Those who meditate say much about meditation and its benefits, but tend to either overstate or understate its power, so in this article, we’ll look at the long-term benefits of meditation from a balanced perspective. While not veering into exaggeration or fantasy, we’ll be refreshingly honest about its power.
We’ll talk about the subjective long-term benefits of meditation. What I mean is the kind of benefits we can directly contact, rather than neurological benefits, though the two are really two sides of the same coin.
I’ve met dozens of people who say that meditation has transformed their lives. And there is mounting gold-standard scientific evidence that confirms their reports.
I’ll talk about my own experience and back this up with reports I’ve read from other dedicated meditators.
I’m going to use Shinzen Young’s taxonomy of the benefits of meditation, which posits that meditation boosts five specific dimensions of human happiness. This will bring simplicity and clarity to the conversation.
But first, let’s discuss some of the issues with talking about the benefits. This will help us keep our feet on the ground as we engage with this practice.
Caveats of Long-Term Benefits of Meditation
There are some caveats to talking about the long-term benefits of meditation. Many people are drawn to meditation because of its promised effects, which are often skewed and exaggerated in the media. Shiny, dramatic, and promising swift change, advertisements grab our attention but often misrepresent the meditation journey.
Meditation Isn’t A Panacea
Beginner meditators often come in when they’re suffering severe issues and hope that this practice will address all of them in one fell swoop. Sometimes this is an act of escape or an attempt to bypass direct solutions to their problems.
While we can bring the lens of meditation to our life issues, transforming how we deal with them and helping us act more skillfully in difficult times, meditation isn’t a miracle cure for all of life’s problems. Skillful action and escapism are worlds apart, and a healthy approach to meditation inclines us towards the former.
We should also be aware that expecting too much from this practice can lead to self-sabotage and an unwillingness to fully engage with the present moment as it is. We come in with hopes of peace and poise while attempting to bypass or shun our present state of mind. This is entirely counter to the practice of meditation: we need to become radically familiar with ourselves to gain traction with this practice.
Fabricating Positive Change
We should also be aware that improvement in one area of life tends to make us exaggerate or fabricate positive change in other areas. Take exercise, for instance. If persistent exercise brings substantial weight loss, we tend to believe it’s helping us in other ways too – not only have we lost weight, we’re sleeping better, our mood has improved, hey, even our cooking has magically improved!
It’s tempting to want to assign one million benefits to meditation. It’s motivating, it gives us a pat on the back for our hard work, and we get to believe that change is quick and easy. And we all want to believe we’ve found an extraordinary tool that transforms us after a few weeks. But we can become seduced by our illusory progress, and we’re likely to give up when that fleeting progress fades.
The Dangers Of Expecting Too much
Top contemplative scientists have shown that the perceived short-term effects of meditation are more down to expectation and hype rather than objective change. The measurable objective changes are more modest.
So it’s best to be sober and realistic in the early days, realising that the real, lasting effects come after months and years. Sure, there are benefits in the early days, but the deep end of the pool is where the real goodies are.
The good news is that meditation itself can help us deconstruct our grasping. Impatience is no more and no less than an experience in the mind and body. It appears as thoughts, emotions and mental images – the clay we work with in meditation.
So at every point in the journey, we want to hold on to our vision while bracing for hard work, developing supreme intimacy with the present, and fully engaging with the practice. If we’re diligent and receive good instruction, the power of meditation will shine through in the long term.
Now we’ve covered some of the issues with benefits and expecting too much, let’s talk about the five broad long-term benefits of meditation.
The Five Long-Term Benefits of Meditation
According to Shinzen Young, there are five areas of human happiness that meditation fosters. They are: reducing suffering, understanding yourself, increasing fulfillment, making behaviour change, and cultivating a spirit of service to the world.
These five categories all work together. Increasing your fulfillment makes behaviour change more likely; the more you understand yourself, the more control you have over your suffering.
So we’ll look at these somewhat separately, but bear in mind they all interact and are different dimensions of the big-picture process of meditative transformation. Let’s check out the five long-term benefits of meditation.
Long-Term Benefits of Meditation #1: Reduce Suffering
Most of us have daily low-grade suffering along with occasional moments of high-grade suffering. Our turmoil ranges from moments of slight discontent, to moderate illness, to huge life events, like the death of a loved one. We also create suffering over time by holding on to certain thought patterns and emotional habits. This can escalate into clinical depression or an anxiety disorder.
When it comes to emotional suffering, meditation helps us on two fronts. First, it changes how we perceive the issue in the first place. We gain awareness of our tendency to label situations as “bad”, “difficult”, “horrible”, limiting the potential emotional fallout from the get-go.
And in the course of a difficult situation, it helps us see that emotional pain is no more and no less than an experience in our senses. Mindfulness helps you optimally process that experience and penetrate the narrative of suffering and sufferer. It also changes your experience of the pain. You can see it more as flowing energy than a solid, unshakeable lump. This is true of both physical and emotional pain.
We use our mindfulness skills to penetrate the grip of low- and high-grade suffering. You can untangle the separate components of suffering that multiply together to create the experience of it.
To get a taste of this, try my 5-step emotional awareness exercise.
