July 23, 2007

Meditation: New Research Says Don't Bother?

In an earlier post on failed efforts at self-improvement, Crabby mentioned she had tried meditation. And tried meditation. And tried meditation.

Here's what would happen: Crabby would be fully concentrating on her mantra, candle, color, breath, left big toe, or whatever. But at the same time, she would also be narrating a running commentary on her efforts to do so. "See, I'm really filling my mind with this lovely blue vase. I am appreciating every aspect of it but goddamn it, I'm also thinking about thinking about the blue vase. Does that mean it doesn't count? Blue Blue Blue, goddamn it I'm still thinking!"

Meditation people might insist Crabby was not "really" focusing on the blue vase if there was all that room left in her consciousness to narrate her thinking process, but she swears she really was doing both at the same time.

It did not help Crabby that she must have read a few dozen magazine pieces featuring skeptical non-meditators who would have all the same complaints for the first session or two. But by the end of a week they all managed to attain some sort of blissful nirvana and were laughing (gently) at their old skeptical selves. (Crabby hopes at least some of them were just on deadlines and needed a happy ending and were totally lying about it).

Anyway, despite years of frustrating sessions of not-quite-meditating, Crabby always felt it was a worthwhile pursuit. Perhaps not for her--there's only so much energy she has for self-improvement, and attempted meditation has used up way more than its share. But for other people at least, it seemed clear meditation was a Great Thing.

Everyone seemed to agree that meditation had major physical and mental health benefits. Experts from both East and West; ancient traditions and modern medicine; those advocating spiritual practice and those rejecting any sort of organized religion all seemed to say the same thing: "Yeah, Crabby, you should be meditating."

Well, now comes a study that would seem to let Crabby off the hook, guilt free. Here is what the Yahoo news headline said: "Meditation Won't Boost Health: Study."

So since meditation won't boost her health, Crabby need not feel the slightest twinge of guilt for abandoning her pursuit of it, right?

Well, no. At least Crabby isn't convinced yet that she's off scott free. (And by the way, who the hell is Scott?)

First off, most health headline writers who don't have their heads up their asses would have stated the study results more accurately. Crabby refers you for further reference to "Therapeutic Value Of Meditation Unproven, Says Study."

There is a big difference in saying that "Meditation doesn't improve health," versus "no one has yet been able to prove meditation improves health."

And reading further, Crabby isn't even sure this is the case either. Plenty of evidence seemed to suggest health benefits, but the researchers who took a closer look at 813 previous studies didn't like them.

According to this summary in Science Daily, though the researchers found some evidence that "certain types of meditation reduce blood pressure and stress," and noted that "among healthy individuals, practices such as Yoga seemed to increase verbal creativity and reduce heart rate, blood pressure and cholesterol," they said no firm conclusions on the effects of meditation could be drawn. "Existing scientific research is characterized by poor methodological quality, and does not appear to have a common theoretical perspective."

This is such a far cry from "Meditation Won't Boost Health: Study," that it makes Crabby want bonk Yahoo News on it's virtual head with a meditation pillow or a pretty scented candle. Though she suspects that's not very Zen of her.

Other recent studies have been all good news for meditators. Crabby doesn't know if these were included in the Big Debunking Study or not, but she'll let readers decide for themselves what they think.

This University Of Wisconsin meditation study found that meditation increased immune function, as well as activation in the left frontal region of the brain--which is associated with lower anxiety and a more positive emotional state.

Another study found that meditation seemed to increase grey matter in the brain.

And finally, this study on meditation and attention showed that meditation could increase subject's ability to attend to incoming visual signals sent a short time apart. The subjects were thus able to learn to enhance their "attention capabilities."

None of this is likely to convince Crabby to return to meditation anytime soon--she truly does suck at it. But what about you all? Do you meditate? Have you tried? Do you think it's good for you?


  1. Absolutely I have tried meditating under the direction of my therapist at the time who was, coincidentally, a Zen Buddhist priest. (It's a very interesting combination.)

    I found it very helpful and still do, though I forget to do it unless I have trouble going to sleep or something. My personal Zen master's instruction was much more pragmatic than what it seems you were up to: I was only supposed to count my breaths. And yes, try not to think about anything else, but if thoughts did occur just to acknowledge them and get back to the breath. If I did this for five minutes I felt afterward as though I had had a refreshing nap.

