Source: Macaulay Honors College
Riya Sreenivasan and Victor Liaw
Mindfulness meditation is a mental exercise intended to improve clarity and calm that emphasizes being present in the moment, self-aware, and minimally reactive to one’s surroundings. The concept of mindfulness meditation is that concentrating on bodily sensations can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression such as racing thoughts and feelings of unease. It can be as simple as focusing on a specific object or specific types of breathing.
Jon Kabat-Zinn was the first to develop mindfulness based stress reduction therapy (MBSR) based on Buddhist mindfulness practice, which focuses on the well-being of bodily state to allow for the apart from thoughts and emotions. His 10-week program at the University of Massachusetts invited people with persistent pain to attend meditation classes and practice at home. At the end of the study, a majority of the 51 patients reported lowered pain severity and decreased symptoms of depression, tension, anxiety, and fatigue. MBSR therapy was further popularized by writers and advocates who described success stories and cited similar types of data, and a recent review of fifteen studies of MBSR in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry found that most of them addressed symptoms of depression or anxiety in individuals with a major medical condition such as persistent pain.
Despite these findings, MBSR studies should be treated with some skepticism because many factors can account for symptom improvement over time. Symptoms can get better on their own with time, which is hard to account for in a long study period. It’s also possible that people started the study at a time of particularly high distress, but returned to a more average level of distress over time. Known as regression to the mean, these types of variations occur independently of any intervention but can appear to be related. Further, in what is known as placebo effect, simply believing that an intervention will work can lead to symptom improvement. Finally, MBSR study participants may be subject to the Hawthorne effect, meaning that the act of being observed by researchers may affect the participants and cause them to feel more obliged to show signs of improvement. Although many of these concerns can be addressed using a comparison group, most of these studies did not use one.
Understanding both the merits of MBSR therapy as well as the concerns from their study methodology will become important as meditation centers become increasingly common in Austin and other affluent, bustling cities. A further concern for this practice is that it risks commoditizing common methods of self care. Marketing meditation as a commodity can not only make the practice appear elitist and unaffordable but can also make it appear difficult–a practice that requires another’s expertise, and for which one should pay–when in fact, it is straightforward and can be done with little guidance.
Can one learn to meditate using free advice or apps? What is the value of a paid app, book, coach, or setting? The answer to these questions may be specific to an individual’s values, personality, and experience. Keep in mind that meditation is very simple and can benefit all of us.