Mindfulness, yoga, and corporate meditation retreats are new fixations for Western health, education, business, and productivity. Companies like Google have already begun meditation courses, widely backed by employee popular demand. But what exactly is meditation and why are people doing it? There are many forms of meditation; either spiritual, religious, or purely technical (as is the case with Western variations) that an exact definition is hard to find. What we do know is that Western scientists and scholars have been studying and debating meditation for over a century.
While no final verdict will be reached in the near future, science is overwhelmingly validating health claims that meditation practitioners have been echoing for years. Contrary to popular opinion, meditation isn’t a one-way ticket to enlightenment. In fact, meditative states of consciousness can trigger unwelcome memories, or pre-existing psychological disorders. However, the majority of studies on the effects of meditation are positive.
Our new meditation kick is really a second wave. Meditation first started catching fire in the West in the 50s through the 70s. Icons like hippies, the Beat Generation, Bruce Lee, the Dalai Lama, Timothy Leary and many others symbolized and fueled Western acceptance of “Eastern” values. These decades saw a number of political and military shifts and decisions. Other factors that influenced meditation's appeal in the West include the aftermath of the Second World War, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and the Chinese government`s aggression toward Tibet. These decades witnessed countless refugees and soldiers flooding into the US, bringing with them a heightened intimacy, and attraction to, meditative practices, coupled with a greater demand for stress reduction. Now, the future of meditation in the West no longer centers on combatting large-scale chaos but on optimizing health, performance, and productivity.
First and foremost, meditation is a method of relaxation and of cultivating personal or spiritual growth, through silencing the mind to achieve simultaneous peace and alertness. Beyond this, it is often seen as a way to access one’s internal energy and life force, or an avenue to a soul of pure compassion, love, patience, generosity, or forgiveness.
It is easy to see, therefore, why almost every religious tradition incorporates some form of meditative practice to their customs. From Hinduism, to Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam, and even Judaism. Not to mention numerous other minor faith systems. While Eastern traditions tend to focus on meditation’s technical aspects to achieve results, Abrahamic traditions concentrate on contemplation or prayer, which dwell on the thematic, the devotional, and the scriptural. The end goal for all meditative practices, however, seems to be the realization of the self and salvation from suffering. As a result, it is clear that the foundation for wider acceptance of Eastern meditative practices in the West already exists.
What, then, have Eastern meditators been trying to teach us for thousands of years that Western science is just now assimilating? The first real studies on meditation began in the 60s and 70s. In 1967, Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School and his colleagues found that while meditating, people use 17% less oxygen, have lower heart rates by three beats a minute, and have increased theta brain waves; brain waves associated with increased creativity, emotional connection, intuition, and relaxation. These physiological responses calm the sympathetic nervous system in our bodies responsible for our fight-or-flight response, reducing unhealthy stress.
Science has attributed countless health benefits to meditation. Some of its effects can even seem miraculous at times. For example, reports of Buddhist monks draped with cold, wet sheets in frigid rooms who are able to make them steam and dry completely in less than an hour by increasing their body heat, or of yogis who can relax so deeply that they almost stop their own heartbeat. These reports imply intense meditative practice can result in higher conscious control over normally unconscious bodily processes; although most won't go to that extreme. The aforementioned evidence provides hope that meditation can be used as an alternative approach to treating anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, heartbeat irregularities, anger, and insomnia.
Meditation is becoming more scientifically proven to increase health and quality of life. In a modern society where overflowing impulses are exhausting our sympathetic nervous systems, (creating a culture of hyperactivity), mindfulness just might be the golden ticket we're all looking for. Meditation helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system to counter stressful reactions accompanying the fight –or- flight response and science proves meditating boosts the immune system to treat everything from infertility to ADD.
Fortunately, the West is on a clear trajectory toward eliminating the stigma against alternative medicine and the power of the mind. Meditation can treat the root causes of many disorders by literally rewiring the brain to see the world in a more fitting, less stressful light, by making you aware of toxic emotions or thought patterns. You won’t be the Buddha right away, and you might even become more anxious and depressed depending on your mental framework and the approach of your teachers. But, statistically, you’ll find that meditation can be much better for you in the long-run compared to taking drugs that temporarily alter your brain chemistry from the outside rather than consciously from the inside.
Meditation is an inherently human skill and biological process (translation: you’re not special, it’s possible for all of us). We all have diaphragms to control our breathing, similar brains, and more conscious control over our bodily functions than traditional Western ideology has led us to believe. While you might not desire some mystical relationship with God, or to magically become one with nature, many people can undeniably use the little dose of disconnection from the grid, and the shot of living in the present that meditation has to offer.
Meditation ultimately puts you in control of your own mental and emotional state, which directly affects your physical state. This is where the risky future of meditation in the West comes in. Meditation is already being incorporated into schools and businesses in order to augment concentration and productivity. Today, top executives at Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Cisco, Ford, and many more are all aboard the meditation train. However, rewiring our brains to become corporate efficiency machines might not be the best plan.
Fortunately, there is much evidence to suggest that these companies incorporate meditation into their business models purely to raise happiness and emotional intelligence, which in turn raises productivity, rather than brainwashing their employees into working harder. As long as these companies keep using simple and safe mindfulness techniques, the future of meditation in the West will turn out to be a bright one.
More likely than not, meditation’s spread to the West will foster a more compassionately interconnected world, with less emphasis on selfish individuality and competitiveness. We must remain open to diverse practices and the changes meditation instigates in our thought patterns and those of our children and community. We must remain in firm control of the wiring of our own brains.