evaluating credibility meditation experiments

Evaluating Credibility of Meditation Experiments

How to evaluate the credibility of meditation experiments? What are the harms of meditation and complementary therapies?

This post suggests ways to evaluate for yourself the credibility of meditation experiments. I also present my thesis that meditators who also believe in subtle life energy (prana, chi or qi) are more likely to seek out and harm themselves by using Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM) including acupuncture, special diets, guided imagery, tai chi, qigong, and any sort of energetic, psychic, or spiritual healing used for the treatment of specific medical conditions or disease symptoms.

Post Contents (click link to jump to section in this post)

Meditation as Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM)
How Common are Meditation and CAM Therapies?
CAM practiced in absence of evidence
For credible evidence CAM therapies must demonstrate
Biological mechanisms: subtle energy (prana, qi or chi)?
“Active Ingredient” in Meditation?
Placebo and Meditation or CAM
Six Points of Belief Affects Effectiveness
Magical-, Spiritual-Thinking: Gateway to Meditation and CAM
How to Evaluate the Research Yourself
Six Steps of Increasing Credibility of Experiments
Flaws with Meditation Experiments and RCTs
Harms of Meditation or CAM Treatments

Listen to this blog post: Evaluating Credibility of Meditation Experiments

Meditation as Complementary Alternative Medicine

Firstly, meditation used for medical or psychological treatment is, in the medical and scientific domain, considered CAM (complementary and alternative medicine). CAM are physical, mental, chemical, or psychic interventions such as acupuncture, chiropractic and osteopathic, deep breathing, special diets, homeopathy, herbs, guided imagery, meditation, megavitamin therapy, massage, hypnosis, yoga, tai chi, qigong, and any sort of energetic, psychic, or spiritual healing used for the treatment of specific medical conditions or disease symptoms.

How Common are Meditation and CAM Therapies?

The US National Institute of Health published a 2012 and the Centers for Disease Control published a 2007 report showing most common CAM therapies, which includes meditation. Meditation has significant increases for usage as a therapy. Note the two charts indicate there are commonalities between the other 9 most common therapies as they relate to underlying beliefs in subtle life energy, prana or chi/qi (which we discuss below).

CAM practiced in absence of evidence

CAM therapies are practiced in the absence of:

1) Scientific (credible) evidence proving their effectiveness, and;

2) A plausible biological explanation for why they should work.

Meditation interventions and CAM therapies have failed to meet their burden of proof as an effective treatment for medical and psychological intervention. Why?

For credible evidence CAM therapies must demonstrate:

1) A biological basis which is plausible and credible;

2) A provision the treatment could be proved to be ineffective. Also called falsifiability.

There is no plausible biological explanation that meditation techniques by themselves are more effective as a treatment than ordinary relaxation or placebo.

One explanation could be the patient’s belief is largely responsible for any benefits felt or experienced from meditation treatment. In other words, the placebo effect is what creates any significant felt results from the treatment. In other words, any effects from treatment result from the beliefs in the person’s mind or imagination. We will discuss placebo further below. First though, let’s return to whether there’s any plausible, credible biological basis for the effectiveness of meditation techniques.

Biological mechanisms: subtle energy (prana, qi or chi)?

Most meditation techniques are derived from Eastern Buddhist or Hindu traditions. These Eastern traditions posit there is some kind of subtle life energy (prana, qi, or chi) within and without the human body. Proponents of the subtle life energy (prana, qi, or chi) hypothesis say practice of meditation techniques can unblock or improve the flow of subtle life energy within the physical body. Thereby promoting health, healing both physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Supposedly there is a subtle (scientifically undetectable) network of energy centers (nadis or chakras) within the human body.

The biological basis for such a highly speculative invisible energy (prana, qi, or life force) and a subtle energy body is implausible, as yet undetectable, and has no credibility in modern medicine. Not only is there no biological mechanism or evidence of the energy but meditation techniques themselves don’t appear to be the “active ingredient”.

