Obsessive-compulsive symptoms & role of meditation beliefs and practices

David Masters, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
David Masters, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Studies show a link between obsessive-compulsive behaviors and high religiosity, thought-control, and magical thinking.

Many meditation beliefs and practices contain high religiosity, thought-control, and magical thinking.

Eastern- or yoga-meditation practices hold a variety of beliefs in subtle energies, chakras, spirits, gods, and mystical realms.

Meditators who heighten or intensify these beliefs and practices may increase their likelihood of obsessive-compulsive (OC) behaviors.

Clinical psychologists, E. Eremsoy and M. Inozu, at the University of Ankara, Turkey, studied1 165 adult participants who had no history of psychiatric conditions.

  • Participants completed four standard psychological questionnaires: Magical Ideation Scale, Thought Control Questionnaire, Obsessive Compulsive Inventory, and Demographic Information Form.
  • The results showed a significant link between magical thinking, religiosity, and thought control in determining obsessive-compulsive symptoms.
  • The researchers concluded that further studies are needed to identify whether heightened magical thinking, religiosity and thought control are direct causes in the development of OC symptoms.

Obsessive-compulsive defined

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a brain and behavior problem that is characterized by recurring and disabling obsessions (thoughts, images) and compulsions (uncontrollable actions) that won’t go away. The unwanted intrusion of these thoughts and activities may appear suddenly, interrupt the stream of consciousness, and evoke anxiety and distress.2

I do not claim that everyone who meditates has pathological OCD. Neither do I claim that all meditators have obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Yet some may. What I am suggesting is that many Eastern-inspired meditation beliefs and practices encourage a heightened religiosity, thought-control, and magical thinking, which recent psychological studies have linked to OC symptoms.

My history of meditation beliefs and practices revealed to me that spiritual teachers implanted a high degree of magical thinking, religiosity, and thought-controls–all foundational concepts in classical and contemporary yoga-meditation. Studies show these kinds of beliefs and practices play a key role in OC symptoms.

OC symptoms: Role of meditation beliefs and practices

To point you to what I see as strong relationships between OC symptoms and meditation beliefs and practices, I’ve quoted the Eremsoy study and provided my comments below:

Magical thinking is one of a number of OCD-related faulty beliefs. It refers to broader cognitive distortions about causality: real-life events are seen as being caused by a person’s thoughts and actions that are physically unconnected to the events.3

New age religions and occult often hold magical beliefs in the “law of attraction”, karma, and “thoughts are things” that bring the thinker either good or evil, prosperity or poverty, enlightenment or delusion. Read my post Gurus on the Financial Plane.

Several empirical studies have found that magical thinking was related to general psychopathology measures, anxiety, dissociative experiences, neuroticism, and schizotypal personality.4

In severe cases, meditation beliefs and practices have reportedly led some to extreme dissociative experiences (depersonalization/derealization)–that is, feelings of being outside one’s body, detachment from self or others, or as if looking from behind a glass. It is easy to see that some people who may be prone to OC behaviors could be attracted to meditation practices, or, that intense meditation beliefs and practices could cause psychopathology.
Read my post on Depersonalization/Derealization.

Magical thinking seems to have two functions: a) it increases sense of threat as an input; and b) it motivates a person to regain the control by showing neutralizing behaviour as an output.5

We may imagine certain thoughts or actions are “out of tune” with divine harmony, bring bad karma, or lead to sin or hell and so on. We then get anxious and fearful, which motivates us to meditate more and to try to neutralize and control our thoughts. We inevitably fail. A vicious cycle keeps us bound to spiritual teachers and religious practices who further instill worry and fear of punishment for our physical, moral, and spiritual failures. Read my post on Duped by Meditation.

Strict religious beliefs and moral codes may motivate highly religious individuals to attach strong personal meaning to the content and occurrence of intrusive thoughts. Some highly religious people may easily conclude that some thoughts can represent a type of moral failure and that may shake their complete faith in God; therefore immoral thoughts should be removed from the stream of consciousness in order to regain a feeling of purity and right standing with God.6

These beliefs about the importance of thoughts might activate deliberative thought-control efforts…. Recent studies have reported that highly religious individuals endorsed significantly more maladaptive beliefs about the importance and control of intrusive thoughts than did low religious individuals. These individuals also may show a higher tendency to believe in the power of their own thoughts.7

People use diverse strategies to control their unwanted thoughts, including distraction, thought replacement, thought stopping, analyzing thought, and suppression. Unfortunately, directing awareness away from unwanted thoughts is not always easy, and failure is inevitable….Individuals with OCD may have a belief that perfect control is possible and inability to achieve it is a sign of increased threat and failed mental control.8

Meditation teachers often falsely lead us to believe it is possible to achieve perfect control, perfect stillness of mind or permanent cessation of suffering–if we surrender our wills and energy to following their teachings. It is these teachers who instilled in us the worry and fear of punishment if we don’t properly follow and believe in their magical claims.

