Meditation techniques, like religion, offer an illusion of control, a false promise of personal mastery.
Helplessness, insecurity, and uncertainty are part of the human condition. Unable to find permanent freedom from our ailments, we willingly surrender our bodies and minds, our time and resources, to uselessly following the advice of charlatans, of spiritual teachers, gurus, or buddhas.1 Meditation techniques may act as a placebo (sham or fake) treatment to our ailments that give us an illusion of control.
To begin, let’s define “illusion” as a thing that is or that is likely to be wrongly perceived and that probably we have wrong ideas about. Now, let’s proceed with our discussion of the illusion of control offered by meditation techniques.
Helplessness and the human condition
Life largely operates beyond our control. Our birth, death, and much of life’s events unfold mostly outside our power. We crave security and certainty and want to exert our influence over other people. Many people believe that meditation techniques provide them with unlimited access to secret knowledge, to magical cures, and to personal mastery over one’s body, mind, and world.
Meditation philosophy, inspired by Hinduism and Buddhism that will be discussed below, is built upon the false premise that there is something wrong, missing, or corrupt within us, which is beyond our awareness and control. (Read my post Duped by Meditation? for further elaboration on false premises underlying many meditation practices).
Charlatans, gurus, and spiritual teachers implant in our minds the need of a cure (from our unawareness, asleepness, or out-of-controlness), and then offer us sham products that offer the illusion of control.
Mind-control disguised as self-control
Meditation teachers are seen by many of their followers as moral authorities who implant in their minds the necessity of self-control. Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, in their book The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, warn, “All mind control operates under the guise of self-control”.2 Under this psychological, spiritual, and theological pretext, meditation is a fraudulent technique that is sold on the pretense of offering self-control.3 Practitioners often willingly surrender control to teachers who have already implanted in them the need for self-restraint as the right path to ultimate freedom of body, mind, and spirit.
Self-Realization Fellowship, a Hindu-inspired religion that I used to follow, promises that disciples who correctly practice the given meditation techniques every day will eventually, if not in this life then in a future incarnation, attain total self-realization, self-mastery bringing complete awareness of Self or God.
In the Samadhi Padi chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra says, “Yoga is the restraint of mental modifications” (“Yogaś citta-vritti-nirodhaḥ”).4 Mental control or restraint, a core component of yoga, is supposed to eventually lead the practitioner to the penultimate state of Dhyana (meditative trance and total absorption in self-awareness or Samadhi).5
For many people, meditation techniques offer a theological or moral framework that appeals to their unmet needs to control body, mind, and world.
Masters, frauds, and the uncontrollable self
The more we feel helpless, the more we want to assign control to someone or something else to cure or fix us and our world. We attribute magical agency to spiritual teachers, religions, and meditation techniques.
Kramer and Alstad, point out that in the East the prevailing idea is that the self is limited and to be transcended (Hinduism) or that the idea of the self is a false identity of the mind that is to be transcended (Buddhism). These Eastern ideas are biased towards the reduction or elimination of the self or ego to attain a permanent selflessness or egolessness.7 Any teacher or mystic who claims to be totally selfless or egoless must also claim to be totally conscious.
In Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at University of Virginia, gives reasons why our unconscious is inaccessible: “The bad news is that it is difficult to know ourselves because there is no direct access to the adaptive unconscious, no matter how hard we try…. Because our minds have evolved to operate largely outside of consciousness, it may not be possible to gain direct access to unconscious processing.”8
For gurus and spiritual teachers to admit that unconscious factors are at play within oneself would mean that no one can be certain that any person can ever be completely self-aware or can be totally selfless and egoless. It is debatable that so-called advanced masters, mystics, and saints are what they say they are: totally self-aware, in complete self-control, and perfected in selflessness or egolessness; and that the teacher knows what is best for disciples who strive to follow in her footsteps.
Kramer and Alstad write, “If there were even the remote possibility that a totally realized being had an unconscious, how could anyone (including the realized one) be certain that all motives and actions were pure and selfless?”9 Many Eastern-inspired religious teachers negate or devalue Western psychology because its concepts about the unconscious (uncontrollable self) undermines their power and authority.
Countless people look to charlatans, spiritual teachers, or gurus who they believe are completely conscious, totally selfless, and have foolproof answers and magical cures.
Results from meditation: placebo effect?
Our feelings of powerlessness feed anxieties and hunger for coping mechanisms.10 The times we feel most uncertain and helpless is when we most want answers and control. Even an illusory sense of control is enough to satisfy.
Our expectations that a technique or treatment will be helpful can sometimes give us beneficial effects. A meditation technique can enhance a practitioner’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that the practice will be helpful. Medical scientists say that the placebo effect–when a fake treatment or technique (an inactive substance like a sugar pill or meditation technique)–can sometimes improve a patient’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful.11
In Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine, R. Barker Bausell, a former Research Director of the National Institute for Health-funded Complementary Medicine Program, points out that, “If a completely inactive pill, ointment, or procedure (in other words, a placebo), accompanied by the expectation of effectiveness, can result in pain relief, then surely any therapy–no matter how bizarre–that we consider credible enough to seek out (and pay for) can also result in pain relief [or give us feelings of control and well-being], compliments of the placebo effect.”12
The effects we may feel from meditation practice then may be largely a sham, a treatment that creates temporary relief and illusion of control.
The Journal of American Medical Association published a landmark meta-study of 47 clinical trials with 3,515 participants on the effects of meditation. The researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore concluded that meditation treatments were not better than drugs or exercise. (Read my post Meditation Not Better than Drugs or Exercise, Study Finds). “The studies overall failed to show much benefit from meditation with regard to relief of suffering or improvement in overall health, with the important exception that mindfulness meditation provided a small but possibly meaningful degree of relief from psychological distress,” wrote Allan H. Goroll, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School-Massachusetts General Hospital.
A wish for you
In summary, meditation techniques may act as a sham or fake (placebo) treatment for ailments and give an illusion of control. Whether any person is ever able to be completely self-aware, self-controlled, and selfless is debatable. The false promises of personal mastery and magical cures from charlatans is something everyone needs to guard against by using critical thinking.
If you suffer, are in pain, or feel powerless; if the meditation techniques you practice help, then, I am happy for you. Or, if you discovered that meditation techniques didn’t ultimately help, like I did, then I hope you find an effective treatment or another placebo. Understanding that illusions or placebos may have benefits also means there are countless ways you could improve your situation and get a sense of control over your life.
1 The seed idea about the illusion of control was gleaned from James A. Lindsay’s, Everybody Is Wrong About God (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2015) p. 79
2 Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (Berkeley, CA: Frog Books, 1993) p. 225
3 James A. Lindsay, Everybody Is Wrong About God (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2015) p. 79
4 Quoted from “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga_Sutras_of_Patanjali
5 See “Samadhi”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samadhi
6 James A. Lindsay, Everybody Is Wrong About God (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2015) p. 79
7 Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (Berkeley, CA: Frog Books, 1993) pp. 101-102
8 This quotation of Timothy Wilson is from On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not by Robert A Burton, M.D. (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2008) p146
9 Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (Berkeley, CA: Frog Books, 1993) p. 102
10 James A. Lindsay, Everybody Is Wrong About God (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2015) p. 80
11 See “Definition of Placebo Effect”, MedicineNet.com, http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=31481
12 R. Barker Bausell, Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007) p. 256