Weekend meditation classes may be fashionable, but reaching a higher state of consciousness may not be an excuse to feel smug about life.
Do not be fooled by their zen expressions, because those who practise the art are no more likely to feel peaceful and compassionate than the rest of us.
A review of more than 20 studies suggests meditation or mindfulness has little impact on turning us into a better person. Scientists found it played no significant role in reducing aggression or prejudice.
It made scant difference to how socially connected people were – and practitioners were no more compassionate than if they watched a nature video. Study co-author Dr Miguel Farias, of Coventry University, said: ‘The popularisation of meditation techniques, like mindfulness, despite being taught without religious beliefs, still seems to offer the hope of a better self and a better world to many. We wanted to investigate how powerful these techniques were in affecting one’s feelings and behaviours towards others.’
The researchers looked at forms of meditation that did not include physical activity, such as breathing exercises.
In other studies where compassion was seen to rise, the authors raised fears of study bias or ‘methodological shortcomings’ that may have skewed the results.
Dr Farias said: ‘None of this, of course, invalidates Buddhism or other religions’ claims about the moral value and eventually life-changing potential of its beliefs and practices. But our research findings are a far cry from many popular claims made by meditators and some psychologists.’
The review, published in the journal Scientific Reports, suggests the effects on compassion are small and concludes ‘that other forms of active interventions (like watching a nature video) might produce similar outcomes’.
Kevin Jolly, who runs the organisation United Kingdom Meditation, disagreed with the results – saying breathing exercises ‘calm the mind and nervous system’.
‘Meditation takes you into yourself and makes you feel much stronger,’ he said.