Techniques for quieting the mind can be valuable. But valuing silence or stilling thought as superior devalues thought, thinking, and acting. Here are some other ways to find similar benefits to meditation techniques.
Commenter: I’m interested in hearing of other ways to find similar benefits to yoga and meditation techniques. What other ways can you think of?
SkepticMeditations: Techniques for quieting thought can be valuable: being quiet with yourself, being out in nature, hearing music or bird song, sitting or lying comfortably can help us relax and be more centered, to counter the busyness and distractions of a modern life.
But valuing silence and stilling thought as superior or more valuable than thinking or acting is the problem. It devalues thought, thinking, and acting in the world.
“Who” says certain techniques for stilling or quieting thought are superior? “Who” says withdrawing from the world is superior?
Eastern spiritual authorities promise superior techniques, concepts, and worldviews. The irony is that the thought withdrawing into thoughtlessness (stilling or silencing thought) is a thought, or web of thoughts, embedded in a certain ideology or worldview that claims to be superior.
Techniques for quieting and relaxing can be valuable. Select whatever works best for you. Unicuique suum (Latin: to each their own). Approval from others does not validate your ideas or your technique. Some ways, especially those purportedly superior, could be harmful. What are some other ways to find similar benefits of meditation techniques?
Other ways to find similar benefits of meditation techniques
There are many ways to still thought, to relax, to counter the busyness of modern life. Be quiet with yourself, be out in nature, listen to music or bird song, sit or lay comfortably to relax and be centered. Or, engross yourself in some activity so much that you forget yourself, your thoughts and your distractions. Who says meditation techniques are superior?
Meditation techniques can be helpful. They also can be harmful, especially when embedded in a worldview that values stilling thought (meditation techniques) as superior. This devalues thought, thinking, acting. There are countless other ways to quiet thought, to relax, and to be engrossed in meaningful activities. What benefits you will not be withdrawing from thought, thinking, or acting that is embedded in second-hand testimony from Buddha or any other Eastern or Western spiritual authority.
If you have any thoughts on other ways to “still thought” while valuing thought, please write in the Comments link or in the box “Leave a Reply” at the bottom of this post.
Study shows meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists are underreported and adverse experiences such as anxiety, fear, or paranoia are common.
Most studies of meditation we read or hear of trumpet the benefits of contemplative practices. Meditation practices, especially mindfulness–a Buddhist-derived method, has become a popular form of health promotion. However, we seldom read or hear in the Western media and literature about the challenges with meditation-related experiences.
PLOS One published The Varieties of Contemplative Experience (VCE): A Mixed-Methods Study of Meditation-Related Challenges in Western Buddhists. Researchers cataloged 59 meditation-related experiences, which included challenging, distressing, and impairing situations which occurred to meditation practitioners.
To conduct the VCE study, researchers from Brown and Santa Barbara Universities recruited a total of 73 meditation experts and practitioners from Buddhist traditions: Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan.
This post provides a summary and comments on the VCE study.
Study of Meditation-Related Challenges with Western Buddhist-Meditators
For the VCE study, participants were asked to describe, in their own words, and to offer their own explanations of their meditation-related experiences. Participant’s responses to the researcher’s questions were cataloged. A catalog was compiled of 59 meditation-related experiences and used to categorize each of the participant’s reported experiences. Then each reported experience was weighted as a percentage of all the experiences reported by study participants.
For example, the three categories of meditation-related experiences most widely reported were:
Fear, anxiety, panic, or paranoia (82%)
Positive affect (75%)
Changes in self-other or self-world boundaries (53%)
Three interesting meditation-related challenges reported by study participants had to do with:
Inability to concentrate for extended periods, or problems with memory (executive functioning)
“Mind racing” as it’s commonly called or increased cognitive processing speed
Feelings ranging from bliss and joy to fear and terror
With my nearly two decades as an ordained monk practicing meditation, I found this VCE comment interesting:
Scrupulosity or obsessive and repetitive thoughts about ethical behavior, was primarily a concern for practitioners in a monastic context… p11
Researchers were neuroscientists, psychologists, and religious scholars
The five authors/researchers of the VCE study are from Brown University and University of Santa Barbara. The five are university professors each specializing, respectively, in a field of neuroscience, humanities, religion, or psychology.
