Has Meditation Jumped the Shark?

In a New York Times Op-Ed piece this week, UPenn psychology professor Adam Grant takes what he calls “meditation madness” to task. Referring to meditation as a fad, he systematically debunks its benefits. Stress reduction? There are lots of ways to achieve that. Mindfulness? You can achieve mindfulness without meditating, he says, citing a study in which people used a simple cognitive technique to increase awareness. 

He finishes with “Evangelists, it’s time to stop judging. The next time you meet people who choose not to meditate, take a deep breath and let us relax in peace.”

I chuckled as I read this piece. “Here we go again”, I thought, “more evidence that meditation has jumped the shark.” Meditation is so much more than a technique to reduce stress or increase awareness in the moment. It’s a practice that yields many fruits over time, including mindfulness – the profound but deceptively simple-sounding quality of knowing what’s happening in your mind when it’s happening. Over time (years and years for the vast majority of practitioners), those who meditate begin to see deeply how we create suffering for ourselves by holding onto our experiences, our desires, our sense of self. As we practice, we begin to see the ephemeral quality of all that we experience and we discover that we can cling just a little less. And this realization brings equanimity and acceptance, opening up the possibility for a more peaceful, balanced life.

Pretty hard to fit all that into a sound bite. The fact is, you can’t understand it unless you practice it, and it’s not for everyone.

The huge wave of popularization of Buddhism in the West has reduced these beautiful practices and teachings to a set of techniques for reducing stress, and “Mindfulness” has come to mean so much more than what the Buddha taught that its original meaning has been lost.

So, Dr. Grant, I agree with you – when meditation has become a fad, and when it’s chatted about as the latest and greatest cure for all that ails you, and when it’s being pushed by “evangelists”, (the Buddha’s attitude was “hey, I discovered this way to reduce suffering. Try it or not, I don’t care.”), then it’s past its prime, worn out its welcome, become yesterday’s news.

But the practice itself and the teachings of the Buddha remain and endure. For those who are drawn to them, they provide a wonderful refuge. It is a spiritual practice, after all.

If you are drawn to meditation, there are are wonderful resources and teachers to guide you, and therapists to help you work with the difficult emotions it that it can stir up. The practice can be arduous, especially at first, and many people find they need take it slowly. And for those who have anxiety or a history of trauma, it can be better to do a body-based practice such as tai-chi or yoga.

And, as the Buddha said, “ehipassiko”, which, loosely translated, means “try it and see for yourself”.

Or not. There’s no evangelism here.


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