In a pristine office with huge windows overlooking midtown Manhattan, just steps away from the hustle and bustle of Penn Station, the transcendental meditation teacher Bob Roth sits not in flowing garb, but the blazer/pants combination that wouldn’t put him out of place on the streets of New York. Roth often invokes his choice of attire as the reason why he is able to convince skeptics that meditation isn’t “make believe woohoo.”
“Look, I’m not a do-gooder type,” the CEO of the David Lynch Foundation, which helps to teach mindfulness and meditation to prisons and low-income schools, told The Daily Beast. “How much do I have to believe in gravity to know it works? My memory was better, my sleep was better, and I was less uneased [after transcendental meditation]. It works.”
Across the nation, mindfulness and meditation are becoming increasingly part of daily routines and less associated with alternative culture. Everyone from corporate executives looking to wring out every last ounce of productivity in a day to the mom in the park with her kids is exalting meditation and its supposed mental and physical benefits.
But does it work?
We don’t quite know, because mindfulness and meditation haven’t been studied for as long as diseases, for example, or other exercise techniques. The most difficult part of studying mindfulness (the practice of focusing on the present; meditation is the instrument by which that mindfulness can be achieved, perhaps by focusing on slow, methodical breaths or thinking of a single concept) is that it’s nearly impossible to measure how a person has gotten calmer, more focused, and more compassionate with breathing exercises. How do you measure feeling more in the moment?
The fuzziness of the science hasn’t stopped mindfulness and meditation from becoming more mainstream. Last month, Roth released a book, Strength in Stillness: The Power of Transcendental Meditation, that includes glowing notes from celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Russell Brand about how Roth (referred to as “Meditation Bob”) has offered them a simple way towards clarity and focus. (Disclaimer: Roth is the meditation teacher of The Daily Beast’s editor-in-chief, John Avlon). Roth said he’s seen an uptick in clients because of what he termed “the epidemic of stress.” “You can’t get away from anything,” he noted. “You go to a medicine cabinet and reach for Xanax, Adderall, whatever. But there is no magic pill with no side effects that can make you feel less stress.
What makes mindfulness especially appealing to some is the idea that it is this magic pill, that a combination of a few spare moments, deep breathing, and perhaps a mantra, one can achieve a sense of calm no pharmaceutical company can duplicate.
Which makes the skepticism of mindfulness so rampant, so vigorous, and so good for science. Mindfulness, after all, can take various forms: Some have argued for mindfulness while washing dishes, noting every determined scrub to wash away grease and crumbs; others recommend waking up and sitting in bed and simply noticing how the body feels. That it doesn’t necessarily have a formalized method and seems to over-promise on a basic premise of feeling calmer, more rejuvenated, and sharper by simply breathing can certainly seem like an insane proposition.
But Harris wasn’t always a fan of mindfulness, and in fact, he wouldn’t have even considered what he thought of as “complete hippie nonsense” had it not been for an on-air panic attack in 2004.
“I assumed I didn’t have the attention span,” he told The Daily Beast. But after his panic attack, Harris was desperate to change and address not only his anxiety but what he later admitted to be probably induced by drug use, including cocaine and ecstasy, habits he’d picked up to deal with depression after reporting tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, and Palestine.
Harris turned to mindfulness and meditation after reading a book by spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle and wanting to control what he frequently referred to as “the zoo inside your head.” He dove in, researching and practicing, and found that the emerging science of mindfulness “comforted” him into easing into—then embracing—mindfulness. “Science is the lingua franca of our culture,” he said. “And it shows that our brains change from meditation. It’s exercise for the brain.”
But that very insane proposition has a growing legion of devotees who are pointing to the emerging young neuroscience as a reason why it works. Dan Harris, an anchor at ABC News, has literally written the book for skeptics who don’t quite believe that this mindfulness stuff works. His most recent book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, follows the more lengthily titled 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story.He also hosts a popular podcast produced by ABC, 10% Happier, where he talks weekly to celebrities and normal people alike who practice mindfulness.
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