The researchers from Brown University’s Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory (CLANlab) study contemplative, affective, and clinical neuroscience, specifically related to meditation practices. Co-directed by neuroscientist and clinical psychologist Willoughby Britton, Ph.D., and religious studies scholar Jared Lindahl, Ph.D., the lab researches the effects of contemplative practices on cognitive, emotional, and neurophysiological processes in both clinical and non-clinical settings.
Participants were practitioners and experts of Buddhist-meditation
The VCE researchers recruited a total of 73 meditation experts and practitioners from Buddhist traditions: Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan.
The criteria for selecting the study’s 73 participants was:
Minimum 18 years of age
Meditation practice in a Buddhist tradition
Ability to report on meditation-related experience that was challenging, difficult, or distressing or impairing.
The criteria for excluding participants was:
History of unusual psychological experiences prior to learning meditation (eg. substance abuse or mental illness)
Mixed practice history that included non-Buddhist practices
Presence of medical illness that might account for challenging experiences.
Thirteen of the original 73 participants were eventually excluded from the final study results. (The final results were based on 60 participants). The participants were asked structured questions in an interview format lasting from 45 to 120 minutes.
Problems with VCE study
The VCE study, like most meditation-related research, is flawed, inconclusive, and has numerous weaknesses.
Common problems with meditation-related research and this VCE study, include:
Small sample size. VCE study included 57 participants in the final results.
Values (good or bad) of experiences were colored by the interpretations of subjects/interviewees.
Participants can interpret an experience as either positive or negative.
There is a wide range of interpretations about the meditation-related experiences. Interpretations can vary between persons, teachers, or meditation traditions.
The Varieties of Contemplative Experience (VCE): A Mixed-Methods Study of Meditation-Related Challenges in Western Buddhists aimed to increase our understanding of the adverse effects of contemplative practices. The authors hoped to provide resources to promote health and to raise awareness of potential damaging effects of meditation-based practices.
While the VCE study offers unique insights into underreported challenges related to meditation, this paper is only a preliminary examination of the field. It does not provide conclusive evidence of the severity of benefits or problems with meditation-related experiences. However, we could draw a few conclusions.
Challenges related to meditation are typically underreported
Not everyone who practices meditation experiences health-promoting benefits.
A significant percentage of meditation-related experiences, in the VCE study, were challenging, distressing, or temporarily or permanently debilitating. At least one of the study participants reported meditation-related experiences that required medical support or hospitalization.
The 31 page (not including data tables and Supporting Information files) paper is available at:
Raising urgent questions, twelve essays offer critical, Zen perspective on mindfulness and meditation practices.
What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (And What Isn’t): Zen Perspectives1 (2016) is a critical examination of what’s wrong, and what isn’t, with the mindfulness movement in contemporary Western society.
What’s unique about this collection of twelve essays is they are written by committed, lifelong Western Buddhist meditation practitioners and lay-teachers. The essayists are simultaneously pessimistic and cautiously optimistic about the long term impact of mindfulness in Western society.
What’s Wrong with Mindfulness?
This collection of twelve short essays was edited by Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum and Barry Magid.
Rosenbaum is a psychologist and psychotherapist formally trained in Zen and Qigong. Magid, also a psychologist and psychoanalyst, is founder of a school in New York, the Ordinary Mind Zendo, that teaches Zen.
Along with Rosenbaum and Magid, other contributing essayists include: Janet Jiryu Abels, founder and coresident teacher at Still Mind Zendo in New York; Zoketsu Norman Fischer a poet, writer, and Zen Priest; and Gil Fronsdal, a Vipassana teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center; and seven other contributors–all contributors are Buddhist, Zen, or Vipassana meditation practitioners and ordained lay-instructors.
Below is my review of this engaging collection of essays.
In Part One, Critical Concerns: Mischief in the Marketplace for Mindfulness, Marc Poirier, a law professor and lay Zen teacher, writes [I’m paraphrasing]:
The practice of mindfulness in popular culture is troublesome as it should not be a “goal-oriented technique”. That is, mindfulness is often promoted outside of a Buddhist context as a technique to gain [something]. For instance, Poirier criticizes corporations such as Google and law firms that train employees in techniques of mindfulness to help the company be more productive. To Poirier, and the twelve other essayists, mindfulness will not be useful, in the long term, when it is disconnected from its roots in an Asian-Buddhist worldview.
