The Wall Street Journal: The Meditation Cure: When the Buddha Meets Darwin

By Robert Wright
July 28, 2017 11:23 a.m. ET
The Wall Street Journal
A basic practice of Buddhism turns out to be one of the best ways to deal with the anxieties and appetites bequeathed to us by our evolutionary history

Much of Buddhism can be boiled down to a bad-news/good-news story. The bad news is that life is full of suffering and we humans are full of illusions. The good news is that these two problems are actually one problem: If we could get rid of our illusions—if we could see the world clearly—our suffering would end.

And there’s more good news: Buddhism offers tools for doing that job. A good example is the type of meditation known as mindfulness meditation, now practiced by millions of people in the U.S. and other places far from Buddhism’s Asian homeland. Mindfulness meditation, Buddhists say, can change our perspective on feelings such as anxiety and rage and thereby sap their power to warp our vision and make us suffer.

These claims—the bad news and the good—are more than two millennia old, but they’re now getting important support from evolutionary psychology, the modern study of how natural selection engineered the human mind. Evolutionary psychology gives Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament a back story. It explains why humans are prone to illusions and to suffering and why the two problems are related. And this explanation can strengthen the Buddhist prescription, adding to the power of mindfulness meditation in particular.

Mindfulness meditation is an exercise in attention. It involves calming the mind—typically by focusing on the breath—and then using the resulting equanimity to observe things with unusual care and clarity. The things observed can include sounds, physical sensations or anything else in the field of awareness. But perhaps most important is the careful observation of feelings, because feelings play such a powerful role in guiding our perceptions, thoughts and behavior.

And here is where an evolutionary perspective can be helpful. Mindfulness calls for a kind of skepticism toward feelings. Rather than automatically following their guidance, you critically inspect them and decide which ones to trust. Evolutionary psychology helps to explain why this skepticism is warranted—why so many human feelings are unreliable guides. We don’t generally think of Darwin and the Buddha as being on the same wavelength, but in this and other ways their worldviews turn out to harmonize nicely.

The Darwinian account of the human situation, like the Buddhist account, begins with bad news. The process that created us, natural selection, is indifferent to whether we are happy or sad, enlightened or deluded. Ultimately, natural selection only cares about one thing (or, I should say, “cares”—in quotes—since natural selection is just a blind process, not a conscious designer). And that one thing is getting genes into the next generation. Genetically based mental traits—including particular feelings—that in the past contributed to genetic proliferation have flourished, while traits that didn’t have fallen by the wayside. Whether those feelings—and the thoughts and perceptions those feelings shape—give us a true view of reality is, strictly speaking, beside the point. So is whether they make us happy or miserable.

Take anxiety, for example. Evolutionary psychologists consider anxiety to be natural, grounded in our genes. After all, worrying about things can lead you to do something about those things. If you worry that your toddler, who seems to have wandered off somewhere, may get devoured by a beast, you’ll go make sure your toddler is safe—which, not incidentally, means making sure that copies of your genes are safe.

Of course, anxiety is unpleasant. But natural selection doesn’t care about that. It doesn’t even care that some of this unpleasantness will be for naught—that your toddler turned out to be in the hut next door, and the nightmare scenario that for a moment seemed so real was all in your head. Better safe than sorry, from natural selection’s point of view. “False positives” are a feature, not a bug, even though they make you suffer by fostering an illusion.

According to evolutionary psychology, our natural anxieties include social anxieties. The ancestral environment—the hunter-gatherer milieu in which humans evolved—featured lots of social interaction, and this interaction had consequence for a person’s genes. If you had low status in the group and few friends, that cut your chances of spreading your genes, so impressing people mattered.

Similarly, if your offspring didn’t thrive socially, that boded ill for their reproductive prospects, and hence for your genes. So it made sense, in Darwinian terms, for our ancestors to worry about what people thought of them and their offspring.

Here, too, false positives could arise. Our ancestors presumably worried about some things in their social environment that turned out not to be worth worrying about. But we moderns have things even worse. The false-positive problem can be compounded by the fact that anxiety no longer operates in the environment for which natural selection designed it.

Consider an artifact that has never been found by archaeologists unearthing the remnants of a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer village: PowerPoint. One thing our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t do was give presentations to an audience consisting largely of people they didn’t know. Maybe that’s why the prospect of doing this fills some people with overwhelming anxiety: Anxieties designed for a small and fairly intimate social environment get amplified by an environment that is neither.

