In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, on October 9, Adam Grant, an up-and-coming young business professor at Wharton, throws his hands up in exasperation at people judgmentally insisting he should meditate. Bravo on that point. Few things are more annoying than you-should-ism, and as we’ve made clear in these pages, touting one-size-fits-all solutions to all problems is ungenerous and fanatical.
And, as we’ve also pointed out, together with Dan Harris, talking to people about meditation with a holier than thou attitude is the surest road to being ignored. When it comes to people telling you how to work with your own mind, skepticism is healthy.
Professor Grant is having the natural, intelligent, response to being oversold on something. Good for him, and good for us all. Perhaps his outcry about stopping “the meditation madness” is a signal that it’s time for those of us who are proponents of meditation to move beyond cheerleading and preaching to simply serving the hundreds of thousands of people who readily accept that meditation is beneficial while continuing the slow work of finding objective evidence of effectiveness. Lesson learned. End of story.
As Grant goes on in his piece, though, he starts to do a little preaching of his own.
He’s on solid ground when he indicates that the benefits that come from meditation can be achieved by other means. Mindfulness, awareness, kindness, compassion…these are deep-seated capabilities, part of who we are as human beings. They can also be cultivated. Meditation is widely experienced as a deeply effective way to cultivate these qualities. There are others. No argument there.
Grant neglects to mention that these scientists are the very pioneers who have dedicated their lives to the study of the effects of mind-body practices. And they are being careful and conservative and thinking of the long-term, exactly as we’d want them to be. Their own caution, and lack of pep rally zeal, is being used against them.
But professor Grant begins to go astray when he cites scientists who admit that the study of meditation effects is in its infancy and that “the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions in either the treatment of specific diseases or in the promotion of well-being” has yet to be conclusively proven. He neglects to mention that these scientists are the very pioneers who have dedicated their lives to the study of the effects of mind-body practices. And they are being careful and conservative and thinking of the long-term, exactly as we’d want them to be. Their own caution, and lack of pep rally zeal, is being used against them. Somehow, they are held to a higher standard of proof than the studies he cites that “prove” the efficacy of non-meditative approaches, such as changing your mindset.
Above all, Grant makes a cardinal error:
Because something has yet to be proven does not mean it has been disproven.
Evidence of our minds changing in significant long-term ways is something very hard to come by. We’re talking about minds, after all. They’re hard to measure. Thankfully.
There is not much value to preaching about meditation. By the same token, there’s also not much value to sermonizing about anti-meditation. If meditation helps, as Grant agrees it does, what’s the matter with advocating for it, in a measured way, and providing moral support for the increasing number of people taking it up everyday?
Brow-beating and a steady diet of rah-rah, go-team messages…that is off-putting. The most persuasive kind of evidence comes from people’s personal experience when they dip their toe in and try something. And what gets somebody to try something: simply a little suggestion that it might work.
For those who advocate meditation as an important element in health and wellness, it will be increasingly important to cite evidence of the many studies underway to test the efficacy of meditation—and those that will be undertaken in the decades to come—while being honest about how slowly science marches when a new field opens up. People are smart; they can reach their own conclusions.