The “curative fantasy”, writes Poirier, is symptom of a Western, Americanized, quick fix approach to solving problems. He explains that day-long or weeks-long workshops, retreats, and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an eight week intervention format, are problematic. When mindfulness is packaged for quick results, advocates leave out crucial components: sustained engagement, community, and support of qualified Buddhist meditation teachers. All these components, Poirier believes, are crucial for healthy and long term Buddhist or Zen practice.
The removal (secularization) of mindfulness from its Asian-Buddhist context deemphasizes the need for a sustained commitment to a lifelong practice within Buddhism.
What’s Wrong (and What Isn’t) with this book?
Firstly, I’m not an advocate for Buddhism, Zen, or meditation practices. Nor am I convinced by this book that I should practice mindfulness, especially within an Asian-Buddhist tradition. I remain skeptical of claims of superiority of meditation, Zen, or Buddhist systems.
However, I understood the questions raised and the concerns identified by the essayists, including:
Self is a movement, not a thing
Many benefits and fruits of Zen practice are real, but they are not to be gained, nor pursued. Just sit, regularly, for a sustained period, and see what is here right now. p27
Zen differs from mindfulness practice in placing less emphasis on training in modes of awareness. p34
Self is not a thing. It is a movement in time. p34
Awareness itself doesn’t make you a better person
“[Being] ‘more attentive’ while clinging to your sense of self [mind]…will not necessarily make you a better person.” Awareness itself does not offer a path forward to self-improvement.
The authors advocate that mindfulness practice (which they say is useless as an end or means to an end itself) should be tethered to a traditional Buddhist worldview, with a lifelong commitment to practice within an Asian spiritual-lineage, teacher and religious community.
In the epilogue, Is Mindfulness Buddhist? (And Why It Matters), Robert Sharf, Chair of the Center for Buddhist Studies at University of California-Berkeley, criticizes the popular idea that mindfulness can lead to “bare attention”.
Critiques of Mindfulness as Bare Attention
The “mind” is not a blank slate or tabula rasa, writes Sharf. He says there is no such thing as bare attention. “Bare” (clean slate) attention is fake. Most of what occurs in our thoughts and awareness is unconscious, influenced by our unconscious conditioning: society, tradition, and genetics.
Proponents claim, says Sharf, that mindfulness practice is not “conditioning” but deconditioning or deconstructing of the mind or awareness. Yet, everything we are aware of is filtered through our unconscious conditioning. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t meditate. But it does raise the question about claims that meditation is somehow special in knowing our “true” mind or self.
You can be aware of being aware, and aware of being aware, and aware of being aware of being aware of being aware, and so on. p33
An underlying premise held by many practitioners of mindfulness or meditation techniques is that through practice one can actually “see” what’s going on in the mind or self.
But “mind” or “self” are mostly unconscious. Mostly vague, changing many “minds” or selves”. Not just one or fixed things. Since most of our mind or self is and probably always will be unconscious, we cannot really “know” mind or self. Mind or self is a movement, a relationship. Assuming that this is so, then there is no mind or self “out there” or “in here” to grasp.
What’s most important is experience of awareness, of life as it is. Nothing is needed to be gained. p44
What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (And What Isn’t): Zen Perspectives is engaging and thought provoking for students and persons interested in meditation and mindfulness practice. I recommend this book to learn more about what’s wrong and what isn’t with mindfulness or any meditation practice.
Read my other writings critiquing mindfulness and meditation:
What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (and What Isn’t) inspired the first three articles listed below.
By meditating the consumer believes they can find happiness, health, or Nirvana. Most of all, to practice mindfulness or meditation consumers believe they can collect pleasurable experiences (whether couched in physical, emotional, or spiritual terms).
Here we explore how mindfulness and meditation are used to get people to spend money and consume products that they otherwise might not buy1. We are exploited by elite authorities who tell us we should meditate. What causes us to be consumers of meditation mindfulness and nirvana?
