One of the core motivating factors of any human life is a general move toward greater happiness. Not the fleeting happiness that arises from hedonic experience—although many are locked into an ongoing chase for these types of experiences—but rather for something much deeper.
If you look closely at what motivates you to do anything at all you will find it’s the impulse to find a greater sense of well-being in every aspect of your life. It is, therefore, important that we understand the true causes of this well-being. Indeed, one might go so far as to say this is the very meaning of life.
However, what many, and especially those chasing experiences in the belief this is happiness, fail to see is that this deeper sense of well-being is in fact something natural to consciousness. It comes from consciousness but is obscured from us by various mental states such as fear, stress, anxiety, loneliness, depression, and conceptual busyness.
So in this article, I will go deep into the weeds to explore this claim and give my take of why meditation does in fact work, how it works, and how everyone can benefit from learning how to meditate properly.
Can Meditation Work for Everyone?
The efficacy of meditation is well documented. So the short answer to this question is yes, meditation can work for everyone but with a very BIG caveat. Here’s why.
Much of the debate on the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation fails to understand or seems to even appreciate, there are nuances for both the meditator and the meditation. That is, meditation is not one thing. It is not only about relaxing into the present moment and despite the fact that this type of meditation has some benefits, but this also won’t benefit everyone.
Moreover, mindfulness meditation as it has been adopted by some in the West is but a mere watered-down version of meditation in the wider context, and as it was practice historically. This is not a controversial statement for those with any understanding of meditation outside of the narrow scope of MBCT practices.
Indeed, this article I linked to above and was recently published by a small group of academics and scientists claim that mindfulness shows little to no effect, and this will be the case for this case study. It may well be that for the people involved in this experiment a simple mindfulness-based practice was the entirely wrong type of practice for them at that time.
Historically meditation has been practiced within the context of a teacher-student relationship. Whereby the teacher knew the student personally, and was able to guide the student—meeting the student where they are, and giving them what they needed to progress.
The student would then go off and meditate for a period of time and then report back to the teacher. This was my experience with my own teachers. Even in large groups of students, a teacher would guide students personally. This is vastly different than it is today.
My point is this, meditation can work for everyone as long as you are practicing the right one for your personality, disposition, and your set of personal issues.
So if we are going to ask questions such as, does meditation work for everyone? Then we need to also ask the broader question, what is meditation, and what do you mean by work?
And it is to this we shall now turn.
What is Meditation?
In Sanskrit the word for meditation is Bhavana. Bhavana has the connotation of cultivation; cultivation in the sense of awakening to deeper states of well-being. These deeper states of well-being are a natural part of consciousness, yet they are sullied by, and therefore, cut off from us by dysfunctional states of mind.
Traditionally the metaphor of the sky and clouds has been used to relate to this idea. That is, the sky is naturally open, vast, and spacious. Nothing can “mark” or change this as they are properties of the sky itself. However, clouds can obfuscate these properties.
In a similar way, the mind is often obfuscated by the clouds on conceptuality and therefore cuts us off from the natural properties of consciousness that will allow for this sense of wellness to arise strongly. Wellness is found in the experience of the openness and spaciousness of consciousness itself. And there are many techniques we can leverage within the various practices of meditation in the process of awakening to this open, space-like quality of consciousness.
We are, therefore, cultivating positive, constructive, or functional states of mind that facilitate mental health, and often this is about not doing something that creates the opposite rather than developing Examples include, loving-kindness meditation to overcome anger; breathwork meditation to overcome anxiety; tummo meditation to overcome course conceptuality, analytic meditation to overcome ignorance, and many more.
All of these methods have as part of the practice a factor of awareness or intelligence. Without the factor of judgment, we are unable to discern a constructive mental state from a destructive one. And if we cannot do this, how can one move towards the desired state of well-being? You cannot! This is very different than how most in the MBCBT world define mindfulness as being a present-moment-non-judgemental awareness of cognitive states.
Meditation is, therefore, an activity we undertake to help us grow and is therefore not just about learning to be more relaxed and “in the now.” At its very heart are wisdom and intelligence.
