The benefits of meditation can be hard to parse, because the practice is often presented as one of two extremes. Meditation and mindfulness are either a panacea, a kind of one-size-fits-all solution to all life’s problems, or an overhyped fad with little or no tangible benefits. So which is it? As is often the case, the truth is somewhere in between.
This article covers some of the benefits I’ve experienced from about six years of meditation. While I make no claims to being an advanced or particularly skilled meditator, I believe I can point to some positive changes in belief, thought and behaviour that have come as a result of meditation. In some of these cases, results from published research corroborate my experience and citations to studies are provided when relevant.
For a little more background, I started meditating using guided audio for around 20 minutes per day, then switched to meditating in silence using a stopwatch. After several years I increased the time to 30 minutes, and a few months ago started sitting for 45 minutes to one hour. I was inconsistent for the first 1-2 years and then roughly consistent (80-90% of days) thereafter.
Causality is Hard
There are a couple of caveats when making claims about benefits of meditation in my particular case. The first is that it’s difficult to isolate the effects of meditating from those of psychedelic experience and the consumption of theoretical material around meditation and spirituality. Psychedelic-induced insight and conceptual information blend together with meditative experience and it’s sometimes hard to know what’s what.
The second caveat is that we don’t have a counterfactual here, meaning there is no otherwise identical universe we can look at where I don’t meditate to compare this to. So much of this is subjective, more so for some of these claims than others. Again, references to research are provided to help address this problem, but even the evidence here is somewhat mixed.123 Overall, this is primarily a personal account of positive phenomenal changes experienced through meditation.
Increased Willpower and Self Control
There are two manifestations of what we might call “willpower” “self control” or “self discipline”. The first is resisting the urge or temptation to do something one knows one shouldn’t, and the second is overcoming resistance to doing something one knows one should. We’re all familiar with these situations, and meditation seems to help with both.
The first case, resisting an urge or temptation, is related to what’s called inhibitory control or response inhibition. This is the cognitive process that allows a person to inhibit impulses and select a more preferable course of action in response to stimuli. Research shows that meditation training enhances response inhibition.45 Studies have also shown that meditation improves self-regulation over the lifespan, and counteracts self-control depletion in the short term.67
The way this feels subjectively, to me, is like an opening of space between an instinctual urge and the behavioural response. Meditation and mindfulness widen the gap between the urge and the action, and the more space created, the more one has room to stop, wait, and decide how to respond differently. This also makes it easier, if one wishes, to let the urge go entirely and not respond at all.
The most striking example of this to me has always been Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk who burned himself alive in protest against the Vietnamese government in 1963. Burning to death exists at the far, far end of the spectrum of reaction-provoking stimuli, and may in fact be the most painful possible experience for a human being. Then along that spectrum we’d have breaking a leg, being hit by a punch, stubbing a toe, and so on, all the way down to the most minor discomfort.
Thich Quang Duc’s case is so extraordinary because he shows no reaction to the most painful possible experience. The average person suffering even minor burns screams, panics, runs around – but the monk sits completely still in his meditation posture until the fire takes his life. There is hardly a better example of extreme inhibitory control.
Of course, Thich Quang Duc meditated for decades to achieve this level of mastery. But inhibitory control also exists on a spectrum, and the more one meditates, the more this benefit accrues.
I defined the second type of “willpower” or “self control” as overcoming resistance to doing something one knows one should. Subjectively, this seems to consist of two things. First, the ability to let go of the resistance to doing the desired task. Meditation naturally helps here, as it is in large part the explicit practice of allowing phenomenal objects to arise and pass away. Second, the ability to move one’s attention to the task that is being resisted. This is likely associated with cognitive processes like attentional orienting, attention control, and executive control, all of which are enhanced by meditation.8910 Thus it appears meditation helps increase willpower and self control in both senses described here.
“Let it come, let it be, let it go” is an instruction from the book The Mind Illuminated that has always stuck with me. This is the approach one takes to distracting thoughts, restless sensations, and difficult emotions during meditation. Allowing oneself to feel whatever is there and let it go contributes to a greater sense of emotional equanimity.
I’ve noticed this effect generally, but particularly for me with social anxiety. There have been times in my life where my social anxiety was so bad that I would be nervous walking down the street or sitting on a bus – simply being around other people was enough to bring it on, without even interacting with anyone. I would also get anxiety when meeting new people, or just in any social situation.
Meditation, over time, seems to have reduced both the duration and intensity of my social anxiety. Rather than resisting the feeling, there is now a much greater sense of being able to let it come and go. During times where I formerly might have stayed anxious for hours, now the feeling subsides after minutes or seconds. Often it doesn’t arise at all.