“Active Ingredient” in Meditation?

If the results of meditation or any CAM treatments were greater than a placebo the treatments would be accepted as medicine, that is evidence-based medicine. To-date, no one has come up with a credible placebo to demonstrate that meditation is the “active ingredient” which gives the results or benefits. Nor has anyone yet devised any credible, replicable experiments to demonstrate that meditation is more effective than ordinary relaxation, exercise, or cognitive psychotherapy.

Meditation studies presented in the mainstream media or news are often headlined as a viable or promising complementary alternative medical (CAM) or psychological treatment. Yet, the facts are meditation and CAM have not been demonstrated to be more effective than a sham treatments. Let’s now discuss the effects of placebo in meditation and CAM.

Placebo and Meditation or CAM

To reiterate, belief in and practices in meditation and CAM persists even after:

1) The scientific evidence shows no effectiveness (greater than a placebo or sham treatment) and

2) Their biological basis is not plausible and has been discredited. [1]

Our expectations that an intervention or treatment (such as meditation) can help sometimes gives us actual benefits. The placebo effect results when a fake treatment–an inactive substance like a sugar pill or meditation technique–can sometimes improve a patient’s condition simply because the person has the expectation the treatment will be helpful.[2]

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.[3]

The benefits some people feel from meditation practice could largely depend on practitioner’s belief and may be temporary. What beliefs make it possible to feel psychological an physical benefits?

Six Points of Belief Affects Effectiveness

There was a time when I fully believed that meditation techniques, as well as many CAM treatments, helped me relieve pain or gain mental or spiritual control. Why? Because I:

  1. Wanted to believe;
  2. Needed to believe;
  3. Was certain these beliefs fit my worldview and religious principles;
  4. Had many acquaintances who also shared these beliefs;
  5. Knew persons I respected who advocated these beliefs;
  6. Interpreted personal experiences as evidence for the effectiveness of these beliefs.[4]

These six points fit neatly into a worldview I adopted about Eastern mysticism, yoga philosophy, and magical- aka “spiritual”-thinking.

Magical-, Spiritual-Thinking: Gateway to Meditation and CAM

What I discovered was my beliefs in yoga meditation–containing implausible, subtle energies such as prana, qi, and chakras–linked directly to why I sought out and paid for CAM: my acupuncture treatment helped me because the needles are stuck in supposed energy meridians in the body. In reflexology (massaging of feet or hands) the tender spots on my feet mapped to energy blockages in the body. Same with psychic healing, mind over matter, and positive affirmations. All these ‘treatments” were rooted in the same magical-, spiritual-thinking that lead me to believe in the effectiveness in yoga meditation practice.

How to Evaluate the Research Yourself

Why take someone else’s word on these research studies into meditation or CAM? You could evaluate the evidence yourself. Granted that you also are open to learning from experts, like Bausell and his excellent book Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine. When evaluating scientific papers Bausell recommends focusing on:

Methods and procedure section.

Where items such as blinding, randomization, sample size, and dropout/attrition are discussed. We discuss these items further below.

Results section.

Where the authors mention what was or was not statistically significant.
Researchers who conduct systematic reviews or meta-studies (studies of numerous studies) disregard investigator conclusions, writes Bausell in Snake Oil Science, which is one reason why systematic reviews are considered more effective and reliable than individual studies.

Bausell recommends ignoring the investigators’ discussions and conclusions sections because this is where authors may try to put a positive spin on their findings. An interpretation of one experiment is not enough. Researchers want to review the body of evidence (as in systematic review noted above) in high-quality studies to see if the findings have been independently validated and replicated.[5]

Six Steps of Increasing Credibility of Experiments

To evaluate the credibility of experiments it is necessary to understand the methods and procedures are more important than the conclusion[6]. In Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Bausell gives six steps for evaluating the credibility of CAM experiments (which includes meditation treatments).

