How do you know?
Since forever, this has been one of the hardest questions to answer. And until the scientific revolution, unless you had firsthand knowledge (“I tried meditation and it did this for me, but I can’t say what it will do for you”), you had to rely on others you trusted (“The One-Who-Knows-All says that this plant will cure your anxiety”). With the advent of scientific experimentation, the standard for knowledge began to shift, and nowadays with other kinds of authority in decline, the gold standard for knowledge is whether it has been tested in an experimental setting.
In particular, when it comes to health care and mental and physical well-being, we need some assurance that what’s being prescribed has been tried and there is evidence that at least suggests that it works and it’s safe. Many aspects of health have been extensively studied—what promotes heart health, diet, exercise, and so on—and the effects of medication generally need to be documented thoroughly over decades of study before they can be prescribed.
It’s hard enough to prove that a particular lifestyle choice reduces the risk of heart disease. To demonstrate the effects of a practice that works with the mind is quite a bit more difficult.
However, when it comes to the effects of meditation and related mindfulness practices, the body of research is growing rapidly but is still small by comparison with other areas of research. According to the American Mindfulness Research Association, the number of papers on mindfulness published in journals rose from 10 in the year 2000 to almost 700 in 2016—a phenomenal increase. At the same time, according to PubMed, 42,245 papers were published in 2016 on heart disease alone. The study of mindfulness is in its infancy.
It’s a healthy baby, though. Lots of pilot studies and a number of full-fledged studies show encouraging results. Yet it’s important to use words like “proven” cautiously. It’s hard enough to prove that a particular lifestyle choice reduces the risk of heart disease. To demonstrate the effects of a practice that works with the mind is quite a bit more difficult.
And when any study says that meditation accomplishes a given outcome, you have to ask for whom, compared to whom, for how long, and under what circumstances—not to mention who funded and conducted the study. When it comes to scientific research, there’s lots of fine print. For example, it’s important to know how mindfulness was defined, what instructions participants received, who instructed them, and how the outcomes were measured.
At Mindful, we celebrate the mindfulness research revolution not because we long for the final word on the efficacy of mindfulness. We celebrate it because as researchers continue to make better guesses at what’s happening when people practice mindfulness, a continual process of discovery takes place. And that’s a key aspect of mindfulness: Instead of trying to nail something down once and for all, we keep inquiring, probing, and testing. In the end, after evaluating what others say—including in scientific journals—people and organizations will give mindfulness a try, see for themselves, and tell others what they found. That will be their answer for How do you know?
This article appeared in the December 2017 issue of Mindful magazine.