Category: Reviews: Books and Stuff

Why Mindfulness Fails

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, coming soon].

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”.

[Read my article on Consumers of Mindfulness, Meditation, Nirvana, coming soon]

Buddhism repackaged for mass consumption?

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,
  2. Secularization,
  3. Instrumentalization.

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?

The problem of instrumentalization, 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.

What is…

“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.


1 What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (and What Isn’t): Zen Perspectives. (2016) Edited by Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum and Barry Magid. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications. p41

2 ibid p39

3 ibid p39

4 ibid p40

5 Meditation Has Become A Billion-Dollar Business. Fortune. 16 Mar 2016. Accessed 16 Jun 2017 at

Mindfulness Myths: Fantasies and Facts

Yes, mindfulness can change the brain. Everything we do changes the brain. Meditation included.

Relying on neuroscience to validate mindfulness implies meditation is not valuable in and of itself as a spiritual practice, says Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum, Zen Buddhist priest and coeditor of:

What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (and What Isn’t): Zen Perspectives1, a collection of 12 essays written by 12 Buddhist or Zen priests and Vipassana meditation instructors and therapists. All 12 essayists are committed, lifelong practitioners of Buddhism and meditation.

Rosenbaum, author of the essay Mindfulness Myths: Facts and Fantasies, is a psychologist and psychotherapist formally trained in Zen and Qigong. He received his lay [priest] entrustment from Sojun Mel Weitsman of Berkeley Zen Center and is authorized by Master Hui Liu as a senior teacher of the Taoist practice of qigong of Yang Meijun. Rosenbaum’s books include, Walking the Way: 81 Zen Encounters with the Tao Te Ching and Zen and the Heart of Psychotherapy.

What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (and What Isn’t): Zen Perspectives book as a whole is interesting and compelling read because it is written by Western Zen Buddhist priests who are thoughtful and skeptical of the mindfulness movement in America.

Below are some excerpts and summaries from Rosenbaum’s essay Mindfulness Myths: Fantasies and Facts and my commentary in brackets.

Myth and fantasy: But we know mindfulness practices changes the brain!

Fact: Yes, says Rosenbaum, but everything we do changes the brain2. Meditation included. But so does checking Facebook, listening to music, reading, closing your eyes–each activity or non-activity will register an EEG (electroencephalograph) or fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) change in the brain. So what?

[Closing one’s eyes, as in most meditation practices, is a non-activity. Sleep is a type of non-activity. Relaxation, as in meditation, is non-activity. Non-action is precisely the benefit–the  change in our brain. Disconnecting, disengaging from electronic devices or external stimuli is a non-activity. As beneficial as relaxation.]

Myth and fantasy: Mindfulness is proven effective in clinical trials


“A careful examination of the research”, writes Rosenbaum, “reveals how enthusiastic proselytizing can sometimes be less than mindful of the complexities and caveats involved.” p59

[Proselytizers of mindfulness who push the research often lack awareness, are unmindful. Or, if they are aware or mindful of the caveats in the research, are dishonest with themselves or others.]

“In fact, the benefits of quiet, relaxation, and stress management are so powerful it is often difficult to demonstrate that meditation contributes much beyond potentiating and enhancing the non-specific mechanisms at play in deep relaxation”. p60

[All mindfulness studies face the same difficulty:

What are the measures of mindfulness?

  • There’s no objective measure for a psychological state described as mindfulness.
  • To measure mindfulness, many studies use participant self-reported data.
  • Self-report studies have advantages for researchers, but disadvantages include exaggerated answers and are biased towards the participants feelings at the time of filling out the questionnaires3.
  • Most advocates of mindfulness-based therapies recommend practice more as a lifestyle or stress reduction (relaxation) technique, which begs the question:
  • What is the mechanism or active ingredient in mindfulness? There may be none.]

