The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?

the buddha pillCan 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:

  1. Scientific evidence for lasting change from meditation practice is weak.
  2. Only modest changes for practitioners of meditation. Yet many who use or teach meditation techniques make astonishing claims about their powers.
  3. Meditation gives rise to different mental states, but there is nothing physiologically extraordinary going on.
  4. Studies are poorly conducted: have small sample sizes, lack proper control groups, and full of problematic biases. They explain why in detail.
  5. 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.


  1. SkepticMeditations

    @Simon: Yes, don’t bother learning or reading Farias’ and Wikholm’s book. Why bother? since you don’t seem to understand, even though you haven’t taken any time to investigate the data out there that might contradict your cherished beliefs about meditation.

    Your statement is not only flawed but is not intellectually honest. It’s a fallacy.

    Argument from Personal Incredulity: Asserting that opponent’s argument must be false because you personally don’t understand it or can’t follow its technicalities. For instance, one person might assert, “I don’t understand that engineer’s argument about how airplanes can fly. Therefore, I cannot believe that airplanes are able to fly.” Au contraire, that speaker’s own mental limitations do not limit the physical world—so airplanes may very well be able to fly in spite of a person’s inability to understand how they work. One person’s comprehension is not relevant to the truth of a matter.
    From Logical Fallacies Handlist

  2. Simon Wright

    Given that Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm don’t seem to understand that meditation (TM or pretty much any of 40 other varieties of meditation) is mindfulness, I don’t think I’ll bother reading the book. Also, because “Jim Smith’s dad was an oncologist” doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea for Jim to go around dishing out chemotherapy advice.

  3. SkepticMeditations

    @sajanai: The meanings of words is in flux. I don’t use a guru or meditation doctrine as the last “word”.

    You are right, your TM definitions and proofs of samadhi or enlightenment are vague as “dreams”.

    There’s not much value in debating these terms if they are not well defined or agreed upon in the context of a constructive discussion.

  4. saijanai

    Stress has a pretty precise medical meaning, first put forth by Hans Selye about 80 years ago, and refined ever since.

    Dhyana, as we TMers define is what TMers end up doing after going through the TM course. Samadhi is what happens in the brain that convinces TMers to press a button when hooked up to various apparatus and asked to press a button if they notice an episode of pure consciousness. Enlightenment is what happens in people when certain physiological correlates of samadhi become a trait outside of meditation. The inner-experience of this is that a pure sense-of-self emerges and never goes away, even during deep sleep. The physiological correlates of this state are still being established.

    None of the above is any more vague than what researchers were discovering about the dream state 40-50 years ago, but I have a funny feeling that if I quoted a bunch of well-accepted physiological studies on dreams, and used a different word than “dream,” say, froppo, you would insist that froppo was vague and ill defined.

  5. SkepticMeditations

    Hey saijanai: The quotation you referred to on page 152 of the Buddha Pill book was written within the context of Buddhist mindfulness meditation.

    Have you read Farias’ and Wikholm’s book, The Buddha Pill? I’m assuming you have not. Pity.

    Are only views that you have of TM the correct ones?

    Farias and/or his parents were TMers, if I remember correctly from my reading of his book.

    If anything the authors’ concluded that there’s more evidence that TM provides lasting relaxation benefits, than mindfulness. Not sure why you appear to be so hostile towards Farias.

    Farias learned TM from his parents, if I remember correctly from his book, The Buddha Pill.

    You make a hullabaloo about many vague notions: dhyana, samadhi, enlightenment, and stress. These terms are all vague cultural interpretations–that’s why people who take their practice or study seriously explore the various meanings and interpretations, NOT just of their own guru or worldview only. Seems that devotees impose their values to words such as enlightenment and samadhi.

  6. saijanai

    “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)

    That’s not what TM is about. TM is considered to enhance the normal tendency of the mind to gain rest, and that’s it. TM is a form of dhyana which is Sanskrit for mind-movement –dhyi -mind, yana -moving– (though unfortunately descriptions of the process of dhyana and its results lead to nonsensical translations like “effortless concentration”. The process of TM cycles the brain through physiological states that can range from normal waking-state relaxation all the way to samadhi and back.

    The “goal” of TM is enlightenment, where some of the physiological correlates of samadhi become a trait outside of TM practice. It turns out that the physiological correlates of samadhi that become traits is simply high-connectivity in the default mode networks of the brain, which. by the way, is associated with low-stress behavior and physiological measures in just about any living human being. Internally, this high-connectivity leads to the emergence of a pure sense-of-self which isn’t associated with any specific mental thing such as beliefs or desires or thoughts or memories, etc. There’s no distinction that can be made between being low-stress, and having this “pure sense-of-self.” “Pure sense-of-self” is merely an attempt to describe teh internal state of someone who is low-stress.

    There’s no interest in rupturing your idea of who you are, or shaking up your sense of self “so that you realize that there is ‘nothing there’.” The emergence of this pure sense-of-self eventually becomes permanent simply by mthe nature of how sense-of-self works on the physical level, and at that point, the TMer naturally associates this always-present thing as being “real” self while all ephemeral things are not-self in contrast.

    There is literally NO difference, from the TM perspective, between TM-as-stress-management and TM-as-a-tool-to-gain-enlightenment.

    “Enlightenment,” by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s explicit definition, is merely what emerges in a sufficiently low-stress adult human nervous system, and it doesn’t matter “how” you arrived at that state. Some people will be born with sufficiently robust and resilient nervous systems, and raised in sufficiently low-stress and nurturing environments, that they will spontaneously mature into enlightenment, “just because.”

    This definition arose in the late 1960s when Hans Selye informed Maharishi that on every measure, TM appeared to be anti-stress. In fact, all of Maharishi’s modern theory of enlightenment is obtained merely by taking traditional Yogic and Adaita Vedanta discussions of the growth towards enlightenment and substituting modern terms like “stress” for ancient terms like samskara (mental impressions left in the mind by previous experience).

    Again, by Maharishi’s definition of enlightenment, TM IS ALL ABOUT “stress management” because “enlightenment” is merely what it is like to be low-stress. That Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm don’t get this only shows that they never read anything about enlightenment written by Maharishi or any of his students. And if they obviously didn’t read anything about TM and enlightenment before they started talking, why do you assume that they know what they are talking about?

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