascinating stuff.
posted by Drastic at 8:12 PM on November 24, 2005

Meditation is a variety of practices, mostly Eastern of course. The most popular fall into three major types: to focus on one thing, such as your breath (e.g. Samatha - the most common Zen meditation in the west); to experience all sensations and thoughts without attachment (e.g. Vipassana); or, loosely, to experience and think nothing at all (e.g. Advaita Vedanta Hindu meditation, which Transcendental Meditation is an instance of). The last can be the most strong deviation from normal waking experience and seems to have the strongest effects in terms of mental ("spiritual") and physical benefits, but it's not as popular because it tends to require a teacher and TM is the only major established discipline in the West, unfortunately. (Partly pasted from a previous post of mine).

Health effects and such are relatively tangible and well-corroborated, so I'm going to go into the often-nebulous "spiritual" benefits (as a secular rationalist, I'd say that word really refers to various modified states of consciousness and psychology - and a better word is needed to represent the same thing). I'll stick with the one I do - aforementioned Hindu technique - though the results and philosophy/theology behind them are somewhat similar.

You use a simple mantra, which you repeat in your mind tenuously and without attachment, such that eventually even the sound goes away and you're left perfectly quiet mentally, which is called samadhi. (This isn't the goal - the most important part is lack of intention or goals, which would be thoughts - but it's the natural progression of practice). That's pretty much it. It's relatively easy to not learn the concept exactly right, hence the need for a teacher, but it's not hard to actually do.

To be awake, but not conscious of anything - which is something different than being unconscious - and to spend a portion of your day solely with the root of your experience itself, has interesting mental effects in the long term. It makes you realize tangibly that your "true self" and your specific, individual self which consists of all the thoughts and perceptions you have at a given moment, are two different things. After (usually) the first couple years of practicing it (usually about 20 minutes twice a day, incidentally), you start to get an experience in normal life where you can feel that separation between your basic consciousness and all the often deleterious stuff that constitues your day-to-day persona. From a practical standpoint, this allows you to take a calm, pleasant outlook in your everyday life to manage the stuff in your head and in your life, rather than being inside the fray. This is the Advaita Vedanta concept of enlightenment - disentanglement from your identity and taking a standpoint of Being (Brahman) itself instead. It happens gradually and for those who do it casually, which is almost everyone, tends to remain at a low level.

As a side bit of advocacy, this one is the easiest of the major practices, since it pretty much requires nothing of you other than to take it easy in a certain way. It's the exact opposite of focus. It also seems to have the strongest health effects in terms of blood pressure, wakefulness etc. (and in the form of TM has been studied to death - thousands of studies).
posted by abcde at 8:19 PM on November 24, 2005 [3 favorites]

I might add that my year and a half of meditation helped me tremendously at my last dentist appointment. The discomfort was still there, but I found that I was able to distance myself from it a bit. And that made things MUCH easier.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 10:04 PM on November 24, 2005

Of course, the distinction must be made that the extra mental abilities that some techniques will give you (like directing your mind away from pain) and samadhi, which is a specific thing that arguably isn't even psychological - it's a subtle thing to do with consciousness that's one of those things you have to have had to know (I haven't yet).
posted by abcde at 11:46 PM on November 24, 2005

The great part for me is that it gives me access to really interesting internal experiences; at least as interesting as (although quite quite different from) those I've had via the use of divers interesting chemicals.

Since circumstances have compelled me to became old and respectable, Vipassana meditation is now my drug of choice :)

Obligatory link (see chapter 1: "Why should I bother?").
posted by flabdablet at 12:17 AM on November 25, 2005

flabdablet already linked Mindfulness in Plain English, I just wanted to add that chapter 16 is also relevant for this question.

I don't have a reference, but a claimed benefit of meditation is that you get simple insights into how to make your life better. Really prosaic things like a slightly better process for taking out the garbage or a shortcut to work or whatever. Obviously that's not the main sell but it is a fairly unambiguous practical benefit. For what it's worth, I have found this to be true. When you carry out daily activities "in mindfulness" you do notice obstacles which you would normally just subconsciously work around and this gives you an opportunity to get rid of them.
posted by teleskiving at 1:07 AM on November 25, 2005

Short & sweet answer from my (admittedly limited) personal experience:

Meditation increases one's awareness of oneself and the world around, increases the ability to focus attention on specific tasks, reduces anxiety/increases calm, can help understand and deal with personal problems and encourages improvement in the health of body and mind.
posted by MetaMonkey at 4:33 AM on November 25, 2005

I think this is an interesting question when taken with the recent AskMe about "detaching" from an argument, getting logical and rational in the face of overwhelming emotion.

The impression that I got from many in that thread was that they wanted to separate themselves from the turmoil of an argument, and they might do so by shutting down their emotional responses (refusing to get angry). This reaction can come across as becoming aloof, disconnected from your conversational partner, and self-centered.

Meditation practice, in my experience, can achieve a different sort of detachment. You learn that your emotions are real but transitory, and that "you" exist outside them, but that they are certainly important clues that your body uses to tell you things. So if, for instance, you're arguing, you can feel your anger or resentment or abandonment or whatever, identify that it's an important emotion, but not let yourself be totally controlled by that emotion. You can use your emotions to direct your response, but you stay more in control. This is different than pretending you don't have emotions (which is what the AskMe thread was dealing with, I think), or getting so caught up in your emotional response that you lose all perspective.

Meditation or practicing mindfulness, is, I think, a way to integrate all aspects of yourself, and become articulate in expressing and dealing with those aspects. When I'm meditating regularly, I can just identify things that are bothering me much more easily, and do productive things to fix them. "I'm upset. I need a drink." becomes "I'm upset because X is reminding me of Y, and that makes me lonely, and when I'm lonely, it helps to talk to my good friend Z, so I'll call him." It's like having a way to develop logical thinking for your emotions.
posted by occhiblu at 8:28 AM on November 25, 2005

Again I'll emphasize that what Samadhi causes is a different, more fundamental type of detachment than Mindfulness/Vipassana does (at least in the shorter term; it is often thought that the Hindu and Buddhist practices lead to the same place in the end). Also, N.B. that Samadhi has two meanings and actually means "concentration" in the Buddhist system, which is the opposite of the other meaning.
posted by abcde at 12:28 PM on November 25, 2005

Well, I suppose it's better than sitting around doing nothing.
posted by TiredStarling at 10:20 AM on November 30, 2005

posted by homunculus at 10:39 PM on January 1, 2006

A Contemplative Science
posted by homunculus at 8:16 PM on February 12, 2006

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