A recent high-quality meta-analysis was done to determine the actual efficacy of meditation. 47 randomized clinical trials of 8-week meditation programs with active controls for placebo effects were included. Note that only 47 out of 18,000 studies on meditation were considered high-quality enough to be included in this meta-analysis. That alone says much about the insufficiency of research on the health effects of meditation. All 47 trials involved group meditation programs—mindfulness (MBSR and MBCT), Zen, Vipassanā, and mantra-based—not individual therapeutic delivery of similar interventions. At the end of 8 weeks, participants in these studies showed moderate evidence of improved anxiety, depression and pain, low evidence of improved stress/distress and mental health–related quality of life, and little or no evidence of efficacy in positive mood, attention, substance use (MBRP groups were not included), eating habits/weight (MB-EAT groups were not included) and sleep. Their conclusion? Meditation programs were no more effective than any other active form of treatment such as, psychotropic drugs, exercise, and behavioral therapies.
Willoughby Britton, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University Medical School, was recently interviewed about this study. Willoughby is a clinical psychologist, neuroscience researcher, and a Buddhist practitioner who studies meditation interventions for depression and sleep disorders. Dr. Britton lamented the poor quality of meditation research and remarked that in general, “Public enthusiasm [for meditation] is outpacing scientific evidence. The public perception of where the research is, is way higher than the actual level.” In her own work, Willoughby is a stickler for high-quality research methods and claims that the data for meditation as a treatment for sleep disorders is not that strong, “my research has shown that meditation made people’s brain’s more awake.”
Further on in the article, I detected a bit of pendulum swinging in some of Willoughby’s critique. She admitted to being something of an evangelist for meditation in her early research and now she seems to have swung to the opposite extreme in some of her commentary. For instance, I have yet to hear of any MBSR participants who have, “eradicated their sense of self and then freaked out” during or after 8 two-hour weekly classes. That kind of psychotic break may have occurred anyway, with or without meditation practice and should not necessarily be attributed to meditation practice. On the other hand, I definitely concur with her anecdotal evidence for meditation-induced psychosis or depersonalization occurring in individuals during extended intensive meditation retreats.
In general, the findings of this meta-analysis tracks beautifully with my clinical experience delivering mindfulness, Buddhist meditation practices and Buddhist psychology-informed psychotherapy, that meditation alone is not enough to free individuals from suffering. One must recognize self-delusion and then use the skillful means of wisdom, compassion and ethical conduct to actively free oneself and one’s world of the suffering of self-delusion. More on that in my next post!