This doesn’t mean that anxiety about public speaking is worthless. Worrying about your PowerPoint presentation can lead to a better presentation.

But let’s face it: Though this anxiety is sometimes productive, it often isn’t. There are people who, before a presentation, are beset by images of themselves spontaneously vomiting while talking to a crowd—even though, come to think of it, they’ve never spontaneously vomited while talking to a crowd. In a particularly perverse twist on PowerPoint anxiety, I’ve been known to lie awake the night before a big presentation worrying that if I don’t get to sleep I’ll do a bad job the next day.

I defy anyone to argue that this is natural selection’s way of increasing my chances of surviving and reproducing. So too with other modern social anxieties: a sense of dread before going to a cocktail party that, in fact, is unlikely to lead to anything worth dreading; or worrying about how your child is doing at her first slumber party, something you’re powerless to influence. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t have to navigate roomfuls of people they had never met, or send their children off to sleep in homes they had never seen—and that, presumably, is why these occasions can bring powerful yet typically unproductive anxiety.

This mismatch between our evolved nature and the environment in which we find ourselves isn’t just a modern phenomenon. For thousands of years, there have been social environments that weren’t the ones people were designed for. The Buddha was born to a royal family, which means that he lived in a society with clusters of population much bigger than a hunter-gatherer village. And there is evidence that people were being called on to speak before large audiences and that something like PowerPoint anxiety had taken shape. In one discourse, the Buddha’s list of common fears included the “fear of embarrassment in assemblies.”

That people were, even in the Buddha’s day, experiencing an uncomfortable mismatch between the environment their feelings were engineered for and the environment in which they found themselves may help to explain Buddhism’s early emphasis on meditative practice. The meditation that is described in ancient texts would have made people more aware of their feelings—in a sense more objectively aware of them—and so less reflexively governed by them. This remains a central goal of mindfulness meditation today.

And it can work. I have a daily meditation practice—periodically recharged by silent meditation retreats of a week or more—and I have more than once used meditation to deal with intense anxiety. In the middle of the night before a big talk, I have even sat up in bed, meditated, and gotten to a point where I viewed a knot of anxiety with such calm objectivity that it might as well have been a piece of abstract art I was contemplating in a museum. It entirely lost its grip on me, after which it disappeared. Perhaps Buddhists more than two millennia ago had much the same experience when meditating on “fear of speaking in assemblies.”

There is no doubt, however, that the modern environment surpasses the Buddha’s environment in its power to warp our feelings about, hence our perception of, the world. Consider powdered sugar doughnuts.

I have warm feelings toward them—so warm that, if I were guided only by my feelings, I would eat them for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and between-meal snacks. Yet I’m told that eating that many doughnuts would be bad for me—that my feeling of attraction to powdered-sugar doughnuts is not to be trusted. This is hard news to take.

How could natural selection let something like this happen—give me feelings that don’t even do a good job of taking care of the body containing my genes? Well, natural selection designed our feelings for an environment with no junk food, an environment in which the sweetest thing available was fruit. So a sweet tooth, and the feelings it inspires, served us well. But in the modern world, which features the achievement of culinary science known as “empty calories,” these feelings become misleading.

Or, I should say, more misleading. Fundamental to Buddhism is the idea that craving in general—tanha, as it’s called in ancient texts—is inherently misleading. Regardless of what we thirst after—junk food, healthful food, sex—the thirst, the tanha, fosters an illusion of enduring gratification. When I see anything tasty, I imagine how good it will taste, not how that satisfaction will inevitably fade, leading to the desire for more.

This was one of the Buddha’s main messages: that the pleasures we seek evaporate quickly and leave us thirsting for more. We spend our time looking for the next gratifying thing—the next doughnut, the next sexual encounter, the next status-enhancing promotion, the next online purchase. But the thrill always fades, and it always leaves us wanting more. The old Rolling Stones lyric “I can’t get no satisfaction” is, according to Buddhism, the human condition. Though the Buddha is famous for asserting that life is full of suffering, some scholars say that’s an incomplete rendering of his message and that the word translated as “suffering,” dukkha, could be translated as “unsatisfactoriness.”

