A standard message for motivational speakers and writers of self-help books is to promise that, if you do what the book suggests, you will have success. Often there’s an element of magic to how that success will occur: you stand in a certain way and you’ll be taken seriously, or you think positive thoughts and good things will happen to you, or you drink a particular drink in the morning and you’ll lose weight and feel better. These strategies seem “too good to be true,” or at least “too easy to be true.” Also our life experiences often directly contradict them, as well as scientific studies debunking many similar claims. Unfortunately, meditation often gets categorized with those other “magical” things.
Part of the problem is that those other claims are presented simplistically, without any context. Can the “power stance” help you feel more confident? Well—maybe. The placebo effect is not just about sugar pills. So if you think a pose will make you feel more confident, then it just might. And if you feel more confident, your body language, tone of voice, and even word choice might project confidence, and other people in the room might pick up on these cues, and in turn they might take your ideas more seriously. But the key words here are “might.” Some people will feel more confident after doing a particular stance, and some people won’t. You may feel very confident, but others may still discount your ideas based on gender, accent, appearance, or any number of other factors. So, will strategies like the power stance hurt your chances? Nope. But will they guarantee success? Also nope.
Even if the information is free, it often feels like someone’s trying to sell you on this or that new “life-hack.” I don’t want to be another one of those people, in part because I never was a good salesperson—I ate all my chocolate caramel candy bars in high school, the ones we were supposed to sell to fundraise for choir or band. (And they were really good, too…) I didn’t even want to try door to door selling, because it felt like an imposition on people. I wanted to help people, not bother them.
I’m still this way. I don’t want to bother you. I want to help you. So when I say I think meditation can help you, I mean it. I really do think it can help you. Yes, even those of you who claim you could never meditate because you can’t sit still, you can’t clear your mind, you have too much to do, or you couldn’t possibly be peaceful and don’t really want to be. Even you can benefit from meditation.
But I’ll also be honest: it’s not magic. It’s not guaranteed to make you rich, get you the romantic partner of your dreams, or make you look like a movie star. If those things are your goals, it might help you get there. Many people with conventional types of success—people in business and professional sports in particular—meditate regularly. But the meditation didn’t cause their success; it helped them live the kind of lives on a daily basis that nurtured their success. They gained things from meditation that supported their abilities and efforts. Meditation improved their lives, and that improvement had effects that rippled out, sometimes in predictable but often in unpredictable ways.
Which is why I advocate for meditation for us all, and not just for multimillionaire software engineers and sports stars. I won’t promise money, fame, or love. But I do believe that every person who meditates will gain some benefit.
And what are those benefits? Improved mental focus and clarity. Improved decision-making. Increased emotional resilience. Reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression. Increased immune system function. Increased self-awareness and empathy. Increased motivation to engage in healthy activities and behaviors. There are many lists, much longer than this one.
If you have cancer, will meditation cure your cancer? Probably not. It’s not magic. What it will do is help your responses to the cancer and its effects on your life. By reducing your stress, meditation will help you relax physically. Because our muscles tense in response to pain, and that tension often causes more pain, you may actually reduce your pain. Or maybe you won’t reduce your pain, but you will open a space in your mind where you can think about—and focus on—other things. Maybe you will find that, instead of just reacting to what’s happening to you, you are making choices about what to give your attention to, and how you want to respond.
Most of us are neither billionaires nor diagnosed with a terminal illness. Most of us are muddling our way through ordinary lives, taking medications for allergies and having a dermatologist check out that suspicious-looking mole, going to work in used hatchbacks and saving up for vacations with family, wanting to feel better about ourselves and our lives, wanting more fulfillment or love or something different.
Meditation isn’t magic, but it is a truly helpful tool that will help you do what you want to do. It’s been part of many religious and philosophical traditions for thousands of years—not just Buddhism, although the Buddhist perspective has been particularly helpful for me personally in articulating why meditation can be so helpful. Without getting into Buddhist philosophy, however, let me just point out that meditation re-situates us in the present moment, and in our bodies. Past and future are gently pushed aside. Overstimulated senses—particularly sight, in this age of screens—are given a rest. A brain usually pulled in several directions at once is given a rest, like the dim, quiet room where we allow people with concussions to recover.
I’m not going to give you the hard sell, and I, like many of you, am skeptical of anything that seems too good to be true. I also recognize that the language we use to talk about meditation varies, and you need to find the wording that resonates for you, that makes sense to you. If you dislike the way one writer or guru talks about meditation, try someone else. But don’t dismiss the tool itself. You are building your life, shaping it the best you possibly can. You deserve all the help you can get.