Mindful

Q: I keep hearing that science has proven the benefits of mindfulness meditation. Is that a thoroughly accurate statement? Does research show, in a way that’s objectively measurable, that you will definitely have greater well-being if you meditate?

A: Science can’t definitively show anything, especially when it comes to human experience. That’s not to impugn the value of science, but to note its limitations. Science does its best to predict outcomes in the future based on observations of the past. With meditation science, there is a large and growing body of research that suggests the odds are good that meditation practice will have a generally salutary and positive impact on someone who practices it regularly.

But science works with statistics and probabilities, usually regarding groups, so that what happens for 80% of the population, for example, doesn’t translate into an 80% chance that you will experience it. Statistics can be misleading. If you roll a die five times and each time it comes up as a 5, when you roll that die again, what are the chances you will get another 5? The same as all the other times: 1 in 6.

So, putting the statistics lesson aside, we all know that life is uncertain. The same is true with meditation, but research does suggest that certain practices and programs do seem to have a measurable, and in some cases, clearly observable positive effect on things like mood, well-being, and self-compassion, among others.

My advice would be to let this science lead you to be a skeptic, which means to explore the practice with an open, curious mind that has let go of preconceived notions.

My advice would be to let this science lead you to be a skeptic, which means to explore the practice with an open, curious mind that has let go of preconceived notions. As I like to tell my students: Don’t take my word for anything. Let your own experience be your guide.

This article appeared in the February 2018 issue of Mindful magazine.

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Steve Hickman

Steve Hickman is founder and director of the University of California at San Diego Center for Mindfulness. He is a Clinical Psychologist and Associate Professor in the Psychiatry and Family & Preventive Medicine Departments.

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