While leaving Buddhism behind, I thought that at least meditation might be something useful to keep. Jon Kabat-Zinn developed a secular version of meditation with his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. MBSR seemed to be based on clinical evidence. Yet, while paging through Mind Myths, I came across a section written by Barry L. Beyerstein entitled “Is Meditation Good for You?” (You can read the whole chapter online.) Although, he focuses on Transcendental Meditation – simply because it is billed as scientifically grounded – Beyerstein makes the point that meditation as a relaxation technique is no more beneficial than simply relaxing. He writes:
Reviewing the literature on the alleged psycho-therapeutic benefits of meditation, Delmonte and Kenny agreed that meditation can help induce relaxation and alleviate mild anxiety, but they concluded that “there is no compelling evidence that meditation is associated with unique state effects compared with other relaxation procedures.”
I can only find citations of the 1985 Delmonte and Kenny study online and the only full one is in French. But trying to find their article led me to another meta analysis of research on meditation from 2007: an evidence based report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. The abstract cautions:
Many uncertainties surround the practice of meditation. Scientific research on meditation practices does not appear to have a common theoretical perspective and is characterized by poor methodological quality.
In their executive summary, they write that
the results of the three highest quality trials [...] examining, respectively, Mindfulness meditation, RR [Benson's Relaxation Response], and Yoga are inconclusive with respect to the effectiveness of meditation practices. [...] The therapeutic effects of meditation practices cannot be established based on the current literature.
It looks like meditation is just another tool that can be easily packaged and therefore sold. Thus it is purported to be better for us than simply sitting in a comfy chair with a cub of hot chocolate and a good book, or listening to relaxing music, or just staring into the clouds. Now I wonder if there is anything left in Buddhism that is worth exploring in the modern world…
Update: Please see this comment to find out more about newer studies (and the follow-ups). Unfortunately, these studies were presented at a conference and are not peer-reviewed. The summaries, except for one, do not include information on sample size, so it is difficult to assess if these newer studies are indeed addressing the concerns raised in the meta-analysis cited above. Benedict Carey wrote an interesting piece in the New York Times about the increasing use of mindfulness meditation in therapy despite the lack of scientific studies supporting its usefulness.