As we entered the final stages of writing this book, Catherine and I struggled to make sense of all the evidence we’d gathered, and of the range of contradictory emotions we felt – surprise, tiredness, angst, joy and confusion – over the course of writing it.
The truth is that neither of us had ever expected to find so many frailties with the scientific literature, and much less to encounter a dark side of meditation. But these faults don’t lie with the technique itself; it’s much more likely that it’s our heightened expectations and unguided meditation practice that are dangerous.
For the secularized mind, meditation fills a spiritual vacuum; it brings the hope of a better, happier individual and the ideal of a peaceful world. That meditation was primarily designed not to make us happier but to destroy our sense of individual self – who we feel and think we are most of the time – is often overlooked in the science and media stories.
Let’s review what we found out about the personal changes meditation can bring about, by juxtaposing the myths with the scientific evidence.
Meditation produces a unique state of consciousness that we can measure scientifically.
Research on Transcendental Meditation published in the early 1970s claimed that meditation produced a state of consciousness different from sleep, waking or hypnosis, and that scientists could assess this state in a person’s physiology or brain activity. Claims about the unique effects of meditation are not something of the past: emerging neuroscience studies on the effects of meditation sometimes argue that mindfulness or compassion meditation regulates emotion in a unique way (an example of this is the idea that compassion meditation can activate a unique neural marker for altruism).
Meditation produces states of consciousness that we can indeed measure using various scientific instruments. However, the overall evidence is that these states are not physiologically unique. Furthermore, although different kinds of meditation may have diverse effects on consciousness (and on the brain), there is as yet no scientific consensus about what these effects are.
If everyone meditated the world would be a much better place.
Meditation researchers, both from the Hindu-based TM and Buddhist-based mindfulness traditions, have claimed that meditation can reduce aggression and increase compassionate feelings and behaviours. Various studies have been produced on this topic, from sociological studies on the reduction of crime to brain-imaging research on the increase of positive emotions.
All world religions share the belief that following their practices and ideals will make us better individuals. So far, there is no clear scientific evidence that meditation is more effective in making us more compassionate or less aggressive than other spiritual or psychological practices. Research on this topic has serious methodological and theoretical limitations and biases. A meta-analysis published in 2018 has uncovered that some of the research on the ‘pro-social’ effects of meditation was biased by the positive expectations of researchers: a number of studies only showed that participants experienced an increase in compassion when the meditation teacher was a co-author in the published paper.
If you’re seeking personal change and growth, meditating is as or more efficient than having therapy.
Mindfulness as a mental health intervention is becoming more popular. Healthcare services, city councils and universities offer eight-week courses on mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). A number of clinical trials have shown that mindfulness can help people with mental health problems such as recurrent depression.
There is very little evidence that an eight-week mindfulness-based group programme has the same benefits as those of being in conventional psychological therapy – most studies compare mindfulness with ‘treatment as usual’ (such as seeing your GP), rather than individual therapy. Although mindfulness interventions are group-based and most psychological therapy is conducted on a one-to-one basis, both approaches involve developing an increased awareness of our thoughts, emotions and way of relating to others. But the levels of awareness probably differ. A therapist can encourage us to examine conscious or unconscious patterns within ourselves, whereas these might be difficult to access in a one-size-fits-all group course, or if we were meditating on our own.
Meditation can benefit everyone.
Meditation, including mindfulness, is popularly presented and endorsed as a technique for improved wellbeing, inner peace and happiness that works for any individual. Packaged and sold in an increasingly super-charged, secularized way as a magic pill for anyone feeling the pressures and stresses of 21st-century life, modern meditation is being widely touted as today’s cure-all. With some exceptions, scientists who study this technique have seldom challenged this view of meditation as a panacea.
The idea that meditation is a cure-all – and for all – lacks scientific basis. ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison’ reminds Arnold Lazarus when writing about meditation. Although there has been relatively little research looking at how individual circumstances – such as age, gender or personality type – might play a role in the value of meditation, there is a growing awareness that meditation works differently for each individual.
For example, it may provide an effective stress-relief technique for individuals facing serious life problems (such as being unemployed), but have little value for low-stressed individuals. Or it may benefit depressed individuals who suffered trauma and abuse in their childhood, but not other depressed people. There is also some evidence that – along with yoga – it can be of particular use to prisoners, for whom it improves psychological wellbeing and, perhaps more importantly, encourages better control over impulsivity.
We shouldn’t be surprised about meditation having quite variable benefits from person to person: after all, the practice wasn’t intended to make us happier or less stressed, but to assist us in diving deep within and challenging who we believe we are.
Meditation has no adverse or negative effects. It will change you for the better (and only the better).
