This article was previously posted on the Effective Altruism Forum
With the aim of being a good effective altruist, I’ve tried to think what would be the most valuable posts I could write for the community and this one was top of my list. This is because meditation is a free tool that can be practised by anyone, at any time and in any place to help us increase our impact in the causes we prioritise. Below are four main ways meditation can do this backed by meta-analyses and key studies, an outline of an effective way to meditate and answers to some common questions. I hope you find them useful 😊
Reduces negative mental states
Meditation reduces negative mental states, including stress, anxiety and depression and, therefore, also lessens the chances of experiencing burnout, a particular concernfor EAs trying to maximise their impact. In 2016, a meta-analysis of 21 fMRI studies and seven MRI studies reported that meditating for 8 weeks led to decreased stress correlating with decreased cell volume in the amygdala, the part of the brain which induces the “fight or flight” response and produces feelings of stress, fear, anxiety and aggression.
Regarding anxiety and depression, in 2014, researchers at Johns Hopkins University performed a meta-analysis of 19,000 citations including 47 trials with 3,515 participants and found that an 8 week meditation program “appeared to provide as much relief from some anxiety and depression symptoms as what other studies have found from antidepressants.”
The act of practising meditation itself also encourages views in the mind which reduce negative mental states. Meditating effectively involves making note of what is being presently experienced in the mind and passively observing how such emotions arise, change and fade rather than holding onto them or pushing them away. When this ability has been developed through meditation it can be used when negative mental states arise in daily situations as well.
Meditation also helps minimise excess proliferation in the mind, which can often involve far more discomfort than the situation itself. If you feel exhausted, unwell, fearful, disrespected, swamped with work or are experiencing physical pain, these experiences may give us some discomfort, but the thoughts we have about these circumstances can hurt much more. These are the thoughts that say things like “I’ve had enough”, “This feels horrible”, “This is totally unfair” or “I can’t take any more of this”. In meditation, when thoughts come up you acknowledge them briefly and return to your breathing. Strengthening this ability means you can set aside such excess proliferation when it occurs and thereby significantly reduce the distress you feel.
Improves bodily health
Meditation has many positive effects on the physical body allowing us to function more effectively for longer throughout our lives. A 2018 study of 58 people with Stage 1 essential hypertension by the Benson-Henry Institute found that 13 of 24 participants who underwent 8 weeks of meditation “experienced a clinically relevant drop in blood pressure – that is, specific reductions in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings that moved participants below 140/90 mm Hg, the clinical definition of stage 1 hypertension.” The researchers also wrote that “the changes in gene expression associated with this drop in blood pressure are consistent with the physical changes in blood pressure and inflammatory markers that one would anticipate and hope to observe in patients successfully treated for hypertension.”
A meta-analysis was conducted in 2014 by The University of New England on how meditation affects the length of telomeres, the protective protein complexes in our chromosomes which help to reduce DNA damage and cell death. Shortened telomeres have been linked to diseases related to aging, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. The meta-analysis found that meditation resulted in better maintenance of the telomeres. The researchers asserted that this is because “meditation practices may promote mitotic cell longevity both through decreasing stress hormones and oxidative stress and increasing hormones that may protect the telomere.”
Meditation is an excellent tool for increasing productivity. A study from researchers at the University of Washington in 2012 found that individuals who had undertaken 8 weeks of meditation were consistently able to concentrate on a task for longer and performed fewer task switches than those who had not. This paper also found that the meditators consistently showed significant improvements in memory for the tasks they performed as well. A 2015 meta-analysis of MRI studies on meditation’s effects in the brain substantiates these findings by reporting that meditators experience increased activation in areas of the brain linked to concentration and memory.
A 2019 study from New York University also reported a significant reduction of fatigue in participants who practised meditation for 8 weeks compared to their non-practising control group. Furthermore, a 2013 study from Brown University confirms this by finding that meditation promotes “greater wakefulness and lower sleep propensity, especially as practice progresses”.
Studies have also linked meditation to increased immune function such as a 2003 paperfrom The University of Wisconsin in which individuals having undertaken an 8 week meditation practice produced significantly more antibodies when infected with influenza than the control group of non-meditators. The study also reported “significant increases in left-sided anterior activation, a pattern previously associated with positive affect, in the meditators compared with the nonmeditators” and that this “activation predicted the magnitude of antibody titer rise to the vaccine.”
There is evidence, too, that meditating makes it easier to learn new skills. A 2014 meta-analysis of 123 brain morphology differences from 21 neuroimaging studies in just less than 300 meditators showed increased grey matter in the hippocampus; the part of the brain dealing with our ability to learn. This area of the brain is also responsible for our memory processing and emotion regulation, substantiating points made above.
