Meditation refuses to sit back and relax

Kate Lister considers the extraordinary growth of meditation and what it means

Between 2012 and 2019, the number of people practicing meditation around the world tripled. In the US, meditation is as popular as yoga, and the industry around it (apps, classes, retreats, online courses, etc.) is predicted to be worth $2.2 billion dollars by 2022. This is not far-fetched when you consider that the meditation app Headspace has been downloaded just under 40 million times since it was founded in 2010.

Traditionally a practice of stillness, introspection and contemplation, meditation offers space to explore the origins of individual thoughts, feelings and experiences deeper within the body. It is quiet and personal, and usually requires nothing more than our undivided attention. Basically, it is the antithesis of the fast-paced, cerebral and extroverted modern lifestyles that demand unreachable levels of productivity and multi-tasking from us.

Meditation is thought to have its origins in the Indian subcontinent, where wall arts and statues of people in meditative postures date back to 5,000 to 3,500 BCE. Most Hindu texts speak of meditation practices, but since these would have initially been passed from Guru to student by word of mouth and weren’t documented, we don’t know exactly what they were up to! Written records of Buddhist and Taoist meditation practices date back to 5th century BCE, and there are variations on this same theme found in Ancient Roman ‘spiritual exercises’ and early Christian religious practices of ‘concentration’.

What can be deduced from this somewhat hazy history, however, is this: our predecessors knew mediation was a useful tool for dealing with human life; they acknowledged human life brings its trials and traumas and that we need methods to navigate them. They also recognised the importance of exploring our personal workings beyond the everyday chatter of our minds.

Thanks to the immense technological advancements of the last three decades, humans are living less and less through their bodies and more through their minds alone. It is too often the case that our days are spent sedentarily attached to a screen, whilst our bodies are treated merely as a vessel for the hyper-active brain. Simultaneously, the fast-paced demands of modern life means our minds are working in particular ways: we deal with constant distraction from phone calls, email arrivals and message notifications and are able to be contacted at all hours of the day, often resulting in it being impossible to focus on a single task or have a moment of silence completely alone. Technology also allows 24/7 access to passive entertainment -and each other- so we are able to distract ourselves from dealing with any personal anxieties we may be feeling that would be necessarily felt in our bodies if we weren’t so estranged from them.

I have been practicing yoga and meditation for 15 years as a means to stabilise my mental health. I have been guiding others through these practices for 6 as a yoga teacher. I have seen -and felt- the very real benefits of these practices over and over again throughout this time.

So, do I think it a coincidence that the incremental reemergence of ancient meditative practices is occurring in tandem with lifestyles that take us further out of touch with our personal feelings? No. What I believe is that people are seeking a remedy and a way back to our internal landscapes. And it is much needed.

But that isn't just my view. Multiple studies have found meditation decreases feelings of stress, depression and anxiety. Researchers have also concluded it has beneficial effects on immune function and pain management, with one study finding that sufferers of back pain who mediated were more likely to experience a 30% improvement in their ability to carry out daily tasks compared to those only taking medication. A 2015 study cites students who were taught meditation at school as experiencing "higher optimism, more positive emotions, stronger self-identity, greater self-acceptance and took better care of their health as well as experiencing reduced anxiety, stress and depression”. Application of meditation in the therapy of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder delivered a 73% reduction of symptoms in some cases.

So meditation, one of the world’s oldest-known therapies, is gaining popularity today – and its application is delivering positive results, and it seems its current prominence is in part an indication that we have reached a peak of hyper-productivity and excessive connectivity that is simply not good for us. We are being called to come back to our bodies, to an understanding of what’s going on beneath the logic-driven pulse of western society that is making us uncomfortable in the first place. Because, as Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “there is more wisdom in our bodies than in our deepest philosophies”.

Kate Lister is a London-based yoga and meditation teacher, singer, composer and holistic singing coach. She runs retreats and workshops worldwide. She likes jazz, big dogs, and the oily part at the top of a new jar of peanut butter.