There is some research on this benefit of meditation as well. A 2010 study showed that mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR) reduced negative emotion in people with social anxiety disorder, and another study showed that brief meditation training reduces “social evaluative stress”.1112 Furthermore, research shows that experienced meditators have increased gray matter density in brain areas associated with emotional regulation, and that there is a causal relationship here.1314
I have also felt, more generally, a much greater sense of being able to allow things to be the way they are. I am less concerned about a particular occurrence or sequence of events going a very specific way, especially when it’s out of my control.
As a kid I remember feeling far the opposite, often worrying about things being “just right” or going exactly the way I wanted. Thinking back, it seems there was an implicit assumption in my mind that unless this goes exactly and specifically right, it will go horribly and irreversibly wrong. Naturally this caused me a lot of anxiety, but it’s almost never true.
The truth is that day-to-day events are rarely worthy of much (or any) negative emotion. Meditation helps internalize this and better allows one to accept that things just are the way they are. This isn’t the same as apathy – rather it’s an internalization of the understanding that certain things (and in fact, most things) are out of one’s control, and an alignment of emotional valence and affect with that understanding.
Increased Introspective Awareness
Introspective awareness is awareness of the inner workings of the mind, and of subjectivity in general. This includes being able to watch one’s cognitive processes as they happen in real time. A simple way this manifests beneficially for me is that I notice unhelpful thought patterns more quickly and easily, for example, overthinking or needless worrying. I also more readily notice the general repetitive nature of thought. Often when I’m thinking it can feel like I’m “getting somewhere” or “figuring something out”, but in reality my mind is just running in circles. What’s more, they’re often circles it’s run many times before.
Introspective awareness also contributes to a better understanding of bodily sensations and emotions, and their relationship to thoughts. In my experience, meditation can help me “see to the bottom” of an emotional state and identify its cause on a deeper level. I’ve had many meditation sessions where I start off with negative emotion seemingly caused by some minor or mundane reason, and then during the practice a deeper reason – what is really bothering me – becomes clear. Introspective awareness provides insight into a variety of subjective states, and is one of the most pronounced benefits of meditation.
More Spontaneous Appreciation of Everyday Life
The more I meditate, the more I feel spontaneous appreciation for the things around me. I wake up in the morning and am grateful for my apartment, the fact that I live in a city, my friends, family, the opportunities I have and so on. It’s certainly true that I have a good quality of life by any reasonable standard, but so does almost every person in the developed world. The luxury of living in a well-functioning society is something we tend to take for granted, but meditation allows one to see beyond the usual assumptions about normalcy and the day-to-day.
Our civilization stands on the shoulders of thousands of years of human progress and we are all benefitting, all the time. Your grocery store is stocked full of fresh food, any time of day, any day of the week. If you live in a city, within the next half hour you can be at restaurant and have food cooked for you in any style you like from all around the world. That’s extraordinary.
Go to the convenience store and it’s the same way. You need a sponge? Here are ten sponges for one dollar. Plastic container? Here’s twenty different kinds for two dollars each. Unlimited clean running water, power, a refrigerator. Heat in the winter and cool air in the summer. A few hours of labour per month, in even the lowest paying job, nets you access to most of human knowledge. Certainly our societies have their problems, but seen for what it is the material abundance of modern life is a staggering achievement.
One relevant study here showed that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT is not exactly meditation, but it’s pretty close) increased positive emotion and reward experience in people vulnerable to depression.15 This maps well onto my own experience, as I’ve reliably suffered from depression and felt that meditation increases my levels of appreciation and positive mood.
Resolution of Unconscious Issues and Trauma
In The Mind Illuminated, resolution of unconscious emotional issues and trauma is described as happening during Stage 4 of a 10 stage process. It’s explained how as the mind is quieted through meditation, charged material from the unconscious can spontaneously arise into conscious awareness. This takes the form of thoughts, images, memories, and difficult or painful emotions. When one acknowledges, allows and accepts whatever arises, the unconscious processes reorient themselves to present circumstances, where the cause of trauma no longer exists. This is referred to as “purification of mind”.
I’ve had some significant experiences with this that I may write about in the future but are beyond the scope of this article. Here I’ll give a minor personal example. As a child I developed a strong fear of sharks, likely due to seeing a horror film with giant sharks when I was somewhere between five and ten years old. After that I was always afraid of sharks, underwater predators, deep, dark waters and the like.
During concentrated periods of meditation I’ve had images related to this fear spontaneously arise in my mind. The images are graphic and violent, and seemingly as horrific as my mind can imagine. Enormous sharks emerging out the depths, mouths filled with rows of teeth tearing my body apart or swallowing me whole.