Although every act of magical thinking does not need to rely on supernatural agents (e.g., a spirit, ancestor, god, angel, saint) as seen in the case of prayer, some kinds of magical thinking are dependent on supernatural agents. The basic notion of intercessory prayer is that a specific supernatural agent might cause or prevent an event on the supplicant’s behalf.9

I recall a chant from Self-Realization Fellowship meditations, “Guru, image of Brahma, deliver us from delusion.” Chants, affirmations, prayers, or visualizations–these are often used to supplicate the gods, angels, or miraculous agents to intercede on our behalf. Magical thinking.

Strong devotion to religion may increase the tendency to engage in magical ideation, which in turn increases the need to remove these [unwanted] thoughts from the stream of consciousness through control strategies. However, these intentional thought-control efforts usually increase the frequency and intensity of intrusions.10

If a person with magical thoughts uses certain thought-control strategies, such as worry or punishment, in order to control his or her thoughts, he or she may suffer from OC symptoms, mainly because the effort in controlling the thoughts would further increase the thought itself, which creates a vicious cycle.11

Religious individuals seem to use worry and punishment as thought-control strategies, which then result in increased OC symptoms…. Magical beliefs often manifest themselves as superstitious behaviors, religious sacraments, and personal rituals.12

In summary, recent studies show a significant link between high religiosity, magical thinking, beliefs and needs for control of unwanted thoughts, and obsessive-compulsive (OC) behaviors. Many meditation beliefs and practices are rooted in various degrees of religiosity, thought-control, and magical thinking. When these factors are heightened in meditators it may increase OC-type symptoms.

Notes
1 C. Ekin Eremsoy and Mujgan Inozu, The Role of Magical Thinking, Religiosity and Thought-Strategies in Obsessive-Compulsive Symptoms in a Turkish Adults Sample, Behaviour Change, Vol 33:1 Apr 2016 pp. 1-14, Cambridge University Press. Read the abstract at http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=10215218&fileId=S0813483915000169

2 A more detailed definition of OCD can be read at the International OCD Foundation website https://iocdf.org/about-ocd/

3 C. Ekin Eremsoy and Mujgan Inozu, The Role of Magical Thinking, Religiosity and Thought-Strategies in Obsessive-Compulsive Symptoms in a Turkish Adults Sample, Behaviour Change, Vol 33:1 Apr 2016 p. 2

4 ibid

5 ibid

6 ibid

7 p. 2-3

8 p. 3

9 ibid

10 ibid

11 p. 10

12 ibid

9 comments

  1. Scott

    @Corey: Serious meditation practitioners are driven by “spiritual” ambitions. Seems ironic since the goal of most spiritual paths is to let go of the ego/self, yet the very searching and accumulating of “spiritual” experiences is self-centered. Hypocritical. Not wrong if one is honest with oneself.

    I don’t recommend Shamanism. I recommend getting out in nature and doing things you love without the goal of “spiritual enlightenment” promised by some guru or spiritual tradition. Read and listen to people who challenge our assumptions. That is how we grow.

    Not sure, if I addressed your question. Keep us posted on what you are thinking, discovering, or experimenting to lessen meditation’s or tradition’s grip.

    Thanks for sharing

  2. Corey

    I read the article Brent linked to. First rebuttal in the comments section on the article, in defense of meditation appeared to be that laypeople in the West began ‘overpracticing’ in some way. I think this sidesteps the true point: what type of person does meditation benefit? If it does benefit some people, in what ways do the benefits obfuscate material injustices in the same manner as religion traditionally has in the West. As Greg pointed out earlier, hoepfully we don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but my questions lately have been a deep skepticism as to if the ‘baby’ is all that is cracked up to be. I keep feeling like there is hidden, unspoken, ‘content’ beneath all the calls to just sit, in that a practice that is supposed to enlighten us by helping us let go of thinking is attempting the impossible, and is just selecting one form of control. I’m more or less ready to give up meditation, but now I’m trying our Shamanistic and more active meditation practices. Does anyone have some suggestions on how I might do so?