In order of increasing credibility the six steps for evaluating experiments are:

  1. Randomized[7] controlled trials (RCTs) are more credible than nonrandomized trials.
  2. Large trials, with at least 50 patients per group (preferably more than 100) are more credible than small trials.
  3. Large, double-blinded[8] RCTs using placebo groups are more credible than RCTs not using placebos.
  4. Large double-blinded randomized, placebo-controlled trials with 20% or less drop-out rates are more credible than those with higher attrition rates (patients who drop-out of the trial before it is finished).
  5. Large double-blinded randomized, placebo-controlled trials with 20% or less drop-out rates published in high-quality journals are more credible.
  6. Large double-blinded randomized, placebo-controlled trials with 20% or less drop-out rates published in high-quality journals that have been independently validated and replicated by other investigators are more credible.

The gold standard for clinical studies or medical experiments are RCTs. To conduct RCTs you’d select a group of individuals from a wide population and randomly assign them to either a meditation or a control group.[10]

Flaws with Meditation Experiments and RCTs

Although RCTs are considered the gold standard for clinical studies, including meditation experiments, they may be flawed by:

Bias to believe – Often participants (patients) in the experiment are particularly interested in meditation. They join the study because of their interest in mediation. They join due to their belief that meditation can benefit them–which enhances the placebo effect.

Controls – The biggest problem with meditation studies is finding the right kind of activity for the control group. That is the placebo-controlled group that you will compare with meditation treatment group. Most researchers say you can’t and instead of placebo use active control groups. Participants in active control groups partake (instead of meditation treatment) in controlled relaxation, cognitive therapy, or exercise.[9]

Blinding – What can be done to “blind” participants as to which group, meditation or (placebo) control, they are in? The challenge is that researchers also are not blinded and know which group they are treating. When researchers and participants don’t know which group they are in the study is higher quality and is said to be double-blinded (when both study subjects and clinicians are ignorant which group they are working with). High quality studies “blind” both researchers and participants.

Harms of Meditation or CAM Treatments

The harm of using meditation or CAM to treat physical or psychological problems is the delay of credible diagnosis and treatment. Earlier diagnosis and treatment could have saved many people from further harm. Meditators often also believe in energetic, psychic, or spiritual healing, which are often a component of belief in CAM treatments (as we noted above with the 10 Most Common CAM therapies in the NIH and CDC charts above).

When belief or disbelief is the “active ingredient” in a treatment then we should not claim that a therapy itself is effective. It’s the belief that is effective, not the treatment. Unfortunately, people who meditate as treatment probably also believe in or use CAM therapies. Use of CAM or meditation therapies can delay diagnosis and treatment for serious illnesses, including cancer.

I’m not implying all meditators are the same; they all use meditation as prophylactic (treatment to prevent disease). Obviously, many meditators use meditation for other reasons. A thesis I put forward in this post is many meditators, especially those who believe in subtle life energy, prana, chi or qi, are more likely to seek out and be harmed by CAM treatments. There’s no credible scientific evidence that CAM or meditation therapies offer anything more than temporary relief of stress. There is no credible evidence that meditation therapies are more effective the relaxation, sleep, drugs or placebo (fake or sham treatment).

Question for readers: What’s your experience or observation? Do meditation beliefs in prana, chi or qi lead to increased use CAM therapies?

Special thanks to Scott D. Jacobsen, Editor at Conatus News, and Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing for his editorial assistance and comments prior to publication of this post. Without Scott’s help and encouragement this post would not be published.

Notes

1 Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine,  R. Barker Bausell. (2007) Oxford University Press. Ch. Rise of Complementary and Alternative Therapies: Definitions of CAM p 21

2 Placebo: Latin “to please”, is any irrelevent procedure or inert substance that produces a genuine psychological or physiological response. The placebo effect, or placebo response, is a phenomenon in which a placebo–a fake treatment, an inactive substance like sugar, distilled water, or saline solution–may improve a patient’s condition simply because the person expects it will be helpful. Bausell p 30.

