Around 2500 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama, a.k.a. Buddha, sat under a fig tree and meditated until he had worked out the nature of the universe, and the right way to live in it. The system of beliefs and practices he came up with became a central pillar in the development of Eastern civilisation, and Buddhism still has around 500 million followers in the world today. Not a bad result for just sitting under a tree.
The psychological benefits of meditation, and its modern relative ‘mindfulness’, are now well supported by science. Not only have they been shown to provide substantive therapeutic benefits for many mental health complaints, they have also been proven to physically shape the brain over time. After only 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation, one Harvard study found participants had increased cortical thickness of the hippocampus, the area of the brain which governs learning and memory; meanwhile, the amygdala, the brain region associated with stress and anxiety, decreased in size.
The benefits of mindfulness and meditation for the ability to concentrate have also been well documented. A study of candidates for graduate examinations in the US showed that just a two-week mindfulness training course “improved both GRE reading-comprehension scores and working memory capacity, while simultaneously reducing the occurrence of distracting thoughts” in particpants. Other studies of school children given short courses of meditation have demonstrated positive results for children’s attention, participation, self-control and respect for others, and a reduction in hyperactive behaviour.
All in all, it seems that mindfulness and meditation can lead to myriad improvements in the way we learn, think and feel. At the same time, there is a concern that stripping these practices from other aspects of Buddhist wisdom could lead them to be misused, simply used as tools for us to push ourselves harder in a negative or damaging way of life. More and more companies are offering mindfulness courses, but is it just to keep up productivity? Would we even be talking about mindfulness if it wasn’t a billion dollar industry?
Maybe the point is not to worry about such issues. Just take 10 minutes to sit in a chair every day, and see how you feel. (Or under a tree.)
Visit Mindful.org for a simple introduction: https://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/