From natural selection’s point of view, dooming an animal to relentlessly recurring unsatisfactoriness is a wonderful idea. After all, if pleasure didn’t subside, we’d never seek it again. Our first meal would be our last, because hunger would never return. So too with sex: a single act of intercourse, and then a lifetime of lying there basking in the afterglow. That’s no way to get lots of genes into the next generation! Contentment is nice while it lasts, but it evaporates by design.

Much in the modern world—from junk food to pornography to nicotine to the Facebook algorithm that governs your news feed—has been engineered to intensify tanha, our unquenchable desire for more.

What to do? One approach is to meditate: Observe particular cravings mindfully, thus weakening them. This is challenging—more challenging than meditating on anxiety, I’d say—but there’s evidence that it can work. A study involving 88 smokers, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence in 2011, found that this kind of mindfulness training more effectively treated nicotine addiction than the American Lung Association’s Freedom From Smoking program, which offers group counseling and a menu of therapies such as nicotine patches.

Regular mindfulness meditation can also undermine craving in a more general way. It can lessen the urgency of finding the next big thing by deepening your appreciation of things that you already have.

Buddhism’s list of unfortunate human illusions is long. It includes misconceptions about the “self” that we think of as being at our core and misconceptions about the nature of the things that we see in the world, including other humans. And many of these illusions can plausibly be explained as having been implanted in us by natural selection to serve its agenda—an agenda that doesn’t put a priority on seeing the world as it actually is or on finding lasting happiness in the world that we do see.

It is a tribute to Buddhism that it sized up the human predicament more than two millennia before science got around to discovering the origins of that predicament. But it would be unlike the Buddha to boast about this. If he were around today, he might instead thank Darwin for the corroboration, for explaining how humans wound up being prone to illusion and to attendant suffering. And if Darwin were around today, and joined the mindfulness meditation movement, he might thank the Buddha for coming up with a way to address the problem.

This essay is adapted from Mr. Wright’s new book, “Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment,” which will be published by Simon & Schuster on Aug. 8. His previous books include “The Evolution of God,” “Nonzero” and “The Moral Animal.”

Proven Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation

By: Joe Leech

The ancient practice of meditation – particularly mindfulness meditation – has recently surged in popularity.

In fact, in the U.S. about 8 percent of adults and 1.6 percent of children have tried it already.

This is because the health benefits of mindfulness meditation are incredibly impressive… and supported by scientific studies.

This article explores the health conditions and diseases it may help with.

What is Mindfulness Meditation?

Meditation is the ancient practice of connecting the body and mind to become more self-aware and present (1).

There is a range of different meditation styles, but the most popular are:

  • Focused Attention (Vipassana)
  • Transcendental
  • Mindfulness

Most techniques emerged from a religious or spiritual context, but most now practice outside of these traditional settings.

Mindfulness is a specific approach that can be used alone or with other meditation techniques.

It’s most commonly defined as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

Mindfulness meditation is the most well-studied in health research. Scientific literature may also refer to it as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which are types of mindfulness training.

I’ll refer to it as mindfulness in this article from here on.

Summary: Mindfulness is a form of meditation that is the most well-studied in health literature. It’s an ancient practice that emphasizes presence of mind and focus.

Reducing Stress is the Secret Sauce

Mindfulness appears helpful in a wide spectrum of health conditions.

It’s not understood why, but stress reduction appears to be the common link.

Stress is associated with decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, thought to be problematic. Mindfulness allows for conscious thinking in the prefrontal cortex, which may reverse this pattern of brain activity under stress (2).

 

Under high stress there are high levels of catecholamine release in brain, which weaken prefrontal cortex function. Click to enlarge. Image source.

It makes sense then that those who regularly practice mindfulness tend to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. At least, that’s what early research indicates (34).

For these reasons most experts suspect the ability of mindfulness to reduce stress is the key reason to its benefits.

Summary: Mindfulness appears to reduce stress and markers of stress. This is important as many health conditions are worsened by stress.

Mindfulness Meditation For Anxiety and Depression

Mindfulness has a direct effect on mental health.

Evidence is strongest for anxiety (General Anxiety Disorder) and depression, two of the most common mental health conditions worldwide.

Anxiety

Anxiety causes chronic, excessive, and often uncontrollable worry.

Unfortunately up to 60 percent of patients do not improve with conventional treatment, such as medications and psychotherapy (5).