3 Bausell p 256. On p 292 we read “Neither a placebo nor a CAM therapy is going to cure anything that will not resolve itself or that the body does not have the capacity to deal with. Both a placebo and a CAM therapy that appeals to you, however, are equally capable of relieving pain if it isn’t too severe.” Using meditation techniques also can give someone a sense of pain relief or psychological control.

4 Adapted from Bausell, Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

5 Bausell. Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine, p182

6 “In science, methodology is the detailed process used to arrive at a scientific conclusion. As you can imagine, the more the methodology is flawed, the more likely researchers are to come to an inaccurate conclusion.”– Bo Bennett. For elaboration about why method and procedure is more important than conclusion readers are encouraged to listen to or read Dr. Bennett’s Methodology Over Conclusion https://www.thedrboshow.com/tools/bg/Bo/TheDrBoShow/B7RvXyZw/Methodology-Over-Conclusion.

7 “A randomized controlled trial (or randomized control trial; RCT) is a type of scientific (often medical) experiment, where the people being studied are randomly allocated one or other of the different treatments under study. The RCT is often considered the gold standard for a clinical trial”. Retrieved from Wikipedia on Mar. 20, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Randomized_controlled_trial

8 Double-blinded study: A medical study in which both the subjects participating and the researchers are unaware of whether the actual or a placebo (sham/fake) treatment or procedure has been given. Retrieved from MedicineNet.com on Mar. 20, 2016, from http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=11177

9 The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? Miguel Farias and Catherine Wickholm. Watkins Publishing (2015). p 56. This easy to read and excellent book goes in-depth into the history and latest meditation research, it’s flaws, and promises.

10 Additional Resources for Evaluating the Credibility of Meditation or CAM Experiments

Quality Assessment of Controlled Intervention Studies checklist, National Institute of Health
http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-pro/guidelines/in-develop/cardiovascular-risk-reduction/tools/rct

Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions
http://handbook.cochrane.org/chapter_8/8_4_introduction_to_sources_of_bias_in_clinical_trials.htm

Medical Nonsense, Interview with Dr. Angie Feazel Mattke. Skepticality Podcast, Episode 278 (2016) https://www.skepticality.com/medical-nonsense/

Science-Based Medicine: Exploring issues and controversies in the relationship between science and medicine. Search results for “meditation”
https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?s=meditation

science mindfulness lost mind

Science of mindfulness lost its mind?

The research of mindfulness meditation lacks self-criticism. Has the science of mindfulness lost its mind? ask Oxford psychologists.

This post raises two major problems and recommends ways to improve the research.

The replacement of orange-robed gurus by white-collared academics who speak of the benefits of ‘being in the present moment’ is a powerful social phenomenon, which is probably rooted in our culture’s desire for quick fixes and its attraction to spiritual ideas divested of supernatural elements.

An important article, by Oxford psychologists Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm in The British Journal of Psychiatry, raises two major problems with researcher’s attempts to study mindfulness:

Two major problems with research of mindfulness

  1. Researchers tend to turn a blind eye to the fact that individuals react differently to mindfulness techniques. Advocates present meditation as if it’s always beneficial and seldom acknowledge the practice may not always be positive.
  2. Teachers of mindfulness have little, if any, formal training in mental health. Individuals who practice, especially those who suffer side effects, should have access to qualified mental health professionals. [For one tragic example read ‘She didn’t know what was real’: Did 10-day meditation retreat trigger woman’s suicide?]

Farias and Wikholm conclude their four page article with recommendations to improve the research and some ways to address concerns for people considering the use of mindfulness techniques.