There is an expectation that meditation leads to self-discovery and healing, or even produces a highly moral compassionate character, and has no ill effects.
On the surface of things, it’s easy to see why this myth might come to light. After all, sitting in silence, focusing on your breathing, would seem like a fairly innocuous activity with little potential for harm. Before writing this book we weren’t aware of the dark side of meditation either. Discussing this with Swami Ambikananda, she nodded, saying, ‘The way I like to explain it is: when you cook, the scum rises to the surface.’ When you think how many of us when worried, or in difficult life circumstances, may cope by keeping ourselves very busy so that we don’t think, it isn’t that much of a surprise that sitting without distractions, with only ourselves, might lead to disturbing emotions rising to the surface.
However, for a very long time scientists have neglected the study of the unexpected and harmful consequences of meditation. In 1977, the American Psychiatric Association issued a position statement recommending that ‘research should be undertaken in the form of well-controlled studies to evaluate the possible specific usefulness, indications, contraindications, and dangers of meditation techniques’. But for the past forty years, research on this topic has been minimal compared to that looking for the benefits of meditation. This is now slowly changing with new research emerging, which suggests that there is a wide range of adverse events associated with meditation, such as an increase in anxiety, stress, depression and, in the most extreme cases, psychosis and suicidal thoughts and attempts.
Science has unequivocally shown how meditation can change us and why.
When scientists started studying meditation in the 1960s, the practice was surrounded in an aura of exoticism. Many thought it was unworthy of scientific attention. Since then thousands of studies have shown that it produces various kinds of measurable psychobiological effects.
Meta-analyses show there is moderate evidence that meditation affects us in various ways, such as increasing positive emotions and reducing anxiety. However, it is less clear how powerful and long-lasting these changes are. Some studies show that meditating can have a greater impact than physical relaxation, although other research using a placebo meditation contradicts this finding. We need better studies but, perhaps as important, we also need models that explain how meditation works. For example, with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), we still can’t be sure about what is actually the ‘active’ ingredient. Is it the meditation itself that causes positive effects, or is it the fact that the participant learns to step back and become aware of his or her thoughts and feelings in a supportive group environment?
There simply is no cohesive, overarching attempt to describe the various psychobiological processes that meditation sets in motion. Unless we can clearly map the effects of meditation – both the positive and the negative – and identify the processes underpinning the practice, our scientific understanding of meditation is precarious, and can easily lead to exaggeration and misinterpretation.
We can practise meditation as a purely scientific technique with no religious or spiritual leanings.
The origins of the practice of meditation lie in religious traditions. However, scientists have cut away religion from the technique, so that we can use it therapeutically in a secular environment.
In principle it’s possible to meditate and be uninterested in meditation’s spiritual background. However, research shows that meditation leads us to become more spiritual, and that this increase in spirituality is partly responsible for the practice’s positive effects. So, even if we set out to ignore meditation’s spiritual roots, those roots may nonetheless envelop us, to a greater or lesser degree. One important illustration of this ambiguity concerns Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed the first secular mindfulness meditation intervention. He claims that the idea for his secular model emerged like a vision at the end of a ten-day meditation retreat, where he realized that it was his ‘karmic assignment’ to make Buddhist meditation available to everyone.
Copyright 2015 and 2019 by Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm.
Published by Watkins, an imprint of Watkins Media Limited.
All Rights Reserved. www.watkinspublishing.com
The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?
by Dr Miguel Farias and Dr Catherine Wikholm
In The Buddha Pill, pioneering psychologists Dr Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm put meditation and mindfulness under the microscope. Separating fact from fiction, they reveal what scientific research – including their groundbreaking study on yoga and meditation with prisoners – tells us about the benefits and limitations of these techniques for improving our lives. As well as illuminating the potential, the authors argue that these practices may have unexpected consequences, and that peace and happiness may not always be the end result.
About the Authors
Dr Miguel Farias has pioneered brain research on the pain alleviating effects of spirituality and the psychological benefits of yoga and meditation. He was educated in Macao, Lisbon and Oxford. Following his doctorate, he was a researcher at the Oxford Centre for the Science of Mind and a lecturer at the Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford. He currently leads the Brain, Belief and Behaviour group at the Centre for Research in Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement, Coventry University. Find out more about him at: http://miguelfarias.co.uk/
Catherine Wikholm read Philosophy and Theology at Oxford University before going on to do a Masters in Forensic Psychology. Her strong interest in personal change and prisoner rehabilitation led her to be employed by HM Prison Service, where she worked with young offenders. She has since been working in NHS mental health services and is currently completing a practitioner doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the University of Surrey. Miguel and Catherine worked together on a ground-breaking research study investigating the psychological effects of yoga and meditation in prisoners. Find out more at www.catherinewikholm.com