Can practice of contemplative techniques bring lasting personal change? If so, are changes always for the better?
Two Oxford psychologists, Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm, examine the empirical evidence and tease out facts from fictions about meditation.
In The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? Farias and Wikholm examine 40 years of clinical studies about the effects of Transcendental Meditation, popularized by Beatles Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and investigate the astonishing claims made by mindfulness meditation advocates.
Meditation practice appears to have physiological benefits. Yet, “a crucial problem”, grapples Farias, “is how to pinpoint the active ingredient of mindfulness that helps with depression.” (p 111)
The authors also did their own empirical studies using inmates of U.K. prisons: stress-testing the effects of yoga meditation on murderers, rapists, and thugs.
Examining 40 years of research on effects of meditation, the authors concluded:
- Scientific evidence for lasting change from meditation practice is weak.
- Only modest changes for practitioners of meditation. Yet many who use or teach meditation techniques make astonishing claims about their powers.
- Meditation gives rise to different mental states, but there is nothing physiologically extraordinary going on.
- Studies are poorly conducted: have small sample sizes, lack proper control groups, and full of problematic biases. They explain why in detail.
- There is a dark side to meditation–psychosis, breakdowns, and violent behaviors–that seldom is spoken of by meditation advocates and practitioners.
Farias and Wikholm are sympathetic to meditation. Though the empirical evidence revealed that meditation is not a cure-all and is not a magic pill, while some practitioners experience nothing and others have adverse side-effects.
“I haven’t stopped believing in meditation’s ability to fuel change, but I am concerned that the science of meditation is promoting a skewed view: meditation wasn’t developed so we could lead less stressful lives or improve our wellbeing. It’s primary purpose was much more radical–to rupture your idea of who you are; to shake to the core your sense of self so that you realize there is ‘nothing there’.” (p 152)
The chapter The Dark Side of Meditation gives many examples of Buddhist violence and how a Buddha or bodhisattva may justify killing. Farias recounts how during his visit to an Indian yoga guru’s ashram, he was confronted by machine gun-carrying guards and was walled-in by pro-death penalty posters. “What if Hitler had meditated?” they ask: speculating what if the Fuhrer would have meditated and experienced lasting physiological change, conquered the world by compassion and peace instead of killing and violence.
“One of the crucial teachings of Buddhism is that of emptiness: the self is ultimately unreal, so the bodhisattva who kills with full knowledge of the emptiness of the self, kills no one; both the self of the killer and the self of the the killed are nothing more than an illusion (p 166).
“The most recent evidence, which analyzes dozens of studies conducted over more than forty years, suggests that if you are generally anxious or emotionally unstable, TM (Transcendental Meditation) will help you to a moderate extent, and will be more effective than simple relaxation. If you have have high blood pressure, the American Heart Association recommends TM (while mindfulness is not recommended), although physical exercise, such as swimming or running, would be better.” (p 14)
A ground-breaking book, The Buddha Pill, promotes critical thinking about meditation in an easy to follow and yoga-friendly tone. Farias and Wikholm guide the reader to question and think critically about the astonishing claims of meditation advocates.