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  • Writer's pictureJ Felix

Fact from Fiction

Updated: Apr 8

Meditation has a PR problem. There is a stigma attached to it. This is one of the challenges I face when working in this space. But the evidence supporting the benefits of meditation is robust. I approach audiences by presenting the research from primary studies published in reputable journals such as Science, Cell, or Nature. I look for controlled clinical trials with large sample sizes that provide researchers with yardsticks to test variables such as the effects of an 8-week focused attention meditation practice on inflammation markers. I prefer blinded studies that minimize bias in clinical trials and look for replicability and similar studies by different investigators. Replication gives more confidence that results are reliable and valid. I also look for statistical significance to measure the size of an effect and determine whether a correlation is probable or due to chance. I strive to understand and translate the findings for audiences, avoiding exaggerating the results or promoting meditation as a cure-all for complex physical or psychological problems. Above all, I conduct my own experiments and seek to replicate the results for myself.

Meditation has been shown to be helpful for a variety of conditions and certain psychological disorders. A number of researchers have investigated how meditation works and how it affects the brain. Meditation has been used for thousands of years to increase calm, focus and relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being. Some research suggests that practicing meditation may reduce blood pressure, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and depression, and insomnia.


  • Research about meditation’s ability to reduce pain has produced mixed results. However, in some studies scientists suggest that meditation activates certain areas of the brain in response to pain.

  • A small 2016 study funded in part by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) found that mindfulness meditation does help to control pain and doesn’t use the brain’s naturally occurring opiates to do so. This suggests that combining mindfulness with pain medications and other approaches that rely on the brain’s opioid activity may be particularly effective for reducing pain. Visit the NCCIH Web site for more information on this study.

  • In another 2016 NCCIH-funded study, adults aged 20 to 70 who had chronic low-back pain received either mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), or usual care. The MBSR and CBT participants had a similar level of improvement, and it was greater than those who got usual care, including long after the training ended. The researchers found that participants in the MBSR and CBT groups had greater improvement in functional limitation and back pain at 26 and 52 weeks compared with those who had usual care. There were no significant differences in outcomes between MBSR and CBT. Visit the NCCIH website for more information on this study.

High blood pressure

  • Results of a 2009 NCCIH-funded trial involving 298 university students suggest that practicing Transcendental Meditation may lower the blood pressure of people at increased risk of developing high blood pressure.

  • The findings also suggested that practicing meditation can help with psychological distress, anxiety, depression, anger/hostility, and coping ability.

  • A literature review and scientific statement from the American Heart Association suggest that evidence supports the use of Transcendental Meditation (TM) to lower blood pressure. However, the review indicates that it’s uncertain whether TM is truly superior to other meditation techniques in terms of blood-pressure lowering because there are few head-to-head studies.

Anxiety, depression, insomnia

  • A 2014 literature review of 47 trials in 3,515 participants suggests that mindfulness meditation programs show moderate evidence of improving anxiety and depression. But the researchers found no evidence that meditation changed health-related behaviors affected by stress, such as substance abuse and sleep.

  • A 2012 review of 36 trials found that 25 of them reported better outcomes for symptoms of anxiety in the meditation groups compared to control groups.

  • In a small, NCCIH-funded study, 54 adults with chronic insomnia learned mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a form of MBSR specially adapted to deal with insomnia (mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia, or MBTI), or a self-monitoring program. Both meditation-based programs aided sleep, with MBTI providing a significantly greater reduction in insomnia severity compared with MBSR.

Other Conditions

  • Results from a 2011 NCCIH-funded study of 279 adults who participated in an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program found that changes in spirituality were associated with better mental health and quality of life.

  • Guidelines from the American College of Chest Physicians published in 2013 suggest that MBSR and meditation may help to reduce stress, anxiety, pain, and depression while enhancing mood and self-esteem in people with lung cancer.

  • Clinical practice guidelines issued in 2014 by the Society for Integrative Oncology (SIC) recommend meditation as supportive care to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue in patients treated for breast cancer. The SIC also recommends its use to improve quality of life in these people.

  • Meditation-based programs may be helpful in reducing common menopausal symptoms, including the frequency and intensity of hot flashes, sleep and mood disturbances, stress, and muscle and joint pain. However, differences in study designs mean that no firm conclusions can be drawn.

  • Because only a few studies have been conducted on the effects of meditation for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), there isn’t sufficient evidence to support its use for this condition.

  • A 2014 research review suggested that meditation reduces chemical identifiers of inflammation and shows promise in helping to regulate the immune system.

  • Results from a 2013 NCCIH-supported study involving 49 adults suggest that 8 weeks of mindfulness training may reduce stress-induced inflammation better than a health program that includes physical activity, education about diet, and music therapy.

There are many types of meditation and researchers are now testing to see how different techniques affect mind and body.

There is a great deal of misinformation circulating in the wellness industry, ranging from poorly researched reports to anecdotes masquerading as evidence and unsupported claims made by unqualified instructors or "gurus." The effectiveness of practices such as crystals, reiki, tapping, quantum jumping, homeopathy, and manifesting, as well as some supplements, have little scientific support. Yoga, acupuncture, tai chi, massage, and hypnosis have better track records, backed by quality studies for treating specific conditions. However, no single approach works for everyone, so it is best to take a holistic approach to wellness, incorporating elements such as sleep, diet, exercise, relationships, and other complementary therapies.

It's worth noting that belief can play a role in healing. It's possible for someone who believes in crystals, angels, vibrational fields, or reiki to experience some benefits, and I don't discount this. Our thoughts, feelings, and expectations can have a powerful and positive effect on our well-being. Scientists call this the placebo effect, which itself has become an object of investigation.

