Meditation is a practice of calming and focusing the mind. There are a variety of methods, and some of them go back thousands of years. Now, the modern world is seeing a surge of interest in this quiet, ancient practice.
You might say that meditation has become trendy. Yoga studios are everywhere, Om and yin-yang symbols are seen frequently on T-shirts, tattoos, and jewelry. And for several years, there’s been a push toward everybody becoming more “mindful” in how they go about their lives.
Of course, this kind of widespread acceptance of these sorts of concepts didn’t happen overnight. Exotic mantras and mystical ideas about merging mind and body managed to grab the attention of a few curious seekers over the years, but they had little mass influence until about the 1960s.
Before this, most Western folks didn’t see the purpose of meditation. Just sitting there trying not to think about anything seemed like an odd and uncomfortable way to spend your time. However, as researchers began to consider meditation’s practical aspects, and more health professionals began to recommend it to their patients, people started to take more notice.
According to Dr. Margaret Trey, a meditation researcher and an integrative counselor who uses meditation in therapy, there have been a wealth of studies over the past 50 years validating the health and wellness benefits of this practice. She points to studies that show increases in happiness and positive thoughts, as well as improved problem-solving skills, a boost in self-confidence, and better memory as a result of meditation. It has also been found to decrease anxiety and substance abuse, while improving resilience and general psychological well-being.
“The mountain of research on the benefits of meditation in general is overwhelming. And most of the research is very positive.” Trey said. Through studies and clinical experience, meditation experienced a rebranding. Public perception has shifted its view on meditation from a mysterious activity reserved only for monks and weirdos, to a type of mind-body medicine that can benefit just about anybody willing to try.
“Most people know meditation is a good thing,” Trey said. “Many people are drawn to meditation in general because they perceive it as a form of relaxation. Others see meditation as a way to reduce stress and anxiety.”
Meditation Under the Microscope
Meditation’s allure has always been the benefits said to come with practice. Enlightenment is traditionally the ultimate goal, but some are content just to grasp some moments of inner peace in an otherwise chaotic world. Ancient tales also tell of extraordinary abilities bestowed on those who meditated diligently, often over the course of many years.
Even today, people report miraculous healings that they trace to their practice.
But what can meditation actually do? The truth is that science has only scratched the surface of this question. One obstacle to developing a deeper understanding in scientific terms is the complexity of the subject. For example, you can’t test meditation like you would a drug, because there are several variables inherent to each individual, such as natural ability, patience, and persistence. These are difficult, if not impossible, to control for in a randomized trial.
But you have to start somewhere. And the most direct way to collect data is simply to ask people what they experience. So when Trey wanted to examine a meditation practice known as Falun Gong, she turned to a research method synonymous with social science: a survey.
In 2007, as part of her doctoral dissertation at the University of South Australia, Trey administered an online survey comparing the health and wellness effects of Falun Gong practitioners measured against a control group of non-practitioner participants.
The results—detailed in Trey’s latest book, “The Effect of Falun Gong on Health and Wellness,”—strongly suggest that practicing Falun Gong has a positive effect on both physical and emotional health.
“I’m not looking at the molecules or the genes. I’m just looking at people’s perceptions of how they got better because they do this meditation practice,” Trey said. “Lo and behold, they don’t have to take any drugs for anxiety disorder or depression anymore. There are people who have recovered from various psycho-emotional disorders.”
China’s Qigong Culture
One reason that Trey wanted to research Falun Gong is that it had seen very little scientific investigation. Compared to other forms of meditation practiced in society, such as yoga, Transcendental Meditation or Zen Buddhism, Falun Gong seems like a relative newcomer on the meditation scene, but it’s much older than you might imagine. According to Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi, the practice has been passed from master to student since ancient times.
Falun Gong only became publicly available in China starting in 1992. But by 1998, the practice was so popular that a Chinese government survey found that there were about 70 million Chinese practicing across the country, making it the largest and fastest-growing meditative practice in Chinese history.
The promise of better health was a big reason why. Many Chinese people already held a favorable opinion of the kind of graceful, meditative exercises featured in Falun Gong. Other types of qigong exercises—such as tai chi—have long been known in Chinese culture to help practitioners keep a fit body and sharp mind. Falun Gong was also very accessible. Throughout the 1990s, free classes and exercise sites sprang up all over the country, and gave virtually anyone who was interested an opportunity to try.
Up until the Chinese government outlawed the practice in 1999, Chinese officials were singing its praises, claiming that it could save the country a bundle in health care costs. According to one estimate, if 100 million people practiced Falun Gong, China could save “100 billion yuan per year in medical fees.”
Independent, large-scale health surveys conducted in five Chinese provinces helped support this claim. Researchers found that more than 90 percent of respondents, or 31,000 individuals, reported having a variety of illnesses before they started Falun Gong. And 98 percent of them reported gaining significant health benefits as a result of adopting the practice.
Researchers continue to validate this trend. A 2013 study from the United States examining the cognitive and physiological effects of Falun Gong showed that the practice boosted energy levels and mood, and elicited lasting psychological benefits. And a 2016 observational cohort study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology concluded that “Falun Gong practice can help terminal cancer patients survive significantly longer, in addition to notable symptom improvement.”
Finding Long-Term Motivation
How exactly Falun Gong can produce such results isn’t clear. There are several aspects to the practice, and they are all believed to bring something to the table. In addition to a seated meditation and four standing exercises, Falun Gong practitioners also strive to meet a high moral standard in daily life. At the heart of the practice is the book Zhuan Falun (Turning the Law Wheel), which discusses how to live by the principles of zhen, shan, and ren—truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance.
So which of these factors is the greatest contributor to the health improvements described above? The exercises are certainly the most eye-catching aspect, but according to Trey’s survey, most veteran practitioners believe that simply trying to be a better person is the piece that does the most to improve their mental and physical well-being.
“Their focus is the elevation of their moral character. The impact we can see is that their health and wellness improved,” Trey said. “We all know that the mind is very powerful. You are what you think. Even Socrates said, ‘There is no illness of the body apart from the mind.’”
Today, Falun Gong is practiced in more than 90 countries. An interest in better health and a calmer mind remain big reasons why people take an interest in the practice. But according to Trey, these reasons alone typically aren’t enough to keep people coming back. She says personal catastrophe or a deep yearning for something more transcendent are often what give people the push they need to pursue the practice long term.
“Even if they want to meditate, it takes them months or years to come around to it,” Trey said. “They will say something like, ‘I came across Falun Gong two years ago but just didn’t have time to do it, until something serious happened.’”
Science can certainly provide practical reasons for how we might benefit from meditation, but it may still not be enough to make us actually do it. Trey says part of the problem with our perceiving meditation practice as nothing more than a form of therapy is that we may imagine that it’s as effortless as taking a pill.
“For many people, they treat it like a visit to the doctor. Take some medicine, recover, and that’s it,” Trey said. “Another group are people who seek a spiritual path for enlightenment and spiritual development because they come to a stage in life where they feel like their life has no meaning, so they search for something that will change that.”