How Does Meditation Work
Now that we understand what meditation is, now we need to understand how it works in order to fully grasp how it can help anyone that is interested in developing a practice.1 And it is actually pretty simple. Not easy but simple. Meditation works by allowing us to experience the natural state of consciousness. That is to say, meditation is about awakening to that natural pure consciousness that is part of what it means to be human, and then learning to live from this experience.
Meditation works by undermining our tendency to distort reality into something it’s not. Stress, worry, anxiety, all take as away from this pure state. Chasing after hedonic experiences do the same. Overthinking, and other forms of intellectual indulgence, also do the same. All these activities take us away from this pure undistorted state of consciousness.
If we are able to undermine the hidden psychological forces that create lives stresses that in turn manifest into things such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, etc., then we will begin to see through the veil of grasping at the suffering we normally experience in everyday life as being the way life actually is, and move towards the natural state of consciousness. But in order for this to have a lasting effect on our lives, we must do this with awareness and intelligence.
Meditation, when done right, will garner wisdom and insight simply through the practice. This insight you can bring back into your everyday life to be wiser, more compassionate as you see others suffering as unnecessary, and more powerful to do something about it.
It will give you insight into who you are in truth, which will allow you to understand why you are the way you are. These all speak to just some of the benefits of meditation.
The Benefits of Meditation
Physiological Benefits of Meditation
Below is a standard list of some of the health benefits of meditation.
- Lowers stress
- Improves digestion
- Reduces respiratory conditions by increasing CO2 levels in the blood
- Reduces insomnia
- Reduces heart rate
- Lowers blood pressure
- Improves blood PH (acid/alkaline)
Psychological Benefits of Meditation
- Reduce Anxiety and overwhelm
- Increases emotional stability
- Increases mental clarity
- Increases attention and focus
- Increases creativity
- Decreases fear of uncertainty
- Increases confidence and self-esteem
Spiritual Benefits of Meditation
As with the list above, so with this. The three benefits:
- Increases energy
- Increases vibrancy
- Increases longevity
Life Benefits of Meditation
- Meditation sets the course for the discovery of your true self.
- Meditation develops your ability to focus.
- Meditation diminishes the effect of negative states of mind such as anxiety etc.
- Meditation helps you find your “why.”
- Meditation increases your sense of well-being.
How Long Does Meditation Take to Work
Unless you are highly stressed or extremely sick, turning your awareness inward to focus on the natural rising and falling of your breath will have an immediate effect on your nervous system. These changes can be extremely subtle, and so if you meditate for, say, twenty minutes one day and then nothing for a week, you will not likely see any real lasting effects.
So the idea hidden within the question of, how long does meditation take to work, is really a question about how long will it take before someone see the lasting benefit. And again the answer is immediate if you are able to develop a daily practice of meditation. Here is an article on how to start a daily meditation practice. This article will give you everything you need to create a daily practice such that all the benefits of meditation will be a natural byproduct of doing the practice.
Another related question to this is, how long should I meditate for? Here is another article I wrote on this topic, how long should I meditate for. The short answer is twenty minutes per day, every day. The reason for this is that you want to leverage the compound effect of meditation. That is, by making meditation a vital part of a daily routine, the benefits of the practice accumulate over time into more than the sum of the parts.
If you practice meditation for twenty minutes per day for, say, five days the compound effect of meditation will mean that you gain more than a hundred minutes of time on the cushion. And this is where the real power of meditation lays. The momentum of daily practice is the key to gaining benefit from meditation.
Because momentum makes it possible that over time, the decision to get out of bed and practice will require less conscious effort, and so your practice will take on the characteristics of a flywheel. Momentum will allow you to live from the experience of natural consciousness rather than a stressed-out and dysfunctional state.
Summary & What’s Next
While we are controlled by our habitual emotional responses there is no freedom, and we waste much potential energy locked in destructive patterns. Unconscious forces motivate our lives, apparently without any choice. It is as though we have no alternative, and our emotional energy remains caught in a vicious cycle of pain and reactiveness. When we are trapped in this way, our lives feel out of control and we are unable to be freed into a healthier state of consciousness.
If we can break these patterns, we liberate ourselves and the potential for growth. Rather than feeling dissatisfied and frustrated by our limitations and fears, we can awaken resources we perhaps did not even realize we had!
- The efficacy of meditation-based mind-body interventions for mental disorders: A meta-review of 17 meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022395620311560