    One thing he insisted upon, though, was to STOP being so goal oriented about it. He really took objection when I once talked about a meditation being more "successful." He said there's no such thing as success in meditation: it is what it is. So you might consider that.

  2. I've tried meditation but my mind is running like a hamster wheel on speed, I just don't seem to be able to relax enough to do it.

    Mind you, reading what Melissa just wrote, I may have learned part of my problem.

  3. There's no right or wrong way to do it, Crabby. And anyone who says you're doing it wrong is lying. Granted, there are some practices that have methods and if you don't follow those practices then you are doing it wrong for that way.
    Anyway, my point: Relax and let your mind flow. If you wish to have a running commentary about the blue vase, then have at it and see where it takes you.
    Meanwhile, if hypnosis is easier for you to deal with, do it instead. They take place in the same altered state. If you've ever been held captive by a book, then you've gotten to the right (Alpha) level of brainwave activity.
    Daydream, Crabby. That's as good a place to start as any. Let yourself daydream for a few minutes a day. Build from there if you want.
    On a different note: Glad to have you back and blogging. Hope you and The Lobster had wonderful weekend.

  4. This is so timely. Today I had a Physical Therapy appointment for me knee. One of the things she has started to do is gently, but with intention, bending my knee...farther than it wants to go. I immediately found myself working into deep breathing and "going to my happy place". Really, I learned to do this when I had my kids. I had two kids, both without a lick of pain medication. I will tell you that I consider myself a wimp when it comes to pain, so this is not my natural state!

    I don't ever intentionally sit and meditate, but I found it interesting that when I was put into a position that I knew I needed to endure a session of pain, without even thinking about it, my mind took over my body and started doing what I learned in the childbearing era of my life.

    Welcome back, by the way!!!

  5. I have tried various forms of meditation.

    I'm one of those people who spends a lot of time in her head instead of her body, so transendental meditation (the kind where you sit there and breathe and try to empty your mind) never worked for me. It drove me nuts. Similarly, walking meditation (where you walk veeerrryyy slowly and mindfully) also drove me nuts. My normal pace is actually quicker than most people -- probably partially from a childhood of trying to keep up with my tall, fast-paced father with my short little legs).

    I have also tried mantra meditation with a mala (also known as 'prayer beads' or a rosery), and that worked. It gave my brain something to do (the mantra) and my body (passing over each bead. It's the only kind of meditation that doesn't drive me nuts.

    -- Dancinghawk

  6. I'm of the mind that meditation is like a placebo...to a certain degree if you need and want it and it it will make you a calmer more centred person and you belive it will help. But everyone has their own thing - for my Dad it's working with his hands...fixing building and tinkering calms him and makes hima happy contented fellow. I'm the same way - I find listening to music, long hot baths and building stained glass windows where I'm mentally focused on a taks can really leak the stress away...The regular typical sort of meditation had me so focused on whether I was doing it right and how I was doing it and was I doing it properly that it never relaxed me. I ended up more annoyed than when I started...:)

  7. I've attempted meditation. Naps work better.

  8. THis is made me laugh so hard!
    "(Crabby hopes at least some of them were just on deadlines and needed a happy ending and were totally lying about it)."

    I like to "get quiet" now and then. Mostly because our house is so chaotic and it's good to refocus. But I wouldn't call it meditation, I'd call it "not going crazy with small children."

  9. I suck at meditation, but I'd be willing to say it helps me. However, I would also have to agree with Jim up there about naps.

    And please don't get me started on headline writers and proper science communication...roar!

  10. Lovely to have you back, Crabby - and sorry about the mess. I was just feeling a trifle peckish!

    Of course, you can't mediate thinking about a blue vase! Feast your eyes on upon this cream filled apple donut. Imagine yourself sinking deep down into that beautiful creaminess. Imagine the aroma of ripe apples filling your senses. Imagine that each grain of sugar is one of life's problems and as you taste each grain, the problem is gone. Gone forever. Imagine -

    Crabby! You've eaten the damn thing! No wonder you can't meditate!

  11. Hi Melissa,
    Thanks for all the suggestions!

    Oddly enough, I can hear the bit about not being goal oriented over and over, but there's a part of me that still can't help comparing what I'm doing and experiencing to what it's "supposed" to be like!

    Marijke, I can totally relate to that hamster wheel, and very well put!