Studies show mindfulness can help.

In one clinical trial of 89 patients with anxiety, one group undertook an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR), while the other group received 8 weeks of stress management education.

Members of both groups who participated in just one or more sessions showed symptom improvement, assessed by the Hamilton Anxiety Scale.

However, the MBSR group showed much greater improvement than the stress management group when additional anxiety symptom scales were used (5).

 

Change in symptom scores for three anxiety measures after Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. The lower the number the better. Click to enlarge.

Other studies have found similar benefits, particularly when mindfulness is used alongside anxiety medication (6).

Depression

Clinical depression is complex disorder characterized by low mood and avoidance of usual activities.

Conventional care includes medication and psychotherapy. Unfortunately, many patients relapse with this protocol or do not comply with medication regimens (7).

Research suggests that mindfulness can help prevent relapse for those who do not wish to use maintenance antidepressants.

In one study (7):

  • One group of 28 patients with major depressive disorder in remission received maintenance antidepressants
  • The second group of 26 patients gradually discontinued antidepressants while receiving an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) program
  • The third group of 30 patients gradually discontinued medications while receiving placebo pills under clinical supervision.

Compared to the placebo group, the mindfulness and antidepressant groups showed equally reduced likelihood of relapse. Keep in mind the mindfulness group were weaned off antidepressants.

 

Proportion of unstable remitters who survived without relapse during maintenance/follow up. M-ADM = maintenance antidepressant pharamacotherapy, MBCT = taper + Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy and PLA+CLIN = taper + pill placebo and clinical management. Click to enlarge.

Data from several studies suggests mindfulness and antidepressants are comparable for treating mild to moderate symptoms of depression (8).

This certainly does not suggest those with depression should discontinue medications. However, mindfulness does show promise as an alternative, and certainly as therapy alongside antidepressants.

Summary: Studies indicate it’s useful for managing anxiety compared to conventional stress management practices. It may also be an effective alternative to antidepressants for those at risk of depression relapse.

Mindfulness Meditation and Weight Loss

Obesity rates worldwide have more than doubled in the past 36 years.

Research is now heavily focused on prevention and treatment strategies.

Mindfulness is promising as it has been shown to help limit stress and stress-related overeating (1011).

It can also increase awareness of hunger and satiety cues, a concept known as mindful eating (12).

A very large observational study showed a relationship between mindfulness and reduced risk of being overweight or obese. Although it was not able to prove that mindfulness causes lower body weight (13).

Results from smaller clinical trials are promising, but we can’t make solid conclusions yet (1415).

 

Average weight change by group condition among overweight versus obese participants. Mindfulness dramatically reduced cortisol awakening response in obese but not overweight subjects. Click to enlarge.

It makes sense that mindful eating is beneficial for weight loss given our modern, fast-paced, fast food lifestyles.

Summary: Research has shown a link between mindfulness and healthy body weight, but more research is needed.

Mindfulness Meditation and Metabolic Risk Factors

Metabolic syndrome is a group of symptoms that raise risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

You are considered to have metabolic syndrome if you have three or more of the following symptoms:

Observational studies have shown that metabolic syndrome is less common among those who use mind-body practices, including mindfulness (16).

Smaller clinical studies have explored the cause-effect relationships between mindfulness and metabolic risk. Interestingly, improvements to metabolic risk were seen in studies that showed no significant reduction in body weight (15).

In one study of 194 obese adults, the first group received diet and exercise advice, and the second received that same advice plus an all-day mindfulness retreat.

Compared to the first group, the mindfulness group showed significantly improved cholesterol and triglycerides after 12 months, and better fasting glucose levels after 18 months (15).

 

Changes in weight, fasting glucose, and triglyceride/HDL ratio for mindfulness and control groups from baseline to 18 months. Lower values are better for all 3 measures. Click to enlarge.

Other studies have shown mindfulness may improve blood pressure in those with hypertension, as well as exercise capacity and heart rate in those with heart disease (1718).

The mechanism for these changes is still unknown, but it’s suspected that mindfulness can alter the autonomic nervous system, which regulates blood pressure, breathing, and heart rate (17).

Summary: Mindfulness appears to improve certain metabolic risk factors, even without weight loss. In particular triglycerides, cholesterol ratios, blood sugar levels and blood pressure.

