Meditation can reduce heart rate, lower blood pressure and improve mental health, thus relieving the harmful effects of stress. But does it matter whether the meditation is spiritual in nature or not? A study by Amy Wachholtz and Kenneth Pargament at Bowling Green State University suggests it does. They trained 25 student participants in spiritual meditation and 21 participants in secular meditation. The two groups received identical training except that the spiritual group were instructed to concentrate on a phrase such as “God is joy”, or “God is love” whereas the secular group were instructed to concentrate on a phrase such as “I am content” or “I am joyful”. Before the training, participants in the two groups did not differ on demographics or spirituality. A control group of 22 participants were taught to relax and to avoid stressful thoughts. All participants were then asked to practise their technique for 20 minutes a day for two weeks.
After two weeks, the spiritual meditation group reported lower anxiety, more positive mood, and greater spirituality than the secular meditation and control groups. Moreover, the spiritual group participants were able to withstand holding their hand in icy water (a measure of pain tolerance) for twice as long as the other participants. “The current study suggested that spiritual therapeutic techniques may be more effective than secular techniques”, the authors said.
Elizabeth Valentine at Royal Holloway, University of London told New Scientist magazine the finding could be explained by a placebo effect. “Participants in the spiritual group might simply have expected benefits because they were practicing ‘real’ meditation”, she said. But lead author Amy Wachholtz rejected this argument. She told the Digest: “It is unlikely that the effects were simply due to placebo because of the inclusion of the secular meditation condition. It is interesting that Professor Valentine described the spiritual meditation practice as the ‘real’ meditation practice, given that all participants received the exact same training in meditation. There are a number of meditation practices in both the popular culture and in use by psychologists that are described as secular forms of meditation. Therefore assignment to a secular meditation practice would not necessarily be deemed a lesser or unusual meditation practice by participants”.
Wachholtz, A.B. & Pargament, K.I. (2005). Is spirituality a critical ingredient of meditation? Comparing the effects of spiritual meditation, secular meditation, and relaxation on spiritual, psychological, cardiac, and pain outcomes. Journal of Behavioural Medicine, In Press. DOI: 10.1007/s10865-005-9008-5.