    Hi Leah,
    Also some great suggestions and perspective. I do slightly better with hypnosis than meditation--though it doesn't "work" for me in terms of hypnotic suggestions having any impact, and it doesn't seem to come easily, I have in the past had a few nice experiences with trance states.

    Holly, I'm so jealous! Sounds like you have a very well-trained mind if you can get to a place of no pain, and even do childbirth that way! I don't know if that would be self-hypnosis or what, but it sounds a great skill to have. (I've tried stuff like that at the dentist and seem to have no such ability!).

    Hi Dancinghawk,
    That's great that you found one that worked for you! I agree that tactile ones are a bit more absorbing (for me) than counting or breathing. But it still feels more like a chore than a form of relaxation for me. Glad you're getting the benefits of it.

    Hi Geosomin!
    Sometimes I wonder if you're right about the placebo effect. Or I also wonder if the people who like meditation and can stick to it have differently wired brains to begin with that makes it easier for them to focus. I'm like you--I don't find it all that relaxing and do better by daydreaming or going for a walk or listening to music. But I don't know if I'm getting all the brain benefits that meditation seems to bring (depending on which study you read!).

    Back in a bit for some more of your great comments!

  12. Just saw the ford mondeo "desire" tv ad. I'm not a big one for tv or advertising, but it is mesmerizing and I totally feel myself relax into it, in a weird sad way as I am sitting here glued to a tv commercial. Sony Bravia Jose Gonzalez heartbeat balls has the same effect. There is a point. I could totally meditate to these. In a random, not strictly meditating kind of way. (Both are on youtube.)

  13. The only time I've come close to meditation was once during a math test. Yes, I said a math test! It was geometry and it was a make-up exam, so I was the only one in the room and it was nice and quiet, no distractions. The test was an 8.5x11 page filled with circle, triangles, parallelograms, and other shapes and I had to find angles and side lengths. I started the exam, then about 45 minutes later, I "woke up" and realized I had finished the test. I had gotten totally in the zone where there was nothing but math.

    No, I didn't turn into a mathematician, and in fact haven't taken math (or practically any hard science) since high school. I wish the workday would go by like that sometimes...

  14. I have something else to share that bears on both this and the mental hygiene discussion: With the hygiene question in mind, as I was working in the big file room archiving documents I thought I’d take some definite steps toward feeling better. (I’m the one that’s been having the big depressive funk—and yes I AM getting very good treatment, therapy and medication.) So I moved around a lot and did a lot of punching (put-together boxes have those perforated bottoms and sides and stuff you have to snap off), which I always do when I archive, but THIS time I decided to put some “brain” music on. I didn’t have any Mozart but I did have Bach Orchestral Suites.

    And an interesting thing happened. Usually when I fill out the handwritten forms my handwriting goes all over the place and I think they’re a pain to fill out. But after about a half hour of hard work and Bach, I suddenly noticed my handwriting was getting so small and even and I was so calm. I think it takes a particular kind of music to do this, though. Like Mozart or Bach, not Dave Matthews. (I should test this theory again.)

    One more thing, I do very well with the depression thing usually, but if I get lazy and don’t eat right or exercise, or I start abusing myself mentally like obsessing over the political blogs and inherent contempt, warrantless wiretapping, and Alberto Gonzales--the funk will jump up and bite me in the butt before I know where I am. And it’s SOOOOO hard to snap out of it. Thank God I have a wonderful husband who helps.

    Sorry for the long ramble!!

  15. Hi Jim,
    Great blog you guys have got over there. And hooray for naps!

    Hi Vickie--I'm with you, it feels like a chore to me.

    Katieo, "getting quiet" sounds like a great way to relax and less chore like than meditation. And with small kids in the house it must be quite a challenge!

    Okay Dawn, here's the funny thing: even as I was laughing at your comment I felt myself going into a relaxing donut-trance. You have a talent at this! I see a series of Dessert-relaxation tapes: a cupcake tape, a donut tape, a chocolate bar tape--all with treat included of course. I bet they'd fly off the shelves!

    Hi Norabarnacle!
    I too have been mesmerized by tv commercials and will have to check these out. Though I had difficulty parsing "Sony Bravia Jose Gonzalez heartbeat balls" and pictured something pulsating that was frankly a bit graphic and not all that relaxing. Will have to adjust brain and actually check youtube to see what you're talking about!

