The Net is flooded with links about the benefits of meditation on physical health, emotional stability, addictions control and everything else that helps us to live in harmony. If meditation is so valuable and it only demands us sitting down to observe our inner world, a couple of obvious questions arise: How many people meditate? Why are not there more meditators?
As we barely found data, we decided to carry out our own survey on the subject (sorry it is in Spanish). According to the results (<- click here), one-third (30%) of the 119 participants meditate regularly. Another third (37%) have attended a few meditation sessions, have taken formal courses, or practice with low frequency. The final third (33%) reported reduced or zero interest in this practice. (In two other parallel surveys we conducted in English, with very limited participation, 9 of the 17 respondents consider themselves to be dedicated meditators).
The percentages so obtained about dedicated meditators seem on the high side. Many of those who answered the survey are regular readers of my writings and likely to be formal meditators who could be skewing the sample. According to a more comprehensive 2012 study on the same subject
(<- see here) carried out by the US National Institutes of Health, the world’s largest biomedical research agency, 8% of American adults (some eighteen million) reported to practice some form of meditation.
We could not get more recent figures, but the proportion of meditators in the contemporary world, echoing the current media noise on the subject, is sharply on the rise and should have increased significantly over the past five years.
An additional problem affecting this kind of analysis is the very meaning of the word. Meditation, in addition to the common connotation of “the activity of thinking carefully and thoroughly about something”, is any practice in which the mind is appeased in some way. Here are, for example, hatha yoga, tai chi and the walking meditation of Tibetan Buddhism. For the purposes of our survey, however, we focused on those methods that promote body stillness, sensory isolation and mental calm.
With this differentiation in mind, meditation is an exercise during which meditators, sitting in a comfortable position, in silence and in a quiet environment, with their eyes closed, adopt a passive attitude and focus attention on some mental device (body part, mantra, image, sound…). Meditation thus defined took its first large surge in the West after the Beatles’ well-advertised reclusion at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Retreat Center in Rishikesh, India, in February 1968.
Mindfulness meditation, a variation even more clear-cut than the one described in the previous paragraph, is the way of meditating in which the mental device is some place or function of our organism (e. g., the breathing, the sensations or the area under the nose). This technique, of Buddhist origin, is the one that has generated, in the 21st century, the second and extraordinary boom of meditation in the Americas and Europe. As a consequence of the possible variations in details between the different modalities, it is difficult to specify through a questionnaire the exact technique that someone is using.
Surveys, in general, are interesting and persuasive, but … The British Brexit, the plebiscite on the peace agreement in Colombia and the election of Donald Trump in the United States showed that surveys can be misleading. In the subject of this note, therefore, we can conclude that the questions to consider would prove more useful if they are self-formulated, even if they cannot be compared as it is possible to do with the results of open studies.
Except for the trivial enthusiasm that would be generated by being with the trend of the moment, we should have little interest in the exact data of how many people do meditation; the order of magnitude is good enough: high and growing. The benefits achieved by others are not of our concern, except when they are close to us. If other people reduce alcohol consumption, become more efficient, decrease their aggressiveness, or recover from digestive trouble… excellent for them. So what? The questions we must ask ourselves and whose answers do indeed affect us significantly are rather “how often do I meditate and whether I could do it more assiduously.”
Atlanta, December 10, 2016