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Mind The Hype: Is Meditation Really All That Great?

Shannon Harvey
Around this time last year I found myself in the midst of a professional crisis of conscience. The credibility of my work as a health journalist was being put to the test after I read an academic paper in which a group of 15 well-respected neuroscientists, mindfulness researchers, and meditation teachers warned that mindfulness is being over-sold and over-hyped and that some people are being misled, cheated, disappointed and even harmed. The paper inspired a series of alarming headlines such as Mindfulness Is a Meaningless Word With Shoddy Science Behind It and Is Mindfulness Meditation BS?

I say alarming, because the headlines were essentially casting an unsettling shadow over the last four years of my work. Regular readers will know that in 2014 I released a film called The Connection, about the science of the mind-body-health connection. It was inspired, in part, by my own experience trying to recover from an autoimmune disease and makes the case that things such as stress reduction, social support, and the patient-provider relationship need to be taken seriously in mainstream medicine if we’re going to turn the chronic disease epidemic around.

Among others, my film features key interviews with people such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, “the father” of contemporary mindfulness, as well as relaxation response pioneer Herbert Benson, and neuroscientist Sara Lazar, who’s seminal work showing structural brain changes after an eight-week meditation course was instrumental in rocketing mindfulness out of Buddhist temples and into corporate headquarters.

Since the film’s release I’ve been invited to share my story everywhere from conferences attended by thousands to small gatherings attended by ordinary folk looking for trustworthy information. Although, as I wrote in my piece Stop Looking For The ONE Thing That Will Cure You, the foundation of all the work that I do is based on taking a whole person, whole life approach to getting better, there’s no hiding the fact that in the four years since I released my film, I have very publicly broadcasted the health benefits of meditation.

But fast forward to late 2017 and the Mind The Hype paper and subsequent commentary forced me to question everything. It highlighted that most of the meditation science is underpowered and poorly designed. It pointed out that the “compelling” stress reduction and wellbeing evidence was limited and that the jury is still out on whether meditation boosts attention and memory. Even worse, the authors highlighted that mindfulness and meditation can sometimes be harmful. There’s not even a scientific consensus on what mindfulness is. After all, the thing that Buddhist monks do for years in noble silence is quite different to what your yoga instructor does for five minutes at the end of a class. In some cases scientists are comparing the equivalent of apples and oranges.

So there I was questioning the meditation science and the story that I had put on cinema screens around the world. What did this mean for the integrity of my journalism? What did this say about my belief that meditation had played such a significant role in my recovery from an incurable illness in the past? Had it all been a placebo?

From there I had three options. I could:

1. Bury my head in the sand and pretend the “Mind the Hype” debate wasn’t happening.

2. Metamorphose into a cynic and declare that we can’t trust anyone, not even scientists.

3. Put my critical thinking journalistic hat firmly back on my head and keep asking questions.

As I wrote in my piece There Is NO Secret – How I Learned About Big Wellness The Hard Way, after years of being disappointed by both the mainstream and alternative treatment paths for my autoimmune disease, I finally decided that I needed to apply the same journalistic rigour that I used in my day job to my own health. In other words, I learned how to be a health skeptic.

Not to be confused with being a cynic, the word skeptic is derived from the Greek “skeptikos” or “skeptomai” which means “to search,” “to think,” or “look for.” When it came to my health, this meant learning how to think like a scientist and viewing the world through a lens of objectivity in order to try and see things clearly. This also meant looking at the available evidence and coming to conclusions that are supported and verifiable.

Most importantly though, being a skeptical journalist also meant embracing the possibility of being proven wrong and relishing the chance to follow a story its logical end.

Of the choices I faced during my professional crisis last year, I took option three. I’m now working on a very different documentary. One in which my journalistic journey is more exposed than it was in The Connection. I’ve enlisted the help of a team of scientists who are scanning my brain, measuring my stress hormones, immune function, DNA and cellar ageing to see what, if anything, changes in my body as a result of having a dedicated daily meditation practice. To be clear, this is not an experiment that will determine if meditation is beneficial for everyone in every circumstance. This is an experiment to see if it works for me.

I recently had lunch with the lead author of the Mind the Hype paper, neuroscientist Nicholas Van Dam from the University of Melbourne because I wanted his advice on navigating the treacherous waters of mindfulness science. Over a bowl of Asian noodles we discussed the disconnect between what scientific research actually finds and what the media ends up reporting, and how my industry craves catchy headlines and compelling stories with neat endings tied up in a bow. In a subsequent email exchange he wrote this; “For me, the key part is not to lose the science in the story,” which I now have written on a Post-It note on my computer screen.

I’m nearing the end of my year-long meditation experiment. While surprising things have happened along the way, I don’t yet know what the story will be. You can be sure that whatever happens at the end of “My Year of Living Mindfully,” it will be a tale of nuance and subtlety which explores the incomplete, imperfect nature of our knowledge. It may well be that a year of seeking answers results in yet more questions. Stay tuned.

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