As a 33-year meditation practitioner, I am always interested in medical studies related to meditation. I enjoy reading the Positive Technology Journal blog because its author, Dr. Andrea Gaggioli, provides almost unbelievably extensive coverage of emerging technologies and their intersection with psychology and neuroscience. His latest post, Does mindfulness meditation improve anxiety and mood symptoms?, looks at recently-popular therapeutic applications of the Buddhist concept of mindfulness (also known as "bare attention" or "choiceless awareness"). Among these applications, mindfulness-based stress reduction or MBSR is one of the more popular, and one that is widely believed to be effective.
In keeping with my own experience, the meta-analytical study he cites found that doing mindfulness meditation in order to "get" something - in this case, what might loosely be called peace of mind - is ineffective:
Measures of depression and anxiety were included as outcome variables for a broad range of medical and emotional disorders. Evidence for a beneficial effect of MBSR on depression and anxiety was equivocal. When active control groups were used, MBSR did not show an effect on depression and anxiety. Adherence to the MBSR program was infrequently assessed. Where it was assessed, the relation between practising mindfulness and changes in depression and anxiety was equivocal.
Mindfulness is a key component of a family of Buddhist meditation practices called Vipassana, roughly translated as "insight". Vipassana aims at exposing the workings of the mind through ever-deeper examination of the raw data of experience. Done properly, it does not interfere with the ongoing mental processes; instead, it is a lens used to examine how these processes work in order to gain direct insight into the driving forces behind moment-to-moment perception and cognition.
In the years during which I have practiced meditation I have experienced two bouts of major depression, both of them based in real-world situations to which depression was a rational if ineffective response. Insight meditation helped me understand what was going on, but if anything it interfered with therapy at a certain level, because of the deeply ingrained habit of allowing mental processes to follow their natural course.
I might have preferred to be happy and stress-free, but in retrospect I would not change the approach I took, because the insights I gained from these experiences were profound. My personal belief - that most anecdotal of all evidence - is that during these episodes, I learned some valuable and very effective techniques for dealing with depression, techniques that in retrospect are exactly what cognitive-behavioral therapy uses - tools for changing "...the pessimistic ideas, unrealistic expectations, and overly critical self-evaluations that create depression and sustain it." (http://www.psychologyinfo.com/depression/cognitive.htm)
Did mindfulness per se lead to the discovery of these techniques? Not at all. Or at least, not very quickly, given that the radical insights that stopped my last major depressive episode cold took two or three years to reveal themselves. Meditation has had other benefits, including stress reduction at important points in my life (still speaking anecdotally and subjectively here). At other times, it increased my stress level by removing the comfortable blindness of denial and putting me face to face with life contradictions that needed to be resolved.
I am not a healthcare practitioner, so the advice that follows is worth the paper it's printed on, but here goes my two cents: anyone looking for a panacea for stress and anxiety needs to consider whether they are providing you with important information. In my experience, stress and anxiety pretty much always have been rich sources of insight into what my surface mind was trying desperately to keep hidden.
With these issues exposed, one only need apply Reinhold Niebuhr's advice, that universal solvent of worldly trials and tribulations commonly known as The Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him Forever in the next. Amen.
Mindfulness is all about living one day at a time, and savoring the moment, and all the joy and pain it has to offer. I am not a Christian in the usual sense of the word, so the Serenity Prayer is not couched in my normal parlance, but it speaks to a need so universal it requires no particular creed or belief system to appreciate it. I read it as a message to look beyond your beliefs at what truly is, the raw data of your experience, and let the natural intelligence within you act through you in the situation.
End of sermonette.