There’s no scientific consensus that meditation can cure mind, body or soul. So why do so many drink Buddha-flavored kool-aid?
Before you swallow the kool-aid, consider the myths surrounding mindfulness and meditation.
“It is hard to have a balanced view when the media is full of articles attesting to the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. We need to be aware that the reports of benefits are often inflated… whereas studies that do not discover significant benefits rarely pick up media interest, and negative effects are seldom talked about”, warns Wikholm.1
The University of Surrey and Oxford researchers in clinical psychology found studies that revealed meditation actually raises stress hormones. A US study found that 63% of people on meditation retreats had one adverse side effect, from confusion to panic and depression.2 One in 14 had experienced ‘profoundly adverse effects’.
There is growing evidence that for some people meditation may cause mania, hallucinations, depression and psychosis.
“…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 about it, which focus almost exclusively on the benefits practitioners can expect,” writes Wikholm.
Article originally appeared in The Guardian
Here are seven popular myths about meditation that are not supported by scientific evidence.
Myth 1: Meditation does not have adverse or negative effects. Meditation only changes us for the better
Fact: Many who have researched the benefits of meditation also have personal or professional interest in promoting the mindfulness movement. The emerging evidence is that meditation can be associated with stress, negative effects and mental health problems.
When something goes wrong or if meditation doesn’t work, the problem say meditation advocates, is not with meditation. There’s something wrong with the patient or the practitioner. “It’s not the meditation. She didn’t practice right or must have already been predisposed to psychosis”. This is called blaming the victim.
Myth 2: Meditation can benefit everyone
Fact: No surprise that meditation may have benefits that vary from person to person. “After all, the practice wasn’t intended to make us happier or less stressed”, says Wikholm, “but to assist us in diving deep within and challenging who we believe we are”. Everyone will react differently during the process of dismantling of the individual “self”. Whatever your belief of self is, your mistake is to try use meditation to define it.3
Myth 3: If everyone meditated the world would be a much better place
Fact: “There is no scientific evidence that meditation is more effective at making us, for example, more compassionate than other spiritual or psychological practices”, writes Wikholm. When we expect to benefit from something, we will most likely find or report benefits.
Myth 4: If you’re seeking personal change and growth, meditating is as efficient–or more–than standard therapy
Fact: There’s no evidence that the benefits of meditation are the same or better as of being in conventional psychological therapy. Most studies compare mindfulness to “treatment as usual” (such as seeing your General Medical Practitioner), rather than one-to-one therapy.
Myth 5: Meditation produces a unique state of consciousness that we can measure scientifically
Fact: The overall evidence is that these meditative states are not physiologically unique. The consciousness or internal sensations from practice can be experienced from many other activities: such as during sleep, relaxation, or engaging in sex or our favorite hobby or sport.
Myth 6: We can practice meditation as a purely scientific technique with no religious or spiritual leanings
Fact: “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”, writes Wikholm. Similar to what was noted above about the mistake of trying to define self, trying to define what spirituality is probably a mistake as well. Meditators often have a conscious or unconscious leaning towards illuminating the “self” or becoming spiritual, whatever that means.
Myth 7: Science has undeniably shown how meditation can change us and why
Fact: Some studies show that meditating can have a greater impact than physical relaxation, although other research using a placebo meditation contradicts this finding. Advocates of meditation can be overenthusiastic about scientific studies and overlook the actual findings. When looking beyond the headlines and hype we find that science knows little about meditation, if and why it may or may not work with some people. Unlike established scientific facts, like gravity or evolution, there’s currently no consensus, no testable scientific theory for how meditation changes us and why.
Some people may get benefits from meditating. But not everyone. And, occasionally meditation may cause depression, paranoia, and psychosis. Meditation was not designed to make people happy, but was designed by renunciants who wanted to destroy the sense of individual self. When the benefits of meditation are not forthcoming or when things go wrong it’s not always caused by the practitioner. We need better scientific studies and a testable theory for how and why meditation works. We need open public discussion about the adverse (side) effects of meditation practices, not just the benefits.
Is it any surprise that some people might go mad from meditation–as it was not designed originally for human happiness but for destruction of the individual self?
Are you surprised by the above myths or facts? Submit your comments below.
- See my posts on Adverse (side) effects of meditation
- Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?, The Independent
- The dark side of meditation and mindfulness: Treatment can trigger mania, depression and psychosis, new book claims, The Daily Mail
1 Quote from Mindfulness apparently isn’t as good for you as science originally thought, The Debrief
2 See my post “Unusual experiences” of mindfulness for more data on adverse events occurring during meditation retreats
3 See Why “Being Authentic” is Holding You Back, Fast Company for further discussion about practical problems of defining “self”