I’ve known women who swear by meditation. I hear it’s calming; it reduces stress or clears the mind. Indeed, in the past year there have been numerous news articles about meditation, not all of them flattering. Yesterday Women & Home explained how to meditate while running. A few weeks ago, Healthline discussed the four benefits of meditation. In July the New York Times wrote about the benefits of morning meditation. A year ago, another publication wrote, “Meditation and mindfulness offer an abundance of health benefits and may be as effective as medication for treating certain conditions.” Harvard Health, a publication by Harvard Medical School, even claims Mindfulness meditation helps fight insomnia, improves sleep. Medical News Today recently wrote about using meditation for depression.
The list of meditation’s benefits goes on (and on and on). Mindfulness meditation is like magic. Although I don’t doubt it has benefits, I tend to think of meditation like I think of chiropractic adjustments: very good for a few things but not a cure-all for every physical ailment. I was not surprised to run across an article titled, “Meditation Is Big Business. The Science Isn’t So Clear.”
In 2019, Debra Halsch was diagnosed with smoldering multiple myeloma, a rare blood and bone marrow disorder that can develop into a type of blood cancer. Her doctors recommended chemotherapy, she said, but she feared the taxing side effects the drugs might wreak on her body. Instead, the life coach from Piermont, New York tried meditation.
A friend had told Halsch, now 57, about Joe Dispenza, who holds week-long meditation retreats that regularly attract thousands of people and carry a $2,299 price tag. Halsch signed up for one in Cancun, Mexico and soon became a devotee. She now meditates for at least two hours a day and says her health has improved as a result.
Dispenza, a chiropractor who has written various self-help books, has said he believes the mind can heal the body. After all, he says he healed himself back in 1986, when a truck hit him while he was bicycling, breaking six vertebrae. Instead of surgery, Dispenza says he spent hours each day recreating his spine in his mind, visualizing it healthy and healed. After 11 weeks, the story goes, he was back on his feet.
Meditation has gone from a niche practice of just a few people to mainstream acceptance. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) meditation and mindfulness is practiced by one-in-seven Americans at least occasionally. The NIH has funded around 1,700 studies on meditation over the past 30 years or so. The NIH budget for meditation research funding is growing. Although nearly $600 million total funding over the past 30 years, about $45 million of that was budgeted for last year alone. Last years’ budget was nearly 10 times what it was 20 years earlier in 2002.
The findings from millions in research funding? Not every study found anything significant, although the consensus is that meditation is moderately effective at reducing stress and anxiety. Meditation helps those who practice it to better manage stress. Experts also point out that people who meditate tend to maintain healthier lifestyles, smoking less, exercising more, eating better, with more education and income. Basically, it’s hard to tease out the benefits of meditation versus the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. In that regard, meditation may just be another proxy for healthy behaviors. Two experts had this to say:
“I’ve always been concerned about pseudoscience around meditation, and Joe Dispenza certainly created some red flags for me, personally.”
“This is the thing about New Age pseudoscience. The claims are so big and so bold that if any one of them were true, even in the smallest way, it would be such a massive change in terms of how we understand life itself.”
There may also be the placebo effect at work. Research has found that expensive placebos work better than cheap ones, so too expensive meditation probably works better on the mind than inexpensive cheap (at home) meditation. If you pay $2,299 for a weeklong seminar with a famous meditation guru, where participants group meditate with 2,500 of their (new) closest friends, you have a powerful incentive to not feel that money was wasted.
If you like to slow down and clear your mind through a structured mindfulness activity every day, feel free to do so. Just don’t think it will cure your multiple myeloma.