Thus, meditation and mindfulness are the ultimate products, writes Jeff Wilson in his praiseworthy book Mindful America (2014). [Read my post reviewing the book.]The act of mindfulness can not be packaged or measured. So the benefits of practicing are cleverly “packaged”, promoted, and pushed as workshops, retreats, and lessons (books).
Consumers of meditation, mindfulness, and nirvana
Peddlers of meditation and mindfulness use:
Scientific studies to promote the benefits of their products and services,
Testimonials of people who were once stressed out and unhappy, and thanks to meditation, are now blissed out and happy.
Marketing tactics used to sell “ancient” meditation techniques.
A quiet, empty mind is fairly easy to influence, manipulate, and fill with desires. We relax and empty our minds by practicing mindfulness and meditation. It’s then fairly easy to sell us more workshops, retreats, and lessons.
We desire after happiness, self-improvement, and Nirvana; desires that previously were not present before we bought the premises that are promoted by peddlers of meditation and mindfulness products. Ironically, there are thousands of other free products (exercise, relaxation, or sleep to name three) that work just as good or better than meditation.
Game of gain
Playing mindfulness and meditation is a familiar game. We quickly learn to seek and collect experiences. The practitioner accumulates meditative experiences and gains points. The goal is to earn rewards for health, happiness, and enlightenment. The “spiritual” equivalent to earning Frequent Flyer Miles is to meditate more often and longer. Meditators choose from a menu of aspirations and benefits. Practitioners accumulate Frequent Flyer Meditation Miles. The more they practice (fly) the more points they can earn towards rewards of health, happiness, or Nirvana.
There are negative consequences to playing the game of meditation. When players of the mindfulness meditation entertain “bad” thoughts or do “wrong” acts points are lost. In the Orient and Occident this is the notion of “karma”, the cosmic scoreboard, which tallies the meditator’s points for and against the attainment of happiness and ultimately arriving at their destination, Nirvana.
We are led to believe, by meditation peddlers, if we use their products we will gain happiness, health, and Nirvana. In believing, we rely on the authority of those who taught us about meditation products and benefits in the first place. We use mindfulness research studies to bolster our beliefs that our favorite products (techniques) “work”.
Consuming and trusting dubious authorities
Hence, we think meditation works (gives us beneficial experiences). And, when we want something to work we will seek evidence that supports our beliefs. At this stage in the post-purchase process, any experiences in meditation will confirm whatever beliefs we think we choose. In reality, we are not in control of this process. Rather we are conditioned to consume by an elite group who claims to know what’s best for us.
So we are conditioned to consume what we are told is best for us: fixes or gives us health, happiness, and Nirvana. Consumption is the heart of capitalism. “Consumerism”, remarked documentary film maker Adam Curtis in The Century of the Self, “is a way of giving people the illusion of control while allowing a responsible elite to continue managing society.”3 We consume meditation because we trust dubious authorities who created our wants and desires. These authorities then sell us the fix, meditation techniques.
In conclusion, consuming meditation and mindfulness is to seek experiences: happiness, health, or Nirvana. We seek what has been promoted to us by meditation peddlers. When we buy into the underlying premises–that we are “broken” and meditation is the “fix”–it’s fairly easy for “authorities” to get us to consume workshops, retreats, or lessons.
Using mindfulness to fix or gain something is doomed to fail, say Buddhist meditation teachers.
The practice of mindfulness, Western Buddhists argue, should be a sustained, quiet exploration and awareness of inside out, rather than a practice for gain of self, power, or control.
As Buddhism has been mainstreamed, its teachings have often been offered not as part of a religious, spiritual, or ethical whole, argues Magid and Poirier, Buddhist lay meditation teachers, but as a relief for pain, a way to build skills, or to better oneself.1
Practice as gain operates within a familiar frame of separate self, power, and control. …An ‘I’ seek to ‘fix’ something, whether ‘out there’ or ‘deep inside’, that is ‘broken’ or ‘unsatisfactory’, or to ‘gain’ something that is currently ‘missing’ [is what’s wrong with mindfulness]. p43
Buddhist lay-teachers: Critics of mindfulness
Barry Magid and Marc Poirier are critical of the Western mindfulness movement. Their essay, Three Shaky Pillars of Western Buddhism, appears in What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (and What Isn’t): Zen Perspectives [Read my post reviewing the book, What’s Wrong with Mindfulness: Zen Perspectives].