  3. Scott

    @Brent: Thanks for sharing the link to the article. I’ll check it out and may include it or ideas from it in future posts.

    Meditation has risks, I think mostly when the expectations are for miraculous or mystical experiences. In other words, when there’s intense religious background beliefs. It’s persons who take meditation practice most seriously, practice for hours or days at time, who are most at risk of side effects. I wrote about some serious pathological side effects in Depersonalization and Derealization

    Thanks for your comments and perspectives

  4. Brent

    Scott, when I first read this post I thought that you had gone a little overboard on the “negative” consequences of meditation. I no longer believe that. I ran across this link recently that I think that you will enjoy.
    http://thehumanist.com/magazine/september-october-2007/features/can-meditation-be-bad-for-you
    I also think that there is valid concern over whether someone should meditate at all. And this is contrary to the glowing reports from brain researchers, psychologists and medical doctors that we see almost constantly in the news these days. I wonder when the medical community will figure this out. Likely what will happen is just like MDs prescribing certain pharmaceuticals, only to find out later of the harm that has been done to certain individuals. There will then be a realization that people should be screened before prescribing meditation.
    Cheers…

  5. Scott

    Thanks for sharing your comments, Corey. Sounds like you have a balanced, mature handle on your variety of practices, behaviors, and attitudes that bring you personal development and fulfillment.

  6. Corey

    Whatever the validity of the science, the conclusions these researchers are heading towards is very significant. If we truly can use meditation as one of many tools to ‘rewire’ the brain, then it stands to reason that we should really investigate if we like the direction that rewiring is headed.

    Since much of meditation stems from a root desire to renounce the world, depsite attempted Western modifications, the tendency to go that route was a bad mixture with my introverted personality. I need to be encouraged to engage the world and be reminded that there is good to be found in it, not, however subtely, be led to put up walls and withdraw from it.

    I’ve thus been trying to find methods of meditation that will indeed do this. From what I’ve found, the crossover to Western methods of cognitive behavioral therapy, jounraling, and even applying philosophy to one’s life start to have lots of crossover with meditation once eliminating, ignoring, ‘being with’ thoughts, emotions, feelings stops being the goal, and permission is granted/acknowledged that we are always going to impact these aspects when we turn our attention towards them.

  7. SkepticMeditations

    @saijanai: I’m happy for you. Glad that the meditation techniques you practice help you.

    In my prior blog post, I noted that our expectations have much to do with the effectiveness of treatments or techniques. It is good news that there are many things people can do to improve their situation and get a sense of control over their life.

    @My Other Feet/Greg: I agree. I too find it fascinating, if not vitally important, to explore what science says about the psychological effects of religious beliefs. No need for me that the results of these studies be absolutely conclusive. It is useful to see how our various theories or assumptions stand the test of time, reason, and progress.

    We humans are desperate for answers, control, and certainty. Many people surrender their time and money to charlatans, gurus, and scam artists who promise perfect solutions to all our ills. Yes, it’s good to be skeptical and test claims, especially those that promise extraordinary results.

    Thanks

  8. My Other Feet

    Scott,

    I find scientific analyses of religious practices fascinating for many reasons. It shows people are trying to get a handle on what religion offers society, which is useful information. It also is an attempt to make comparative sense of two traditionally antagonistic fields of human endeavor — science and religion. I think this kind of comparative research is something we ought to continue.

    However, I also think there are problems with many scientific analyses of religious practices that make it difficult to draw conclusions from many of them: there often aren’t many studies on a particular topic; the studies tend to have small sample sizes, and methods can be inconsistent. All of this leads to an inconclusive range of results. For example, there’s a span on the opinion of whether holding religious beliefs make people happier:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happiness#Happiness_and_religion
    https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-human-beast/201211/are-religious-people-happier
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/08/14/want-sustained-happiness-get-religion-study-suggests/

    As I’ve said before, I think predatory marketing and sales practices are reprehensible — whether it’s from financiers like Bernie Madoff, or spiritual leaders like Osho. But I wonder whether the science on religious practices hasn’t developed enough to provide much insight into the effects of religious practices on peoples’ psychological states.

    -Greg

  9. saijanai

    Speaking personally, I find that when I’m more regular in my meditation (TM) practice, my OCD symptoms tend to reduce or even go away completely. It depends on how stressful my life is. CUrrently, my life is exceedingly stressful an a physical health level, but while the symptoms dont’ disappear, there’s a night-on-pluto/day-on-mecury difference between not-meditating regularly and meditating regularly.

    YMMV of course.

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