Potential difficult psychological problems with mindfulness

Research on mindfulness (by Lomas et al in 2015) revealed that meditation practice may increase the awareness of difficult  feelings and agitate psychological problems. Forgotten childhood traumas of some practitioners can suddenly confront them during meditation practice:

I saw the depth of the pain that is buried. Things that have happened to me that have not been dealt with properly. It can be very scary to know there’s that very strong thing in there. (Lomas et al)

Mindfulness practice does not add up

Two meta-analysis (studies of studies) disconfirmed the expectation that continuous practice would lead to increasing positive benefits. In other words, they did not find any confirmation that the more you practice meditation or mindfulness the more benefits you get. Apparently the expected positive changes from mindfulness plateau after only a few weeks of practice, rather than increase or accumulate over time.

There is no clear rationale for why continuous mindfulness practice would keep improving well-being or cognitive abilities.

Proponents say continuous [mindfulness or meditation] practice adds up in a mathematical way making you:

  • More mindful
  • Super aware
  • Super controlled
  • Super happy
  • Eventually liberated from the illusion of the individual self.

These are some of the many magical things people expect from continuous practice of mindfulness and meditation.

The ‘mind gym’ can be dangerous to your health

Many people’s magical expectations of meditation techniques may be naive, but it is also dangerous contends Farias and Wikholm. Mindfulness practice is often seen as some kind of ‘mind gym’: Like brushing your teeth or going for a run to protect your health, mindfulness exercises are supposed to bring mental fitness and resilience.

Their own wishful thinking blinds most researchers and practitioners of meditation to self-criticism. Researchers mostly promote the benefits of meditation. Researchers seldom publish studies that show negative or null results. Without critical reflection on mindfulness research we stay content in our magical expectations that meditation makes us super aware, super happy, and super healthy (if not eventually liberated from illusion of self).

Recommend what?

First, we need a clear and thorough theory of how meditation techniques work. Work not magically but practically within the human body and system. We need to identify an ‘active ingredient’, the ‘mechanism of action’, that makes the technique work (versus believing in a lucky rabbit’s foot or placebo). Second, credible research studies need to include placebo groups, control for expectations, and examine why not everyone reacts positively to meditation.

It is important that we speak openly about the potential for adverse effects in order to de-stigmatize the issue; surely the last thing we want is for a patient to feel they ‘failed’ at using a technique, when the reality is that it worked differently [or not at all]…

Originally appeared in Has the science of mindfulness lost its mind? Miguel Frias and Catherine Wikholm, The British Journal of Psychiatry (BJPsych) Bulletin 2016 Dec; 40(6): 329–332.

Also, I recommend The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? by Farias and Wikholm. It’s an excellent book that examines numerous studies, what works and what doesn’t with meditation research.

Featured image by Fe Ilya, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

what meditation sickness

What is Meditation Sickness?

What do Eastern traditions say about “meditation sickness”? Who gets it and why?

“Meditation sickness” has been identified by various Eastern Buddhist traditions, and is sometimes also called “Zen sickness”, “falling into emptiness”, or “lung” (Tibetan rlung; pronounced loong).

It is not uncommon for various Buddhist masters, such as Guifeng Zongmi (780-841), a celebrated Zen master, to criticize excessive focus on meditation and achieving “inner stillness” (ningji). In Is Mindfulness Buddhist?, Robert Sharf professor of Buddhist studies at UC Berkeley, writes that Buddhist masters, like Zongmi, warned about disengagement from the world and used the term “meditation sickness” (chanbing) to criticize practices that were detrimental, mostly those techniques that emphasized inner stillness.1

Eastern masters like Zongmi, continues Sharf, were critical of practices that cultivated a non-critical or non-analytical presentness. In other words, what in today’s parlance we might call “zoning out”. We are not referring here to ordinary daydreaming or being lost in thought. Rather “meditation sickness” is a potentially harmful, even psychotic, reaction to too much immersion in meditation practice.