The thrust of Rosenbaum’s essay and throughout the book is that mindfulness ought to be practiced with lifelong commitment within its Asian Buddhist religious context:

[What’s wrong with mindfulness is that it has been] extracted from its Asian religious and spiritual contexts proponents of mindfulness are grasping to demonstrate its verifiable and useful [that there’s something to gain from mindfulness outside of its religious or spiritual context]. P55

[The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?, another book that critically examines mindfulness studies: “Listen, this new wave of studies on mindfulness is full of disingenuous scientists who are up to their necks in Buddhism”, remarked Jonathan Smith4, a 1970s pioneer in scientific research into effects of meditation practice. “Look carefully. Check the control groups they’re using.”]

Myth and fantasy: Mindfulness is superior to other techniques

Fact: Psychological studies compare one technique (such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT) to another method (such as traditional psychotherapy or medication).

What sixty years of psychological research has uncovered is that client (participant or patient) factors are far more important than the techniques.

Factors such as motivation, desire, belief, psychological, relationship and socioeconomic status account for 85-98% of the outcomes of psychological treatments. That means, the techniques themselves such as mindfulness or meditation, according to Lambert and Wampold, account for at most 2-15% of outcome variance in psychological treatments. p64

In other words, that it is the client, not the therapist nor the technique, that is most important in the process of psychological change is not popular. P65

Rosenbaum warns:

“The ‘hard science’ of research swallowed uncritically makes us more credulous: it enhances the fantasy that meditation is somehow magical, that by meditating we will not have to confront the hard work of placing our difficulties within the context of how we are living our lives and the messy specifics of how to change our behaviors.” p67

Zen and Qigong lay-priest, Rosenbaum, continues:

“In the religious sphere, meditation can tempt us with the fantasy that we are more than human, some kind of super-being, if only we attain anuttara samyak sambodhi, [samadhi], or supreme perfect enlightenment. In the secular sphere, meditation can tempt us with the fantasy that we can control our thoughts, feelings, and achieve superproductivity and happiness just through our personal [individual] efforts.” p67

I agree with Rosenbaum. Many Westerners tend to be fantasy-prone with their expectations of mindfulness or meditation techniques. Rather than practice to gain or achieve anything, the Zen Buddhist priest says that mindfulness practices are not important. What is important is awareness of life as it is and ultimately the practice is to make us aware of what’s right in front of us.


Image credit: Public Domain. affen ajlfe, brain 18, Retrieved from Creative Commons Jun 11, 2017.

1 Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum and Barry Magid (Eds.). (2016). What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (and What Isn’t): Zen Perspectives. Somerville, MA. Wisdom Publications.

2 ibid p.55

3 Self-report study. Wikipedia. Accessed on Jun 9, 2017.

4 Jonathan Smith quoted from p132 of The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? by Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm (2015) [Read my book review of The Buddha Pill]. Smith had published a landmark study in Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1976, pp630-637, Psychotherapeutic effects of transcendental meditation with controls for expectation of relief and daily sitting. Smith’s study  used equivalent expectancy controls, and he clearly demonstrated that a person’s predisposition toward anxiety (trait anxiety) is not reduced by the practice of meditation (TM method), but that it can be reduced by sitting with closed eyes in conjunction with an expectation of relief. Abstract of Smith accessed from TranceNet: TM_Independent Research on Jun 10, 2017 at

How to program disciples to a guru’s worldview

Disguised in political, spiritual, or mystical garb, a psychological contagion breeds self-mistrust, guilt, and makes one susceptible to authoritarian control.

The Guru Papers present a series of remarkable essays that challenge “unchallengeable” authorities and the age-old human quest for saviors, mystical enlightenment, and the guru-disciple relationship.

The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power is a book by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad. This post outlines the book’s main thesis. First, are two-to-three paragraphs about the two authors background in yoga, academia, and hippy culture. Next, we explore why this book is more than about gurus, but encompasses authoritarianism in politics, society, even love relationships. Richard, a former disciple and I share our personal anecdotes about the harms of surrendering to a guru. Next to last, is a critique of the book and conclusion, followed finally by a brief announcement.