    Hi Lethological,
    Wow, what a cool experience! Wouldn't it be great if more tasks just flew by like that? I think they talk about "flow," but I find that really hard to achieve unless it's something that's not the least bit productive. I can "flow" through a bag of M&M's but not much else.

    Hi Melissa!
    No worries about rambling here at Cranky Fitness, since I'm the worst offender. That's really interesting about the classical music. Sounds very therapeutic. I think music is one of those things like exercise that's just plain good for us on a lot of levels.

    And I know what you mean about the disturbing impact of politics and current events. I sometimes have to avoid political blogs too--there's so much to be outraged by, and sometimes I just don't feel up to it. I think it's smart that you're figuring out how to avoid getting yourself into a funk. And sounds like you have a great husband and support system!

  16. Try having a baby drug free along with two days of labor and your meditating skills will come on pretty damn quickly.

    That is all. Oh, and welcome back.

  17. Jennifer,
    I'd be shouting "epidural! epidural!" every fifteen seconds--starting in about my eighth month just to be totally clear about it.

    I'm impressed with you drug free child-birthers-- but yikes, not me. Thanks as usual for always keeping me amused!

  18. I know exactly what you mean. Several years back people were obsessing over the whole meditation thing and thought it would be the miracle answer to my mental health problems, that were at that time very severe. So I recall being bought a meditation book and trying it. But shoot, meditation is particularly hard to make work when you've got crazy emotional issues.

    Then I took yoga classes and the end of the class would be this relaxation time where we'd lay down and the instructor would very calmly guide us in meditation and whatnot. But still my mind was always all over the place.

    I've since given up on meditated and become a CHristian. At least even though my prayers are scattered and I lose focus there too, if I start thinking about some joke I want to share with my friend or something while I'm trying to pray, I can make my prayers shift towards praying for my friend's needs or something. ANd I don't know, praying the rosary can help you stay focused with the beads and especially if you really know the Bible stories that are meant to be meditated upon for that particular decade of beads. So I'm think Crucifixition and it's so okay to start thinking about life being unfair and this and that, and then I can pray about it. ha ha.

    I don't know. Don't listen me though, since I went from praying the Rosary daily to hardly praying anything at all. But for me, that's the closest to meditation I'm ever going to get, I think.

  19. Whoa, sorry about the long comment... and that I thought about something more...

    So as I said I've been dealing with major mental health issues over the past many years and I've seen all sorts of therapists and been in aenough mental hospitals were certain forms of meditation are tried and encouraged and all of that.

    I particularly lajugh at the kind of meditation that involves "imaging you're emotionally stable" or focusing on some other goal you want to acheive. Because by all means then when I have dirty fantasies, then I'm maybe successfully meditating? (and by rules of that nuttiness, then I'm so much more likely to acheive that..uh, fantasy, huh?)

    anyway, my mind's racing a thousand miles per hour right now...

  20. There are all kinds of ways to meditate, from formal to informal. The point is that it be an activity that allows you to relax, clear your mind of past and future, and just be in the present moment.

    I don't see how it can be anything but healthy to learn to clear your head of superfluous stuff and be calm and focused in the moment. It sounds like a great tool to have!

    A funny story from my own experience: I went on a yoga retreat in the mountains of New Mexico in '90 or '91 (I forget which). They woke us at FOUR AM (!!!) for morning meditation. And it wasn't a walking meditation or something active. No, this was a sit-down-eyes-closed meditation!

    Let's just say it always ended badly for me. You can't meditate with your eyes closed at 4 am. After a short while you find yourself tipping slowly to one side until SPLAT! you end up on the floor.

    So while meditation is quite a good thing to do, it's also important to do the right kind of meditation at the right time. Or else, no, it won't help very much and might even result in some ugly bruises.

  21. Hi Meg,
    I think there's a really long tradition of prayer as meditation, so that's great if it works for you. And I'm like you on goal-oriented visualizations: they don't actually seem to work for me, though others seem to have a great experience with them.

    Bunnygirl, that's so funny! If I close my eyes even for afternoon attempted-meditation I have trouble staying awake. 4AM meditation seems like a really dumb idea. Splat! Yikes.

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  24. Meditation is really quite a challenge because its like balancing on a tightrope - to remain in alpha state for several minutes. If you entertain your worries and concern, you fall back to beta. If you lose focus, you fall to theta(light sleep)..splat(lol).


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