The Sunday Magazine

If not meditation, then what? - Michael's essay

We're all stressed out, and looking for ways to relax. Recent studies suggest that mindfulness meditation is no panacea; Michael suggests another mode of behaviour to find relief.
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has inspired millions to practice meditation. (Credit: AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Suddenly it is 2016 and the unforgiving engine  of what American novelist Marilynne Robinson  calls "joyless urgency" slowly begins to pick up steam. By April, we will all once again be nervous wrecks. And so it is year after year. The question is how to cope; how to cope with the stress, the fatigue, the irritations, the distractions of the modern age. As my hero, the good doctor Chekhov says; "Any idiot can face a crisis - it's the day to day living that wears you out."

The search for some kind of respite is never-ending. One of the most popular forms of relief is meditation, specifically mindfulness meditation. I learned about mindfulness a couple of decades ago, first through the work of the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. His theories are wonderfully clear in their simplicity, easy to describe, difficult to carry out. Essentially he talks about  focussing on the immediate present, forgetting about a past that's gone and a future that hasn't arrived. He also stresses concentrating on breathing.

The diminutive, ever-smiling monk has had a huge impact on the burgeoning world of self-help and meditation. There are Thich Nhat Hanh clubs around the world, whose members assiduously study his works. On those rare occasions he comes to speak to disciples in Canada, the talks are sold out. Even the stinking rich at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, have access to morning meditation sessions. In other words, the world of meditation is flourishing.
One University of Saskatchewan professor says parents can help children learn mindfulness skills at home. Above, students meditate during Mindful Studies class at Wilson High School in Portland, Oregon. (Gosia Wozniacka/Associated Press)

Then along comes a spoil sport by the name of Adam Grant. Professor Grant teaches management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. In an essay in the New York Times in October, he asserted that he is being stalked by what he called "meditation evangelists." Friends and the merest of acquaintances are constantly asking him what kind of meditation he practices. When he admits he doesn't meditate, "it's as if I just announced that the earth is flat." He finds it all dreadfully boring.

To launch his attack on meditation, Professor Grant polled groups of meditation practitioners, teachers and researchers about its benefits. What he discovered was that all of the beneficial results of meditation could be achieved  through other activities. He quotes an analysis of meditation techniques published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Its conclusion: "We found no evidence that meditation programs were  better than any active treatment, ie., drugs, exercise and other behavioural therapies." While meditation may not do anything for Adam Grant, it seems to work for many people. I have a number of friends who say that meditation has reduced the stress in their lives. Perhaps it's the placebo effect.

Anton Chekhov (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Over the years, I've tried mindfulness meditation combined with t'ai-chi. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. The t'ai-chi seems to be not only great exercise but is relaxing in a meditative way. And focussing on deep breathing does reduce tension  for me. In the end, I agree with Professor Grant that there are ways other than meditation to relieve stress.

One of my favourites is again from the eternal  Anton Chekhov: "Do silly things. Foolishness is a great deal more vital and healthy than our straining and striving after a meaningful life." 

Great writer. Great physician.


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