Meditation is a tool, not a pill

A few weeks ago, researchers led by a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University published the results of a study comparing two groups of unemployed people. Over a three day retreat, half were taught mindfulness meditation — also known as vipassana meditation — while the rest were taught “relaxation techniques,” like stretching, without an emphasis on being mindful.

It’s always seemed beside the point to me to use the quantifying tool of science to measure what is a qualitative experience. But the study’s results appear significant. Quartz gushed with the headline: “Science finally proves that meditation helps make your body markedly less stressed.”

The researchers found increased connectivity in the brains of the meditators after they finished the retreat, particularly in the areas important for controlling attention. The meditators also had less of a chemical marker of unhealthy inflammation in their blood. Those that had “relaxed” actually had more of this stress-related chemical in their blood. In other words, meditation practice reduced the stress of being out of work.

While this research might “prove,” through the lens of empiricism, the benefits of meditation practice, we should keep a few things in mind when we think about stress.

Meditation is a tool

First, while mindfulness meditation absolutely lowers the impact of stress on my life, it doesn’t make it go away. This is because the mindfulness that meditation cultivates applies to the present moment. It helps us notice and work with stress as it inevitably arises, as we feel it in our body or notice our tangled thoughts. This noticing may very well have physical benefits like those found in the study, but meditation isn’t like taking a pill — it’s not a cure for stress, it’s a tool that helps us skillfully apply mindfulness in every passing moment.

Meditation teacher Tara Brach uses a particular type of wood as a metaphor for this way of thinking about stress. For two years in the early 1990s, a group of scientists in Arizona lived in a sealed research facility with plants and animals to study a truly closed ecosystem. The trees they planted fell over before growing to full size. Because there was no wind inside the facility, the trees lacked what is called “stress wood,” which allows them to stand upright. Because the trees didn’t have to bend and adjust to wind, they couldn’t handle the downward force of gravity.

So, meditation strengthens our “stress wood,” helping us skillfully work with the uncertainty of life.

Stress is a social problem

Second, we should be wary of telling a story about stress as if it were only an individual problem. The study’s participants were stressed because they were looking for work, and in capitalist society, where work is very much the pulse of human life, not having a job is stigmatized. But having a job or not is so bound up in politics, global economics, and gender and racial inequality that unemployment is a social burden that we feel individually. Through struggle, we, as a society, decide on how many people don’t have work, let alone meaningful work. For example, the social democratic vision that Bernie Sanders is proposing, like rebuilding the country’s infrastructure through government spending, is one — albeit, pretty limited — way to take on unemployment.

Framing stress as an individual burden covers over the inequality that intensifies stress for far too many. And it ignores the opportunities for collective practices — like movement organizing or cooperative economies — to help millions of people quickly.

We won’t meditate our way to a world with less suffering.

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