OPINION: We should embrace meditation, despite its problems

A person sits cross-legged on a rainbow floor, meditating with multicolored stars and spirals scattered around them
Graphic by Annie Wu

For something that’s been shown to reduce anxiety and depression, boost productivity and make us happier human beings in general, meditation hasn’t enjoyed broad popularity among Americans.

Only 14.2 percent of American adults surveyed in 2017 said they practiced meditation in the previous year, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Far more people should take up this exercise and enjoy its effects, especially us college students.

Granted, meditation has somewhat of a public relations problem, at least in the minds of liberal arts students. A spiritual practice that was developed in South and East Asia, meditation in the West has today become a heavily commodified industry worth over a billion dollars, according to Fortune.

Profit-making corporations like Nike and Apple now ask their workers to practice meditation at work, with the presumed objective of milking their productive capacities. Students of meditation learn that their emotions of anger and sadness are mainly products of their minds without context of the structural difficulties (discrimination, injustice, lack of wealth) they face. 

Meditation’s proponents also include the spiritually awakened New Age types who, for better or worse, seem to put off large numbers of 7C students (see Denver House). 

And there are logistical issues. College students and American workers alike are notoriously overworked, and sitting in silence and doing nothing for 15 or 20 minutes every day sounds like an anxiety-inducing waste of time. Meditation also takes time — about eight weeks — to show tangible results, according to psychological research.

Despite these problems, we shouldn’t give up on meditation. It has profoundly therapeutic effects on the mind and body, documented by study after study, that everyone should access.  

I began practicing mindfulness meditation about a year ago when I found myself submerged in intense academic-related anxiety. After several weeks of sitting down every morning and doing the admittedly boring task of watching my breath, I noticed a change. 

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The usual sensations of racing heart, sweating and shallow breathing had become much less dramatic, and I felt happier and calmer in general. Anxiety is an inescapable human emotion, so of course it lives within me, but meditation has helped me deal with it in profound ways.   

The role of mindfulness meditation in reducing stress and anxiety is well recorded. Its effects are comparable to those of antidepressant medications, according to a study by Johns Hopkins University. Mindfulness meditation also physically changes your brain, reducing the size of the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for anxiety, fear and general stress, according to Harvard University neuroscientist Sara Lazar.

Meditation’s effects on attention and concentration are equally dramatic. One study in Consciousness and Cognition, a science journal, showed that even as little as four days of meditation, 20 minutes per day, can improve people’s attention span. Given these effects, I believe meditation shows promise in countering the deleterious effects that increased technology use has had on our ability to concentrate.

For those who thought meditation just has benefits for our minds, studies now show that meditation, in fact, has positive effects on the body, too. It improves immune function, reduces blood pressure and enhances cognitive function, according to research in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science

Because of these and many other benefits, meditation should play a more important role in our lives. Without necessarily giving up therapy or medication, college students should treat meditation as another extremely useful instrument in our toolkit to help deal with the stresses of our minds and bodies.

Beyond that, we should shift our thinking around meditation, also using it as a way to increase compassion and kindness toward one another. As Brooklyn College professor David Forbes said, mindfulness as originally practiced in Buddhism is connected to a “deeper moral stance that…we are interconnected with all beings, to all our social relationships and institutions, and with the earth itself.” 

“Without that,” he said, “meditation can just become another tool of self-absorption.”  

We must also decommodify the practice as much as possible, making mindfulness meditation more accessible and open to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds. While meditation has become more popular through a multitude of apps including Headspace, Insight Timer and Calm, their use is still limited to those who can afford to subscribe to them. 

We also can and should use meditation as a way to advance social change. Meditation helps us become aware of our thoughts and emotions, but our practice should not end there. Instead, as Forbes argued, we must locate the sources of our feelings in the societal structures that we inhabit, and only then can we push toward social change. 

These are manageable steps that we can take. In the meantime, we should not shy away from meditation. It’s a powerful means of healing and growth, and far more of us should start accessing its benefits, whether through a guided meditation on YouTube or asking our campuses to offer more courses on communal mindfulness.

Sarthak Sharma PO ’20 is from Kathmandu, Nepal. He’s an economics major and spends most of his time sending messages to Claremont Crushes.

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