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Is All the Hype Surrounding Meditation Just Hype

A Skeptical view of meditation

At Enlightenment we’re sold on the continual practice of all types of meditation and the positive impacts it has on ones life.

We also believe in trying to learn from differing opinions and issues that folks have as they practice and think about practicing meditation.

This article discusses the practice of meditation from a slightly contrarian point of view and challenges some commonly held beliefs regarding meditation and it’s practice.  Hopefully this article helps you recognize some potential roadblocks with your practice and enables you to work through them.

Learn more about the skeptical side of mediation by checking out this article.

What do you call it when you try to meditate but can’t stop thinking about meditation?


I’ve meditated on and off, mostly off—okay, almost entirely off–since my early 20s, when I learned Kundalini yoga (which has a meditation component). I’ve also dabbled in mindfulness, Zen and Transcendental Meditation. I’m a jittery guy, so I meditate primarily to calm myself, but never for long. If meditating doesn’t work, I stop because I’m wasting my time. If it does work, I stop because I don’t need it any more.

Also, while meditation makes me feel virtuous, like eating kale or driving my Prius, it also makes me impatient. I keep thinking of things I’d rather be doing, like watching Orange Is the New Black, playing hockey or taking a nap.

Or writing something snarky about meditation. Because lately, when I meditate, I keep brooding over things that bother me about meditation. I try to let these things go, like little clouds drifting across the sky of my mind, but I can’t. They bug me. So I decided to write about them. I find critical writing therapeutic.

The Hype Problem

According to one estimate, as many as 10 percent of Americas have tried meditation. Meditation “has gone viral,” The Los Angeles Times reports. Harvard Business Review notes that “mindfulness is close to taking on cult status in the business world.”

That’s not surprising, given how the media have been flogging meditation’s benefits. See these recent reports in 60 Minutes, TIME, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Huffington Post, The New Yorker and Scientific American. Skeptical pushback, such as this piece in The Guardian, is relatively rare.

The Allegiance Effect Problem

Meditation research is plagued by some of the same problems as psychotherapy research. Just as psychotherapy investigators tend to find evidence supporting the variant they favor, so do meditation investigators. In other words, they are subject to confirmation bias, or what psychotherapy researcher Lester Luborsky has called the “allegiance effect.”

An excellent 2014 review by the Johns Hopkins University Evidence-Based Practice Center examined 17,801 papers on meditation and found 41 relatively high-quality studies involving 2,993 subjects. Of these 41 studies, only 10 had a “low risk of bias,” according to the Johns Hopkins team. In other words, even the highest-quality studies were, for the most part, carried out and interpreted in a manner that favored positive outcomes.

The Dodo Bird Problem

The Johns Hopkins review concludes that meditation programs “reduce multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress.” Sounds pretty good, right? But read the review carefully. The alleged benefits are low to moderate, and there is no evidence that meditation programs “were superior to any specific therapies they were compared with,” including exercise, muscle relaxation and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

This finding suggests that meditation, like psychotherapy, conforms to the “Dodo bird verdict.” Psychologist Saul Rosenzwieg coined this phrase in the 1930s to describe the fact that all psychotherapies appeared to be roughly as effective—or ineffective—as each other. The term derives from an episode in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when the Dodo Bird tells characters who have just run a race, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes!”

The Placebo Effect Problem

Just as there are countless psychotherapies, so there are myriad meditations, and each meditator–each meditation session–is unique. So what exactly about meditation “works”–that is, makes people feel better?

What all meditators share—whether they are counting breaths or chanting a mantra–is the expectation that meditation will make them feel better. The Johns Hopkins team notes that “many programs involve lengthy and sustained efforts on the part of participants and trainers, possibly yielding beneficial effects from the added attention, group participation, and support participants receive, as well as the suggestion that symptoms will likely improve with these increased efforts.”

Check out the full article by John Horgan at the Scientific