Mindfulness Meditation and the Gut Microbiome

The human body is full of bacteria.

These bacteria make up the human microbiome, mostly located in the large intestine or “gut”.

Alterations and imbalances in the microbiome may contribute to inflammation, weakened immunity, and maybe even weight gain (19).

Very small, early studies on humans have shown a correlation between psychological stress, stress hormones, and changes in microbial composition (20).

In theory then, mindfulness based stress reduction could be a way to help prevent negative changes in the microbiome.

This has so far been tested in rodent studies designed to place mice in stressful situations (1921).

Increased stress seems to dramatically alter the types of bacteria in a mouse’s gut, which has been observed multiple times.

Interestingly, this shift in bacteria does indeed increase inflammatory marker levels in the blood, which has huge implications for many common health conditions.

Summary: Research has linked psychological stress to changes in the microbiome, which could theoretically contribute to illness. But more human studies are needed to determine if mindfulness can help maintain a healthy microbiome.

Mindfulness Meditation and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common health problem, affecting 7-10 percent of the world population (22).

The exact causes of IBS are unknown, but it’s likely multifactorial. Gut microbiome imbalance, stress and other psychological issues are suspected triggers (19232425).

Considering the potential benefits of mindfulness on each of those triggers, it makes sense it helps with IBS management.

In one study of 43 IBS patients, the group who received mindfulness training showed significantly greater reductions in IBS symptoms than the group who received standard medical care (26).

These benefits were still noticeable after 6-months.

Other small studies have shown 30 minutes of mindfulness activity per day to help with IBS symptoms, although these weren’t well-designed (2728).

Summary: Small studies indicate that mindfulness may help relieve IBS symptoms. This makes sense given the suspected triggers of IBS are stress and psychological-related.

Mindfulness Meditation and Pregnancy

Stress during pregnancy has been associated with negative health outcomes, including preeclampsia, hypertension, and low birth weight (293031).

Small studies have shown that mindfulness may lessen pregnancy-related stress.

In one study of 74 pregnant Indian women, participants who received twice-weekly mindfulness sessions for 5 weeks showed significantly reduced perceived stress than the control group (32).

This suggests mindfulness could very well be beneficial in reducing day-to-day perceived stress during pregnancy, but much more research is needed.

Summary: A small study shows that mindfulness reduces perceived stress in pregnant moms at 12 weeks gestation. More research is needed though.

Mindfulness Meditation and Cancer

In 2012, there were 14.1 million new cases of cancer worldwide.

The number of new cases per year is expected to increase 68 percent by 2030.

Mindfulness has been shown to significantly improve symptoms and side effects from cancer and its treatment. This includes stress, anxiety, depression, vitality, fatigue, and sleep levels (3334353637).

Newer studies suspect that mindfulness may also help to treat cancer progression in the first place. In particular, markers of cancer activity in breast cancer.

The mechanism for this is still under investigation, but stress reduction appears to play a key role (3839).

In one study of 128 stage I to III breast cancer patients who had completed standard medical treatment:

  • One group of 53 patients attended eight, 90-minute mindfulness-based educational sessions, plus a 6-hour mindfulness retreat.
  • The second group of 49 patients attended a 90-minute group supportive-expressive therapy (SET) sessions once a week for 12 weeks.
  • The third control group of 26 patients attended single 6-hour stress management session.

Compared to the mindfulness and SET groups, the control group had significantly shorter telomeres following the intervention.

Telomeres protect the structure of DNA. Shorter telomeres have been linked to disease progression and mortality in breast cancer and leukemia (3940).

Although it could have exciting implications for cancer treatment, it’s important to remember this is an emerging area of research. Mindfulness should not replace standard cancer care, but instead be used alongside it.

Summary: There is potential that mindfulness can positively influence cancer progression, or at least breast cancer. At a minimum, mindfulness appears to improve certain cancer symptoms and treatment side effects.

Mindfulness Meditation For Beginners

The potential health benefits of mindfulness meditation are very impressive.

It’s a harmless practice that can only be good for us.

If you are a beginner looking to explore the benefits of mindfulness, many free resourcesare available online.

I personally use Headspace, which is a guided meditation app for beginners available on iPhone and Android. It’s free for 10 sessions, and is a great way to understand what it’s all about.

This post originally appeared on Diet vs Disease as Science Confirms: Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation Are Legit