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Meditation and mindfulness not nirvana for all

Mindfulness and meditation are widely touted as solutions to a range of health conditions and social stresses, but a new study shows the impact of these practises on our collective wellbeing has limitations.

Dr Ute Kreplin is a Massey University psychology researcher and co-author of an international study just published in Nature Scientific Reports. The report says that while many may experience personal benefits from practising various forms of mindfulness meditation, it won’t change social behaviours such as aggression or prejudice.

Psychological research on the pro-social effects of meditation started over four decades ago, but only now has a new study looked at the combined effects of meditation in making us better individuals – particularly in secular contexts when it is separated from its’ original Buddhist philosophical teachings.

Dr Kreplin and co-authors Dr Miguel Farias, from Coventry University’s Centre for Advances in Behavioural Science in Britain, and Dr Inti Brazil, from the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour at Radboud University in the Netherlands, reviewed over 20 studies that evaluated the effect of various types of meditation, such as mindfulness and loving-kindness, on pro-social feelings and behaviours.

The paper, titled The Limited Prosocial Effects of Meditation, found that while meditation has a largely positive role in making individuals feel better, “there are limitations, and the nature of it is a far cry from the popular claims made by religions and psychologists in the past few decades that meditation could change individuals, make the world a better place and lead to global peace.”

Although the initial analysis indicated that meditation has an overall positive impact, further analysis revealed that practices like mindfulness played no significant role in reducing aggression or prejudice. The most unexpected result of this study, though, was that the more positive results found for compassion had important methodological flaws — compassion levels in some studies only increased if the meditation teacher was also an author of the published report.

Dr Kreplin, who has used mindfulness in a clinical setting in a previous role, says she was “disillusioned” by the findings of her study. And while she still recognises the value of mindfulness – available widely through books, apps, websites and used in workplaces, schools, prisons and military contexts – in helping with issues like stress management and anxiety, she says people should be a little sceptical about the extolled benefits.

As an unregulated technique, mindfulness may not be suited to all personalities or for all problems, especially more severe mental health problems. In fact, there is even a slight risk that digging deep into emotions through meditation and mindfulness can even trigger depression in some, but this negative side effect is rarely talked about, she says.

Co-author of the paper Dr Farias says; “The popularisation of meditation techniques, like mindfulness, despite being taught without religious beliefs, still seem to offer the hope of a better self and a better world to many. We wanted to investigate how powerful these techniques were in affecting one’s feelings and behaviours towards others.”

But despite the high hopes of practitioners and past studies, “our research found that methodological shortcomings greatly influenced the results we found.”

“None of this, of course, invalidates Buddhism or other religions’ claims about the moral value and eventually life changing potential of its beliefs and practices,” he adds. “But our research findings are a far cry from many popular claims made by meditators and some psychologists.”

Dr Farias has also co-authored (with Dr Catherine Wikholm) a book called The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? (2015), which separates fact from fiction in exploring beliefs and scientific evidence into the benefits and limitations on health and wellbeing from practising meditation and mindfulness.

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