Barry Magid is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst practicing in New York City. He is a founding member of the Ordinary Mind Zendo in New York and author of several books, Ordinary Mind: Exploring the Common ground of Zen and Psychoanalysis, Ending the Pursuit of Happiness: A Zen Guide, and Nothing is Hidden: The Psychology of Zen Koans.
Marc Poirier (1952-2015) was professor of law at Seton Hall University Law School in New Jersey. He received lay entrustment from his teacher, Barry Magid, to teach meditation to students and faculty of his law school and was a longtime practitioner of meditation and active with Zen Teachers Association.
Expecting meditation to produce a particular state of consciousness, that the practitioner hopes someday to be permanent, is doomed to failure writes Magid and Poirier. Why is it doomed to failure? The authors don’t directly say in this essay. However, the underlying Buddhist reasons for failure can be gleaned from other essays in What’s Wrong with Mindfulness.
Underlying reasons for mindfulness failure the book contends are: In Buddhism “nothing” is real and everything is impermanent. To expect anything to be permanent–especially enlightenment–is illusion and the path of suffering.
Magid and Poirier describe the “workshop” approach to meditation and mindfulness. Extracted from the religious and spiritual context of Asian Buddhism, mindfulness is being repackaged for mass markets and quick consumption, it is ridiculed by critics, including committed Buddhists, as “McMindfulness”.
Repackaging Buddhist meditation for mass consumption is counterproductive. The meditation technique, argues Magid and Poirier, needs its religious or spiritual context within Asian traditions.
Buddhist practices have, they argue, increasingly been adapted, simplified, and altered in the West. Often for the purpose of extracting meditation techniques from their Asian religious and cultural contexts.2. Extracting mindfulness from its Oriental roots puts the foundation of practice on shaky pillars.
Three shaky pillars of Western Buddhism
The Three Shaky Pillars of Western Buddhism described by Magid and Poirier are:
1. Deracination: Cutting off Buddhism at its roots?
Deracination is literally, “cutting off from its roots” the practices of mindfulness meditation from Buddhism. It has increasing led to a secularization (removal from religious context) of Buddhist meditation practices.3
Mindfulness and meditation techniques are being marketed and increasingly institutionalized as therapy and as personal transformation. p41
The mindfulness movement…
Threatens to obscure the fundamental nature of Buddhism itself. p41
2. Secularization: Buddhism that is areligious?
Secularization, removing the religious or spiritual context, has instrumentalized Buddhist practices as technique or therapy. Mindfulness or meditation becomes a commodified product for personal gain or self-improvement.
3. Instrumentalization: Mindfulness, instrument for gain?
Gain? The problem (of making mindfulness an instrument for gain), say the authors, is the value of the activity of meditation is not in the activity itself but in what it is to be gained. It’s commodified products or results.4
What’s the harm of removing mindfulness from Buddhism?
Removing Buddhism from its Asian cultural and religious contexts, say Magid and Poirier:
Obscures traditional practices [of Buddhism and distorts them].
Consequences [of practice ] are no longer considered sacred.
Loses lineages of Eastern tradition; mindfulness is no longer part of a religious container.
Most important is experience of awareness, of life as it is. Nothing is needed to be gained. p44
Meditation has always failed
Magid and Poirier argue that mindfulness is doomed to fail without a lifelong commitment to a practice, without a qualified instructor, and without a supportive religious Buddhist community. I ask: what is mindfulness meditation supposed to help us succeed at?
Mindfulness meditation, according to Fortune, is a billion dollar industry5. Many Americans are eager to consume mindfulness products, retreats, and workshops. Most consumers are not told that a lifelong or religious commitment is required for practice. The latter is the desperate plea from the authors of What’s Wrong with Mindfulness.
Last week a colleague confided with me that he has been struggling with depression and that he was considering using a mindfulness-based therapy. I cautioned him against expecting mindfulness or meditation to be beneficial. There are many adverse effects, read my posts on Adverse (Side) Effects, that are terribly underreported. I recommended he seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional to determine if meditation-based therapy might help.
We Americans can’t meditate away the problems we have behaved our way into. Meditation (and religion) has had more than 2000 years to prove itself as the ultimate solution to human suffering. Meditation has always failed.