Of course I’m not being, and likely will not be, eaten by a giant shark, especially one too big to actually exist. During meditation, some part of my unconscious comes to recognize this and reorients itself to reflect the reality of present circumstances. I still don’t like sharks, and probably wouldn’t want to watch a horror movie about them, but the visceral fear is mostly gone.
Moral Direction Towards Right Action
How and why might meditation yield direction towards action, especially in a moral sense of doing what is right?
One way to think about it might be that through meditation, one sees through misleading thoughts and superficial judgments to gain psychological clarity on an issue. Or perhaps, one becomes aware of somatic instincts and subconscious processes that provide pre or post-rational insight, and this leads to a sense of how to act.
Another way of understanding this is theological, and here I may lose some of the more rational-skeptic types among you. But take this, if you like, not as a literal description of what happens during meditation but rather as an illustrative way of understanding and interpreting a certain aspect of phenomenology.
Here we can look at a particular reading of the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita. In the Gita, Prince Arjuna rides his chariot down the middle of a great battlefield with the god Krishna as his charioteer. The text is a dialogue between the two characters – Arjuna the conflicted human faced with a moral struggle and Krishna the voice of divine wisdom guiding him towards right action.
On its face this reads as an interaction between two separate characters, but another plausible reading is that Arjuna’s dialogue with Krishna is a dramatization of a form of interaction every human being can have with themselves. Arjuna represents the curious, naive, uncertain part of us and Krishna is the Atman – in Hinduism the presence of the divine totality inside each person. Read this way, Krishna’s wisdom emerges out of a window to the transcendent that is accessible within our own psyche.
In the text, Krishna speaks of himself in the first person as God:
“With your heart and mind intent on me, you will surely come to me. When you make your mind one-pointed through regular practice of meditation, you will find the supreme glory of the Lord.”
If Krishna is Atman, the instruction come to me means to focus attention on the part of oneself that is divine, which is done through meditation. In the text, Krishna provides explicitly moral direction:
“The spiritually minded, who eat in the spirit of service, are freed from all their sins; but the selfish, who prepare food for their own satisfaction, eat sin.
It is better to strive in one’s own dharma than to succeed in the dharma of another. Nothing is ever lost in following one’s own dharma, but competition in another’s dharma breeds fear and insecurity.
Not deluded by pride, free from selfish attachment and selfish desire, beyond the duality of pleasure and pain, ever aware of the Self [Atman], the wise go forward to that eternal goal.”
These ideas can be coherent without any belief in supernatural forces or beings. If the Bhagavad Gita was written by humans, then the truths Krishna imparts to Arjuna are the collective insights of sages who jointly spent hundreds of thousands of hours in meditation. The skillful use of attention allows us to interact directly with a part of ourselves that yields wisdom and guidance towards right action in the world.
Insight into the Nature of the Mind and Subjective Experience
Insights emerge after practicing meditation for some time. Among these are personal insights, in the form of solutions to problems or new perspectives on unhelpful patterns of thought and behaviour. And as described above, meditation can seemingly yield “answers” (although usually not in the way one expects), resolve uncertainty, and suggest direction for a course of action.
There are also insights about the workings of the mind and the nature of conscious experience that apply universally to all people. Among these, which I have written about before, is the idea of no-self. Downstream implications of this include changes around one’s conception of free will, as well as the recognition that consciousness can be understood and experienced as fundamentally nondual.
Increased Compassion and Reduced Ill Will Towards Others
Some of the insights mentioned above have both practical and theoretical ethical implications. First is the idea that, if there are no separate selves, then experience is not actually “owned” by individuals in the way we conventionally think. There is just consciousness and its contents.
In this view, the relevant ethical landscape is not individuals with distinct, isolated experiences but rather the set of all conscious experiences across time. A certain degree of suffering or wellbeing here is no more desirable or undesirable than it is anywhere else. It’s suffering and wellbeing themselves that are important, not when or where they appear, or who they “belong” to. This is known in Buddhist ethics as the Ownerless Suffering Argument. There are certainly other ways of reaching the same conclusion, but they naturally emerge out of a belief in no-self.
With no belief in free will, holding on to emotions like anger, resentment or negative intent towards another person also stop making sense. If someone is not a separate agent but rather a subset of interdependent causes and effects, inseparably enmeshed with the rest of the known universe, there can’t be hatred or blame. To realize that everyone is doing the best they can, otherwise they would be doing differently is transformative and powerful.
Metaphysics aside, one can view this in purely practical terms. Reducing ill intent towards others is advantageous because generally ill intent harms the person harbouring it most of all. If you’re angry at another person, you are the one who feels the anger. When you hate someone, you are the one who suffers. And if the emotion is never expressed, you are the only one who suffers! If it is expressed, maybe the other person suffers too, which is no better. Reducing anger, hatred, and ill will makes sense for even purely selfish reasons.