Develops more compassion
Meditating is likely to make people more altruistic and to increase the joy they feel in acts of giving. This is because it increases grey matter in the Temporo-parietal Junction, the area of the brain where empathy and compassion originate along with our ability to see events in perspective as shown in a 2011 study from Harvard researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital. This is furthered by a 2014 meta-analysis of how meditation impacts health and well-being which shows that meditators experience more compassion for others and themselves than passive controls.
In this way, meditating is likely to make individuals more disposed to giving time and money to help others and take more meaning and satisfaction in doing so. This increase in compassion is also useful for combatting compassion fatigue, which is particularly relevant for those EAs working directly with those they are seeking to help.
How to meditate
The most effective way to meditate I have found is the following from Ajahn Chah, a prominent monk from the Thai Forest Tradition whose disciples currently teach meditation in more than 300 branch monasteries globally.
“Say to yourself, ‘Now I will let go of all my burdens and concerns’. You don't want anything that will cause you worry. Let go of all concerns for the time being.
Now fix your attention on the breath. Then breathe in and breathe out. In developing awareness of breathing, don't intentionally make the breath long or short. Neither make it strong or weak. Just let it flow normally and naturally. Mindfulness and self-awareness, arising from the mind, will know the in-breath and the out-breath.
Be at ease. Don't think about anything. No need to think of this or that. The only thing you have to do is fix your attention on the breathing in and breathing out. You have nothing else to do but that! Keep your mindfulness fixed on the in-and out-breaths as they occur. Be aware of the beginning, middle and end of each breath. On inhalation, the beginning of the breath is at the nose tip, the middle at the heart, and the end in the abdomen. On exhalation, it's just the reverse: the beginning of the breath is in the abdomen, the middle at the heart, and the end at the nose tip. Develop the awareness of the breath: 1, at the nose tip; 2, at the heart; 3, in the abdomen. Then in reverse: 1, in the abdomen; 2, at the heart; and 3, at the nose tip.
Focusing the attention on these three points will relieve all worries. Just don't think of anything else! Keep your attention on the breath. Perhaps other thoughts will enter the mind. It will take up other themes and distract you. Don't be concerned. Just take up the breathing again as your object of attention. The mind may get caught up in judging and investigating your moods, but continue to practice, being constantly aware of the beginning, middle and the end of each breath.
Eventually, the mind will be aware of the breath at these three points all the time. When you do this practice for some time, the mind and body will get accustomed to the work. Fatigue will disappear. The body will feel lighter and the breath will become more and more refined. Mindfulness and self-awareness will protect the mind and watch over it.
We practice like this until the mind is peaceful and calm, until it is one. One means that the mind will be completely absorbed in the breathing, that it doesn't separate from the breath. The mind will be unconfused and at ease. It will know the beginning, middle and end of the breath and remain steadily fixed on it.
Then when the mind is peaceful, we fix our attention on the in-breath and out-breath at the nose tip only. We don't have to follow it up and down to the abdomen and back. Just concentrate on the tip of the nose where the breath comes in and goes out.
This is called ‘calming the mind’, making it relaxed and peaceful. When tranquillity arises, the mind stops; it stops with its single object, the breath. This is what's known as making the mind peaceful so that wisdom may arise.
This is the beginning, the foundation of our practice. You should try to practice this every single day, wherever you may be.”
Meditating makes me sleepy. Am I doing it wrong?
People often feel sleepy in meditation when they are new to it. This is totally expected and doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. After all, feeling sleepy is a natural response to closing your eyes and staying still for extended periods of time and this goes away quite quickly with continued practice. Following this short period, meditation is actually likely to give you more energy than you would usually have as shown in the New York University and Brown University studies mentioned above.
How can I meditate when my mind is thinking so much?
Again, this is entirely normal. Removing all thoughts from your mind is not the goal of meditation because you’re setting yourself an impossible task that is likely to frustrate and discourage you. The best approach is to notice the thought and then return your focus to your breathing. Every time to you do this, you are developing your ability to focus on the present rather than on mental proliferation.
Do I need to sit cross-legged on the floor?
There’s no need to do this to get the benefits of meditation. For people who aren’t naturally very flexible (including myself), this is likely to cause pain, discomfort and pins and needles. Sitting in a chair is perfectly acceptable and, in my opinion, better for most people as it is more comfortable, allowing you to focus more on enjoying your meditation.
How long until I experience the benefits?
Meditating is unlikely to produce instant benefits, but over time it can produce all the beneficial effects listed above. From my own experience if you practice meditation daily for at least ten minutes you can start to experience benefits after about 21 days to a month. Some people might feel discouraged by having to wait this long, but a helpful way to think about this is like your job. You don’t get paid every day you go to work, but we are happy to do it because we know at the end of the month we are going to reap all the rewards of our efforts by receiving a total pay-out. The first month of meditation is like this, if you put in the effort you will get the big rewards.
If you have questions, please feel free to ask in the comments and I will do my best to give an answer that can help.