Even during periods of relative happiness, the mind is a suffering generator. It revolves around problems and finding solutions to them, always finding more problems. You take the power away from the mind by penetrating it and being able to see it as ethereal and nebulous.
If you’re not convinced, MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy), which includes many standard mindfulness techniques, is now the UK government’s recommended treatment for people with repeated bouts of depression and anxiety. And Dutch researchers showed that mindfulness-based interventions in depressed patients are as effective as anti-depressants.
If meditation can do this for high-grade suffering, imagine what it can do for the everyday low-grade variety.
As for physical pain, a similar logic applies. But that’s a deep rabbit hole and it deserves an article of its own!
Meditate To Increase Fulfilment
Despite the proliferation of luxuries and experiences now available to common people, not just royalty, our tendency as humans is to miss most of our moments.
We might even spend a lot of time orchestrating great moments, like holidays, weddings, fancy meals, but then in the moment we aren’t fully there. We’re imagining some other moment, dreaming of some better day.
Even when we’re out having the fancy meal, we usually enjoy the first bite or two as we deeply savour the food, then we’re on autopilot again.
To paraphrase Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow states (states of heightened concentration) are pleasant regardless of their content. On the flipside, when we’re decidely unpresent, it doesn’t really matter what we’re experiencing. We could be at a party, or in a gourmet restaurant, or on holiday in the Carribean. If we’re not really there, we’re not happy.
When we are functioning in this mode, we may eat without really tasting, see without really seeing, hear without really hearing, and talk without really knowing what we are saying.John Kabat-Zinn
However, when you’re awake and tuned into your moment-by-moment experience, you start to contact deep satisfaction. Life becomes more vibrant. The beauty of the present moment reveals itself. You fall more and more into the present, even becoming present with your lack of presence!
Your tastes also shift. Rather than asking what can stimulate you and change your inner state, you ask how you can shift your state of attention such that you get more out of every moment. So if you’re waiting in a queue, you can ask: “How can I up my awareness in this moment such that it becomes enjoyable?”
These innocuous moments become vehicles for your meditation practice, along with those we usually file away as unpleasant, neutral or boring.
Meditation isn’t a purely hedonistic pursuit, but think of it this way. Imagine if you got more out of every moment of your life. What effect would that have on your emotions? What effect would that have on your relationships? What effect would that have on your behaviour and your pursuit of pleasure?
Long-Term Benefits of Meditation #3: Meditate To Understand Yourself
Meditation boosts our self-awareness, both on a psychological and a spiritual level.
Practicing the fundamental skills of mindfulness help you see your mind and your body with greater clarity. You can detect what’s going on in your psychological and mental life in many different situations.
You can see how your thoughts and emotions drive you to behave in certain ways. It’s now increasingly used in therapy, coaching, psychology, and medicine for this reason.
In fact, it’s common to hear anecdotes of habits magically dropping away as our practice matures. It seems that with meditation, our body and mind change and grow, ironing out impurities and sub-optimal patterns as they do.
As for the spiritual, the whole notion that we aren’t who we think we are might seem far-fetched, philosophical, perhaps even suspicious to the average person.
Regardless, meditation takes you from your everyday Gross Self to Subtle Self to Causal Self to Witness Self to Non-dual Self. Once you have even a glimpse of these higher selves, your life is never the same again.
While I won’t go the E word (enlightenment) in detail, we have to be aware that this is a natural result of meditation. Meditation is a technology for spiritual enlightenment – indeed, it has been across the world for millennia.
Long-Term Benefits of Meditation #4: Meditate To Improve Behaviour
Meditation helps us make changes to our behaviour. We can use the lessons and skills to untangle old habits and put in place new ones. This goes from gross habits like smoking, drinking and procrastinating to subtle ones like the way we speak.
Quite simply, this is partly because you tune into the mental and emotional processes that contribute all your behaviour. When we’re unaware of these, we make decisions and act from a state of ignorance. Our clarity is dimmed.
Physical symptoms are the body’s alert system. They tell us about its state and its needs. When we’re in touch with our body, we’re more attuned to its signals and more able to respond appropriately. We can see how our bad diet, smoking, drinking or lack of exercise affects the body and our state of mind. This awareness shines a light on all our body’s processes and helps us re-evaluate our habitual ways of living.
Long-Term Benefits of Meditation #5: Meditate To Cultivate Compassion
Meditative paths tend to include a component of service and compassion, with specific practices aimed at strengthening our altruistic muscle.
There is compelling evidence that lovingkindness meditation, a Buddhist practice, increases compassion and willingness to act. Temporary improvements are discernible after short periods of practice.
At its core, meditation uncoils the sense of self, helping you see into your deeper nature. You realise that this is also other people’s deeper nature, helping you tap into a greater sense of unity with others. In fact, you might even come to realise that other people are you, in a very profound, experiential way.
And when you’re dedicated to reducing your levels of suffering, being more fulfilled, understanding yourself and changing your behaviour, you’re also shown in bold relief how humanity usually goes about improving these things – through sub-optimal means.
One last thing! I’m addicted to developmental psychology, and there is research that suggests that meditation boosts our overall level of development. The highest levels of human development are intrinsically altruistic, compassionate, self-transcendent. Could it be that meditation helps us bring our highest self to bear?
Learn more about meditation in my Learn to Meditate series.