Meditation disorders in Buddhist traditions

In the introduction to The Varieties of Contemplative Experience: A Mixed-methods study of Meditation-related Challenges in Western Buddhists 2 we find brief descriptions from Buddhist sources of what is “meditation sickness”.

In Tibetan Buddhist traditions, nyams is a term that refers to a wide range of “meditation experiences”—from bliss and visions to intense body pain, physiological disorders, paranoia, sadness, anger and fear—which can be a source of challenge or difficulty for the meditation practitioner.

Interpretations vary in Buddhist traditions

We find in the Eastern sources that meditation-related experiences are wide-ranging and interpreted differently by different traditions. For instance:

In some Buddhist (and Hindu) lineages, meditation-related experiences are deliberately cultivated and framed as “signs of progress”. While in other lineages these experiences can be “dismissed as untrustworthy hindrances to genuine insight”.3

For example, in some Zen Buddhist lineages, makyō is a term that refers to “side-effects” or “disturbing conditions” that arise during the course of meditation practice and sometimes may be interpreted as signs of progress 4.

Zen has a long tradition of acknowledging the possibility that certain meditation practices can lead to a prolonged illness-like condition which has been called “Zen sickness” or “meditation sickness”.5

The Śūraṅgama Sūtra—a classic text of Mahāyāna Buddhism—identifies fifty deceptive or illusory experiences (skandha-māras) that are associated primarily, though not exclusively, with the practice of concentration (samādhi). The Sūtra particularly warns about pleasant experiences that lead the meditator into a false sense of spiritual progress, which results in misguided thinking and conduct.6

Likewise, “in Theravāda Buddhist traditions, progress in the practice of meditation is expected to lead to transient experiences called “corruptions of insight” (vipassanā-upakkilesā) on account of meditators’ tendency to confuse these blissful and euphoric states for genuine insight” 7.

Contemporary accounts report monks becoming “mentally unstable” in the wake of such states 8. Other stages of practice, in particular some of the “insight knowledges” (vipassanā-ñāṇa), are presented as being particularly challenging, especially in modern Asian sources 9.

Case: Meditation triggers Pennsylvania woman’s suicide

A June 29, 2017 report from PennLive, a media outlet in Pennsylvania, ran this article:

‘She didn’t know what was real’: Did 10-day meditation retreat trigger woman’s suicide?

The article describes twenty-five year old Megan Vogt who got afflicted with “meditation sickness” during a 10 day vipassana retreat in May 2017. “Instead of emerging from the course enlightened, Vogt exited incoherent, suicidal and in psychosis” wrote PennLive. Following her retreat, Vogt found herself in the psyche ward and wrote desperate emails to the retreat staff pleading for help. It did not help. Ten weeks later, Vogt was found dead after leaping from a catwalk on the Norman Wood Bridge, falling 120 feet. Tragic.

Westerners Dealing with Meditation “Disease”

In his Spiritual Sickness chapter in A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment Scott Carney gives Westerners’ several accounts of meditation “diseases”, including some which are fatal.

Carney writes:

“In 2002, [Amy Cayton, a psychologist] recited mantras on a three-week meditation retreat and something started to go wrong. At night she tossed and turned in her bed, and her mind kept spinning over the same anxious ideas. At breakfast she didn’t feel like herself. By lunchtime she had trouble breathing. Then, as she hunched over a vegetarian meal, she began to gasp for air. A woman put a hand on Cayton’s shoulder and gave her a diagnosis that she had never read in any of her psychological literature. The lady gave her a concerned look and said that Amy Cayton had lung: the meditator’s disease.

“I was the sort of person who gave 110 percent to everything, and approached meditation the same way. Then lung set in and I was suddenly emotional over everything. I’d get angry over nothing, or just burst into tears. Western doctors couldn’t diagnose the physical symptoms–shortness of breath, and loss of memory. And then there was the exhaustion. The main thing was exhaustion.”

