In the Western world, meditation seems to be on the rise. We hear more and more about people around us practicing meditation. An aunt who gives mindfulness training, or a friend who regularly goes on a silent retreat. But we don’t just see this increase in our personal lives. We also see it in popular culture, in our work (e.g. mindfulness exercises), and in (personal development) books, where meditation is becoming more popular.
In the case of personal development, such books may discuss different ways to become happier. Aside from focusing on strengths and happiness (as articulated in an earlier article), books like Solve for Happy or Authentic Happiness often discuss how living in the present can make you happier. And one of the ways to live in the present is through (mindfulness) meditation*.
But though meditation becomes more common, we don’t meditate as much as we would expect on the basis of these books, apps and cultural influence. In fact, on this basis, you would expect meditation to be much more common than it is today. And that the majority of our friends and family members would practice it daily. But why don’t they? Why don’t people meditate more?
*Note that I use ‘meditation’ here as a catch-all definition. There are many different types of meditation, including mindfulness meditation, mantra meditation, movement meditation, loving-kindness meditation, yoga meditation, and many more.
Why We Should Meditate
Before trying to answer this question, it is important to set the stage. Some will surely think: “What’s the problem? I don’t meditate, but who cares? Sitting in silence is not a particularly attractive way to enjoy myself.”
But the problem becomes clear if you look at why we should meditate. And the answer to this question is simple. Practicing meditation daily may result in a range of scientifically proven benefits. From reducing feelings of stress or anxiety to improving sleep quality and (as said before) level of happiness, the advantages of meditation are many*.
I won’t get into this much further, but if there is one thing you take away from this paragraph, it is that meditation can have real tangible effects on our lives and well-being. And this transforms meditation from something religious or esoteric, to something more tangible, having real benefits on the lives of people like you and me.
* In a future article, I would like to list these benefits and see which ones are more scientifically ‘backed’ than others. This is because not all studies on meditation are as scientifically sound as others. For now, I’d like to point you to these two resources which offer an overview of studies on meditation and its potential benefits; The Wikipedia page on Research on Meditation, and this in-depth article from the US Department of Health.
How Many People Meditate?
With these benefits in mind, meditation should be a no-brainer. And indeed, looking at the big picture we see that the absolute amount of people who meditate is significant: apparently, it’s ‘between 200 and 500 million people‘. While this statistic says little (considering also it’s rather imprecise), we can say that in relative terms, around 5% of people on earth meditate daily.
Surprisingly, in Western countries, the percentage of meditators seem to be higher than the average. If we look at the United States, the percentage of American adults meditating rose in five years from 4.1% in 2012 to 14.2% in 2017. Such percentages can also be seen in the Netherlands, where in 2015 around 16 to 21% of Dutch people meditated from time to time.
But though people in (these) Western countries meditate more than the global average, these numbers are still relatively low. If the benefits are so clear, why do just 10-20% of people meditate?
Making Time to Meditate
In my opinion, there are at least three reasons why ‘we’ don’t meditate as much as you would expect. First, despite it having existed for thousands of years and recent scientific studies on meditation, for many people, the practice is not part of their culture; meditation is a foreign concept, only practiced by people other than themselves.
Second, even if we do know the benefits of meditation or meditate ourselves from time to time, we have busy lives. And that means that it’s difficult to find the time to meditate. I wouldn’t be surprised that if we would survey meditators, we would find that the majority would like to meditate more often than they currently do.
With a simple Google search this becomes even more apparent; there are hundreds of articles providing tips on making time to meditate: Schedule your sessions in advance in your calendar; do it right after you wake up; be mindful whenever you’re traveling. These tips and many more work to an extent. But for first-time meditators, finding the time can be a hassle.
Meditating is like Eating Healthy
But perhaps the most important reason why we don’t meditate more, is that meditating is like taking the train instead of the plane; like refraining from smoking; like eating healthy.
What do I mean by this? Well, just like with meditation, the result of (in)action will only manifest over a longer period of time.
Take eating healthy for example. Obesity is on the rise, and we know its cause. But because the impact of eating too much sugar or fat plays out on a longer period of time, it’s very easy to choose fast food over a home-cooked meal. Diabetes won’t hit us the next day. And the exact same thing occurs when it comes to making conscious decisions to help fight the climate crisis, like taking the train instead of the plane. Or when it comes to smoking and its long-term effects on our health.
In each and every one of these cases, we know the negative consequences of taking a certain (in)action over and over again. But making the right decision is difficult because there is no direct feedback loop. This is the same with meditation. If we meditate today, we won’t immediately feel less stressed, sleep better or be happier. In contrast, the result of daily meditation practice plays out over a longer period of time, and that’s why it’s so difficult to keep on keeping on.
To Meditate or Not To Meditate?
So we know the positive effects of meditation, but for many people it’s not a part of their culture. In addition, we often can’t find the time to meditate — and we have to do it again and again and again to enjoy its benefits. Unfortunately, there’s no direct solution to these problems. But we can make a difference in a few ways.
For instance, we can make meditation more accepted by talking about both the practice with friends and family. We can try to make more time for meditation — by using a variety of online tips and mobile apps (like Headspace, Insight Timer, Waking Up, etc.) that help us to meditate and be mindful throughout the day. And in this way, we keep reminding ourselves of the positive effects of meditation, and that daily practice will have long-term benefits. Hopefully, that will get us a long way.