Frequently Asked Questions
Will meditation work for me or my particular medical condition?
I AM NOT A CLINICIAN so I am not qualified to discuss particular cases or conditions, or give clinical recommendations. What I can say is that the MBSR program has been around for 30 years and there have been hundreds of clinical trials indicating that it is effective for reducing stress and many (though not all) clinical symptoms. Results are highly variable and there is no way to predict who will benefit from the program. Sorry, I can not tell you if your condition has been studied or not.
One of the primary findings from meditation studies is an increase in quality of life. Many people report that regardless of what happens with their symptoms, they feel happier and their symptoms don't bother them as much as they used to. It is not a cure-all but it does seem to benefit most people in some way. The one caveat is people with extreme psychological distress (e.g. schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or PTSD). Just as cardiac patients should only exercise under the close supervision of their physician, these individuals should only meditate under the close supervision of their mental health provider and a highly experienced meditation teacher
How can I learn to meditate? Can I take the course that was used in the study? Are other meditation resources available?
All the participants in our study went through the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course (MBSR) developed at the Center for Mindfulness:
There are MBSR teachers around the world, and there is a search tool in the left margin of their site that you can use to find them. Meditation and yoga teachers are also listed in most Yellow Pages of your phone book (look under Yoga or Meditation), and there are numerous resources on the web for finding meditation teachers.
The resources page of this site lists many other resources for finding teachers, books, and guided meditation recordings. I highly recommend going through an MBSR course or working with a meditation teacher, since you get a lot from teachers that is not addressed in recordings or in books. Many questions often arise when people meditate, and it is very easy to start thinking either that you are doing it wrong or that you have attained an exalted state (see #4 below). Your teacher can ask you questions to help you figure out what is really happening and help you progress. They can also give advice about how to deal with difficult emotions that might arise while you practice.
How much do I need to practice in order to benefit from meditation?
There is not sufficient data generated yet to answer this question. Some studies suggest that practicing even 5-10 minutes a day can provide some benefits. Some studies suggest that there is a correlation between change in symptoms and amount of practice (i.e. those that practiced more derived greater benefits). However, results are highly variable and some studies have not found any correlation between amount of practice and outcome (perhaps due to the particular patient group or set of symptoms that were studied). Most meditation teachers recommend attending one class a week in which you practice for 30-40 minutes, then practicing 5-45 minutes a day on your own. Like exercise, its ok if you occasionally miss a few days, just do what you can and determine for yourself how much you need to practice to achieve the level of stress/symptom reduction that you want.
When I meditate, I experience "unusual phenomena". What is going on? Is this an advanced state?
I can't stop thinking/my mind won't calm down/"Unusual phenomena" bother me when I meditate/I can't meditate—what should I do?
See next question
I can't stop thinking / my mind won't calm down. What should I do?
First, I AM NOT A TEACHER, so please do not ask me about your specific situation, I am not qualified to answer your questions. I highly recommend working with a meditation teacher. Although meditation is simple to do, a lot of confusing things can happen so it is useful to have someone that knows you and can give you advice for your specific situation. The resources page of this site lists resources for finding teachers, you can also look in the Yellow Pages of your phone book under Yoga or Meditation, and there are numerous resources on the web for finding meditation teachers.
That said, because these are such common question that many people encounter at some point, I will briefly address them. Please do not ask me to elaborate, this is just meant to be a short answer to tide you over till you can find a good teacher to work with.
The Buddha compared the mind to the strings of a lute (a guitar-like instrument): the lute can not be played if the strings are too tight or too loose. Similarly when attention is either too tight or too loose, you can't properly meditate. When attention is too loose, the mind wanders and you get lost in thought. Try narrowing your focus in different ways (e.g. just inhales instead of the whole breath, focus on a smaller area around your nose). Some people do a few minutes of yoga or loving kindness (metta) practice at the start of their meditation period to focus the mind, before switching to breath awareness meditation. Some people find focusing on sounds easier than focusing on breathing.
When attention is too tight, you start getting "unusual phenomena" including (but definitely not limited to): pain, itching, pulsing, tingling, heat/warmth, visual or auditory weirdness (ringing in the ears, spots floating in front of your eyes), or the sensation that part of the body is moving, spinning, or growing/shrinking. These phenomena may seem pleasant or unpleasant, but they all have the same effect—they distract you from meditating. Try increasing the area of awareness (e.g. a larger area around or in front of your nostrils/area of the phenmena; listen for sounds farther in the distance). And of course be mindful of your thoughts and attitudes towards your wandering mind and any phenomena that may happen. As one of my teachers says "The goal is not to try to change anything, but to be aware of the desire to change it and then see if we can just relax and be ok with it even if it doesn't change. Are we trying to quiet the storm, or are we trying to find peace within the storm?" Finally, remember to be compassionate towards yourself - these are very common issues, with patience and practice they will pass and you will progress. Now, find a teacher you can work with!!
What about other forms of meditation and yoga?
There are many ways to meditate, including doing yoga, tai chi, etc.There are not really any scientific studies that have directly compared two different forms of meditation, so we don’t know if one is better than another. I suspect that it will be like exercise: all forms of exercise are good at promoting general health benefits, but there are some forms that may be better for specific conditions or desired outcomes (e.g. weight training vs. cardio, sprinting vs. endurance, swimming is gentler than running if you have a knee injury). Similarly with meditation/yoga/tai chi, etc., I suspect that all will be good for general stress reduction, but there will likely be differences in terms of specific conditions or desired outcomes. Also, personal preferences are important to consider for both exercise and meditation e.g. some people prefer to run while other prefer to swim, and some people prefer to chant while others prefer silent breath awareness meditation or the movement based traditions. Finally, as with any form of learning, individual teachers vary tremendously in personality and teaching style. So one teacher may be a very good fit for your friend but a less good fit for you. I suggest shopping around a little to get a sense of different teachers and meditation styles and find what works best for you.
I practice a different form of meditation/yoga/qi gong/tai chi etc. Can we do a collaboration to study this other form?
Neuroimaging is extremely expensive and requires a lot of time and highly trained manpower. A small pilot study costs about $500,000. Currently we are focusing exclusively on mindfulness meditation and Kripalu yoga, and I do not have the resources to study other forms of meditation/yoga/etc.. I would eventually like to study other forms of meditation in the future if sufficient resources are available. It should be noted though that although we have done a few initial studies with highly experienced meditators in order to establish the general principal of what we wanted to do, experiments with these highly trained individuals are scientifically problematic and difficult to interpret. Therefore going forward we will only be doing studies with novices going through standardized training programs.
Can you scan me?
Due to the very strict rules about how human research is conducted, I am not able to scan individuals who are not enrolled in a study.
I want to apply to grad school and do this sort of research. What should I do? Can I do my PhD work in your lab?
I am not in a department that takes grad students, so working with me is not an option. I would suggest getting a PhD in psychology or neuroscience, in a lab that specializes in the topic that you want to apply meditation to. For instance, if you are interested in how meditation impacts emotion, then join an emotion lab and do a project with meditation. If you are interested in how meditation impacts cognition or transforms consciousness or helps a particular disease, then join a lab that specializes in cognition or consciousness or that disease. The issue to consider is that ultimately you need a job at a university, so you need to have training in a traditional topic that universities will be interested in. This way, when you go on the job market you will be an emotion researcher (or cognition or consciousness) rather than a meditation researcher.