It's also important to acknowledge the limitations of science. While it can provide evidence for the efficacy of certain treatments, it has yet to provide satisfactory answers on the nature of consciousness or explain what happens after death. Many mysteries remain unexplored, and there are many phenomena that occur on this material plane that the best of science cannot readily explain.

While I acknowledge the potential benefits of meditation, I remain skeptical of some New Age claims and am concerned about the use of meditation for unproven purposes. Absent empirical evidence, I neither promote nor share protocols I couldn't back up with data. This comes from a place of humility. I don't know, so I study and research. Any strategy I recommend should be able to stand up to the rigors of science and investigation. If it doesn't, I can admit my limitations and my not knowing, or point to the paucity of evidence. Any strategy I recommend should be solid and able to take a punch.

Sometime ago a colleague told me about a qigong master who could stop opponents using qi (chi) energy alone. I was skeptical. There are videos of old qigong masters defeating younger, stronger students without touch.

While Bill Moyers was a respected journalist, he could have pressed harder in this documentary. As a member of his film crew, I would have wanted to challenge and test the master in order to uphold journalistic integrity. Instead, they take the master's students at their word and the investigation ends.

This is not a case of intentional deception, but of self-delusion. Some masters have attempted to demonstrate the effectiveness of their techniques by challenging real martial arts fighters. In one case, Master Ryuken Yanagi once offered $5,000 to anyone who could defeat him. He claimed an undefeated 200 to 0 record. A mixed martial artist named Tsuyoshi Iwakura accepted the challenge. The fight was held at Master Yanagi's dojo and broadcast on Japanese television.

Master Yanagi put his money, reputation, and his pride on the line to prove that he could subdue opponents with qi. He was humiliated. David DiSalvo referenced this fight in his book What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite. Master Yanagi was soundly defeated, but the footage wasn't enough to persuade believers to disavow these techniques. Two quirks of mind were at play:

  1. Belief-based confirmation bias. Confirmation bias refers to the tendency of people to seek out, interpret, and remember information in a way that confirms their existing beliefs or hypotheses. This means that people are more likely to notice and remember information that supports their views, while disregarding or forgetting information that contradicts them. Many supporters of the touchless attack argued that the MMA fighter was able to channel the master's attack or that Master Yanagi was ill-disposed for the fight. Regardless of the outcome, confirmation bias provided a plausible excuse.

  2. Sunk cost fallacy. Sunk cost fallacy, on the other hand, refers to the tendency of people to continue investing time, money, or effort into a situation, even when it no longer makes sense to do so, simply because they have already invested a significant amount of resources into it. People may feel that they can't give up on a project, relationship, or investment because of the resources they have already invested, even if it is no longer rational to continue. If I spend countless hours and money traveling to dojos around the globe to learn the touchless attack, it might be hard for me to accept such a loss, especially if I've invested my reputation on it.

But such is the power of belief. As DiSalvo writes, "You could punch it, kick it, break its arms and legs, and humiliate it for all to see, yet still it stands."

I grew up in the church where confirmation biases, fallacies, unquestioning beliefs, and magical thinking flourished. Once, I was invited to stand in line while a faith healer laid hands on the sick. The friend who invited me knew I had something going on and encouraged me to the front. One by one, people fell to the floor after the laying of hands. When she came to me and laid hands, I felt nothing. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do. I did not feel anything course through me; I didn't feel like fainting or writhing or dancing. She pushed me off balance and into the arms of a deacon who caught me. I lay on the floor suppressing giggles, waiting for the cue to get up while the pastor rebuked unbelievers and skeptics like me.

I remain unrepentant. I am not discounting faith. Pray, but mind your diet. If you catch pneumonia, visualize a healing light coursing though you and take your penicillin.

The following video demonstrates the consequences of irrational and unfounded beliefs, commonly referred to as 'woo woo thinking,' and highlights the practicality of possessing true knowledge and real skills.

These masters undermine the very discipline they study and promote. There is a growing body of research that suggests practicing qigong may have positive effects on mobility and health. Here are some specific research-based benefits of qigong:

  1. Improved balance: Studies have shown that regular qigong practice can improve balance, which is particularly important for older adults who are at increased risk of falls.

  2. Reduced pain: Qigong has been shown to help reduce pain in individuals with chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis.

  3. Improved cardiovascular health: Qigong has been linked to improvements in blood pressure and overall cardiovascular health.

  4. Enhanced immune function: Some studies have suggested that qigong practice can enhance immune function, leading to a reduced risk of illness and disease.

  5. Improved quality of life: Qigong has been shown to improve overall quality of life in individuals with chronic conditions.

  6. Enhanced physical performance: Research has shown that qigong can improve physical performance in activities such as walking and stair climbing.

But, when old masters like Yanagi post videos of themselves overpowering younger, stronger men only to be disgraced by real fighters, the entire discipline is discredited.

I invite others to do their own homework. The National Institutes for Health (NIH) supports the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). The NCCIH is the Federal Government’s lead agency for scientific research on complementary and integrative health approaches. The mission of NCCIH is "to determine, through rigorous scientific investigation, the fundamental science, usefulness, and safety of complementary and integrative health approaches and their roles in improving health and health care."

It's a good starting place:

If "life" keeps kicking you in the teeth, it may be trying to teach you something. You can keep getting punched in the mouth, or learn to slip and counter-punch.

First published 1/20/2022

Edited and republished 3/26/2023

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