Prior to the 1960s claims about psychological and, especially physical improvements from mind training practices, got about as much serious attention as claims that the earth is actually flat.
A variety of influences encouraged those who are scientifically oriented to take a second look at these techniques. A very significant shift in readiness to take them seriously resulted from the work of Herbert Benson, a senior cardiologist at Harvard’s Medical School.
His work was presumably stimulated by popular demand, stemming from such things as the wildly popular Beatles’ taking up “Transcendental Meditation”, a very well packaged program centered on an ancient method of “Mantra Meditation”.
In a nutshell, Benson confirmed that mantra meditation induced something he called the “relaxation response”. This was a clear and simple label for a complex pattern of physiological replenishment responses along with corollary psychological feelings of calm and relaxation.
The mind-body pattern was familiar to the few people who understood how our nervous systems respond when we are distressed versus when we are comfortable and calm. The pattern was based on activity in a number of neural systems that can only be understood after much study of neurophysiology.
So his simply calling their effects as “the relaxation response” was pure genius. It focuses on a central benefit of controlling those neurophysiological and corollary psychological reactions without getting bogged down in technical details a person doesn’t need to know in order to get the systems under control.
(What is Mantra Meditation, and how can you learn how to do it? To get our answers to these questions, click here).
There are many types of meditation, and, in our experience, which one is seen as best seems to depend as much on the person trying to use it as on the meditation method itself.
Though mantra meditation is widely used, the current star of the show in our part of the world is mindfulness meditation. We have described how to engage in this practice here. The method we describe is an ancient one which has shown its usefulness over thousands of years.
We did a Google search to find out how well the effectiveness of mindfulness is supported by good research. For this kind of search, we use Google Scholar, which emphasizes research that has been reported in journals that are attentive to scientific standards of evidence. If you do an ordinary search, you may get as many sales pitches as scientific findings.
This is a quick summary of what we found:
- Research is generally based on meditation techniques that are at quite a distance from traditional mindfulness meditation, typically blended with various procedures that are used in cognitive behavior therapy.
- Standards of research design are not great, but they tend to support the idea that this meditation, on average, has some important positive effects in helping people deal with a wide range of different challenges.
- A good way to describe this state of affairs is to say that mindfulness is robust in its positive effects. This seems to be about as much as we can expect in a world that is not likely to offer ideal levels of precision.
Unless your goal is to publish your findings, the ultimate test of a technique is to find out whether it helps you with your current standards of what is worth the effort. Only you can be the judge of that, once you try it out.