With mindfulness meditation gaining so much popularity over the past few decades, and seemingly even more so in the past ten or 15 years, it can seem as if just about everyone has taken up the practice. According to a recent research article (Burke et al, 2017) based on data from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), approximately 3.1% of adults in the United States had practiced spiritual meditation, 1.9% had practiced mindfulness meditation, and 1.6% had practiced mantra meditation over the past 12 months. Not as many as you might have guessed, but this means 7.0, 4.3, and 3.6 million people, respectively.
To clarify some terms: With mantra meditation, one focuses on a mentally repeated word or phrase, such as Om, “one”, or a spiritual or religious term. Mindfulness meditation involves being attentive to one’s present experience without reaction or judgment. Spiritual meditation centers on nurturing a clearer comprehension of spiritual or religious truths and a connection with a higher power.
Meditators responding to the survey, which involved over 34,000 people, were most likely to be female, Caucasian, between the ages of 45 and 64, non-Hispanic, college graduates, consumers of other complementary health practices (such as yoga, acupuncture, and vegetarianism), and to report depression.
In addition, meditators were less likely to report obesity, more likely to be physically active, and more likely to visit conventional healthcare providers (such as one’s primary care physician, cardiologist, rheumatologist, etc.) ten or more times in the past year than non-meditators.
It’s possible that some people adopt meditation practices to deal with a chronic health condition, be it physical or emotional. Indeed, meditators had a higher rate of health conditions that limited their ability to function (functional limitations) than non-meditators, along with a greater prevalence of chronic back pain and depression.
However, when the mindfulness meditation group was analyzed regarding reasons for their meditation practice, the number one reason cited (by 73%) was for general wellness and preventative purposes rather than for a specific ailment (30%). Among the top motivations to meditate were stress management, emotional well-being, enhanced feeling of control over health conditions, and better memory and sleep. Meditation’s being perceived as self-care oriented, holistic, and natural appealed strongly to this population.
It’s interesting that the greatest number of meditators were found in the spiritual meditation group. This may be due partially to the incorporation of this form of meditation in various religious cultures, as the authors suggest.
Another intriguing finding is that those identifying as former drinkers were most likely to practice spiritual meditation. Perhaps, as the study authors suggest, this reflects the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous and other treatments for alcohol abuse which encourage meditation, prayer, and greater connection with one’s higher power, however that power might be defined.
One significant finding is that only 13% of people surveyed reported that their medical doctor had suggested meditation to them. Given the vast amount of research showing the many health benefits of meditation, this is surprising. However, it also indicates that if more medical doctors recommend meditation to patients, the overall state of their patients’ health might eventually markedly improve.