Personally I’ve also noticed that meditation has made it easier for me to step outside of myself and better understand things from other people’s perspectives. I’m more able to see my needs and desires in a greater context, and make decisions that are the best overall, not just best for me. I believe I also feel greater compassion for the suffering of others due to meditation. A confounding variable here is that I’m moderately high on Big Five trait compassion (mid-60s), but there has been research in this area. Not only does loving-kindness meditation (unsurprisingly) increase compassion, but basic mindfulness meditation appears to as well.1617
In closing I’d like to reiterate that I don’t consider myself a particularly advanced or skilled meditator. While I’ve experienced a number of significant benefits from my practice, I still fall into all the familiar patterns and traps. I get lost in thought, I get angry at myself and the world, I hold on to the past or grasp for the future, I get anxious and depressed. I suffer terribly, sometimes.
That said, I have no doubt meditation helps with all of this, probably more than anything else. I hope this has been interesting and informative, and that it’s given you a better idea of what the benefits of meditation could be for you, too.
- Lao SA, Kissane D, Meadows G. Cognitive effects of MBSR/MBCT: A systematic review of neuropsychological outcomes. Consciousness and Cognition. 2016;45:109-123. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2016.08.017. ↵
- Parsons CE, Crane C, Parsons LJ, Fjorback LO, Kuyken W. Home practice in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: A systematic review and meta-analysis of participants’ mindfulness practice and its association with outcomes. Behaviour Research and Therapy. 2017;95:29-41. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2017.05.004. ↵
- Alsubaie M, Abbott R, Dunn B, et al. Mechanisms of action in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) in people with physical and/or psychological conditions: A systematic review. Clin Psychol Rev. 2017;55:74-91. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2017.04.008. ↵
- Sahdra BK, Maclean KA, Ferrer E, et al. Enhanced response inhibition during intensive meditation training predicts improvements in self-reported adaptive socioemotional functioning. Emotion. 2011;11(2):299-312. doi:10.1037/a0022764. ↵
- Zanesco AP, King BG, MacLean KA, Saron CD. Executive control and felt concentrative engagement following intensive meditation training. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2013;7:566. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00566. ↵
- Tang Y-Y, Posner MI, Rothbart MK. Meditation improves self-regulation over the life span. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2014;1307:104-111. doi:10.1111/nyas.12227. ↵
- Friese M, Messner C, Schaffner Y. Mindfulness meditation counteracts self-control depletion. Consciousness and Cognition. 2012;21(2):1016-22. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2012.01.008. ↵
- Tsai MH, Chou WL. Attentional orienting and executive control are affected by different types of meditation practice. Consciousness and Cognition. 2016;46:110-126. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2016.09.020. ↵
- Jo HG, Schmidt S, Inacker E, Markowiak M, Hinterberger T. Meditation and attention: A controlled study on long-term meditators in behavioral performance and event-related potentials of attentional control. Int J Psychophysiol. 2016;99:33-9. doi:10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2015.11.016. ↵
- Moore A, Gruber T, Derose J, Malinowski P. Regular, brief mindfulness meditation practice improves electrophysiological markers of attentional control. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2012;6:18. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2012.00018. ↵
- Goldin PR, Gross JJ. Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) on Emotion Regulation in Social Anxiety Disorder. Emotion (Washington, DC). 2010;10(1):83-91. doi:10.1037/a0018441. ↵
- Creswell JD, Pacilio LE, Lindsay EK, Brown KW. Brief mindfulness meditation training alters psychological and neuroendocrine responses to social evaluative stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2014;44:1-12. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.02.007. ↵
- Luders E, Toga AW, Lepore N, Gaser C. The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter. NeuroImage. 2009;45(3):672-678. ↵
- Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry research. 2011;191(1):36-43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006. ↵
- Geschwind N, Peeters F, Drukker M, Van os J, Wichers M. Mindfulness training increases momentary positive emotions and reward experience in adults vulnerable to depression: a randomized controlled trial. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2011;79(5):618-28. doi:10.1037/a0024595. ↵
- Luberto CM, Shinday N, Song R, Philpotts LL, Park ER, Fricchione GL, Yeh GY. A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of the Effects of Meditation on Empathy, Compassion, and Prosocial Behaviors. Mindfulness. 2018;9(3):708-724. doi:10.1007/s12671-017-0841-8. ↵
- Donald JN, Sahdra BK, Van Zanden B, Duineveld JJ, Atkins PWB, Marshall SL, Ciarrochi J. Does your mindfulness benefit others? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the link between mindfulness and prosocial behaviour. British Journal of Psychology. 2018; Aug 9. doi:10.1111/bjop.12338. ↵