“Cayton approached Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the founder of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT)…Based on Cayton’s symptoms, he suggested an aggressive regimen of Tibetan medicine. He instructed her to eat heavier foods and stop meditating for a while. It took time, but eventually her symptoms subsided.”10

After Cayton fully recovered Lama Zopa requested that she put together a collection of stories from FPMT students for Westerners dealing with the “meditation disease” known as lung. Her book, Balanced Mind, Balanced Body: Anecdotes and Advice from Tibetan Buddhist Practitioners on Wind Disease, is available from FPMT store.

Case: An interpretation in Hindu tradition

The Self-Realization Fellowship is a Hindu-inspired meditation group headquartered in Los Angeles. For decades I lived within the monastic orders’ ashrams. There I was committed 110% to meditation practices as taught in the SRF Lessons. In my blog post, Blank Minds and Tramp Souls, I wrote that SRF warned of the dangers of meditating in the dark without a nightlight and of letting the mind go blank (empty).

For, according to SRF, meditating in the dark or letting your mind go blank (empty) could allow entry of tramp souls to come and possess your body and mind. Demonic possession: A spooky belief, that filled me with fear to be sure. Apparently that was the best SRF could do, provide a childish superstitious diagnosis of psychoses as supernatural demonic possession, instead of warn us like adults that intensive meditation may cause temporary or permanent psychological damage.

What’s causes and cures meditation sickness?

For some people the promise of “enlightenment” pushes them to forsake people around them and risk their lives and sanity. These tend to be the people who get afflicted with meditation sickness. The cure is apparently to meditate less or stop meditating, engage with the world around them, and see a medical professional. The best cure could be prevention: Doubt and critical examination of the promises of enlightenment, nirvana, or samadhi. The connection between intensive meditation and mental instability is unclear. People who get meditation sickness appear to be the most sincere seekers and intense meditators.

Read other posts I’ve written related to:

Adverse (Side) Effects of meditation practices.

Connection Between Intensive Meditation & Mental Instability with quotations from the book cited above A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment.

Notes

Featured image: Courtesy of new 1lluminati, multiverse, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

1 Robert H. Sharf. Is Mindfulness Buddhist? (and why it matters). Transcultural Psychiatry. 2015. Vol 52(4). 470-484. [link]

2  Jared R. Lindahl , Nathan E. Fisher , David J. Cooper , Rochelle K. Rosen, Willoughby B. Britton. The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists. PLOS ONE. May 24, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176239

3 Gyatso J. Healing burns with fire: The facilitations of experience in Tibetan Buddhism. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 1999;67(1):113–47.

4 Sogen O. An Introduction to Zen training. (D. Hosokawa, Trans.) Boston: Tuttle Publishing; 2001. And, Aitken R. Taking the Path of Zen. San Francisco: North Point Press; 1982.

5 Hakuin. Idle talk on a night boat. In: Waddell N, editor. Hakuin’s Precious Mirror Cave. Berkeley: Counterpoint; 2009.

6 Hua H. The Shurangama Sutra with commentary, Vol. 8. Burlingame, CA: Buddhist Text Publication Society; 2003.

7 Buddhaghosa B. The Path of Purification. Onalaska, WA: Buddhist Publication Society; 1991.

8 Sayadaw M. Manual of insight. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications; 2016.

9 Tate A. The Autobiography of a Forest Monk. Chiang Mai: Wat Hin Mark Peng; 1993.

10 Carney S. A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment. Avery;2015. p200-201

meditation devalues thought

How Meditation Devalues Thought, Thinking, Acting

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.

challenges meditation-related experiences

Meditation-Related Challenges in Western Buddhists

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.

My post Dark Side of Meditation discusses another meditation-related study from Brown University.

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.

In Conclusion

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:

PLOS One, The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists, Jared R. Lindahl , Nathan E. Fisher , David J. Cooper , Rochelle K. Rosen, Willoughby B. Britton. Published: May 24, 2017.

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