Guru-buster authors

Joel Kramer started teaching yoga in the late 1960s at Esalen, a new age, hippy retreat nestled on rugged bluffs overlooking California’s Big Sur coastline. Born in 1937 on Coney Island into non-observant Jewish family, Kramer graduated in philosophy and psychology at NYU and Columbia, and later moved to Berkeley in 1963. Swept up in hippy counterculture, in the mid-1960’s he also lived with psychedelic-guru Timothy Leary in Millbrook, New York. Kramer continued to teach yoga around the world and at Esalen into the 1980s. He eventually stopped teaching yoga after students kept treating him as if he was their guru. His first book, The Passionate Mind: A Manual for Living Creatively with One’s Self (1974), is a collection of his talks influenced by the teachings of J. Krishnamurti, who as a child was groomed by the Theosophical Society to be a World Teacher but later rejected the organization, to independently lead his own spiritual-intellectual followers.

Diana Alstad, Kramer’s life partner since 1974, was born in 1944 in Minnesota into a Lutheran family. Before discovering yoga, she received a PhD from Yale in 1971, was professor of humanities at Duke University, and taught the first Women’s Studies courses at Yale and Duke. Alstad co-founded New Haven Women’s Liberation in 1968, and was on the board of the Veteran Feminists of America from 1998 to 2004. Her article “Exploring Relationships: Interpersonal Yoga” (Yoga Journal, 1979) created a foundation for the Yoga of Relationship by extending Kramer’s yogic approach to the social arena, a modality they continue to teach.

Together, Kramer and Alstad, wrote two books: The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (1993) and The Passionate Mind Revisited: Expanding Personal and Social Awareness (2009).

More than a book about gurus

More than just a book about gurus, The Guru Papers unmask the philosophical and psychological dangers of surrendering to anyone who positions themselves as knowing what is best for others. Religion (including Buddhism and Hinduism), meditation, 12-step addiction programs, and even the concept of unconditional love are revealed as tools for authoritarian control. Gurus, as the epitome of unchallengeable authority, pervade society, politics, and religions. How so?

At the heart of most spiritual and ideological worldviews is a moral code of self-sacrifice, what Kramer and Alstad assert is a “renunciate worldview”. This renunciate worldview includes voluntary self-control and is the means of authoritarian manipulation of its followers. Being “good” requires sacrificing self-interest to some “higher” authority or power, which conveniently is defined by the guru, Church or State. The guru, then, in this context is any unchallengeable authority: whether political, ideological, or spiritual.

Looking to saviors or holders of special wisdom as the path to lead humanity (or oneself) to salvation or survival, argue Kramer and Alstad, is childish. People who distrust themselves, argue Kramer and Alstad, willingly surrender and obey authorities who promise salvation and survival. Manipulation is easy when disciples surrender and obey a higher authority who claims to know what is best for followers.

The epitome of surrender and authoritarian power is the guru-disciple relationship. Kramer and Alstad argue that the guru-disciple relationship demonstrates “what it means to trust another more than oneself”[1]. When people distrust themselves they are easy prey for manipulation. In the guise of self-realization or spiritual liberation for the follower, the guru demands complete surrender of disciples.

Anecdotes: Guru, agent of truth or spiritual thief?

My personal anecdote: For 14 years I lived as a renunciate disciple in the San Diego and Los Angeles ashrams of famous guru-yogi Paramahansa Yogananda. The yoga-meditation guru proclaimed, “There is complete surrender, there is no compulsion, when a disciple accepts the guru’s training”[2]. According to the Self-Realization Fellowship, the guru’s worldwide organization, the guru is a living embodiment of truth and “an agent of salvation appointed by God in response to a devotee’s incessant petitions for release from the bondage of matter”. And, the guru is supposedly the best of givers. I believed these claims all for decades, until I stepped outside the system of beliefs and challenged the so-called “truth”.

Richard recently became a former-disciple of guru-Yogananda and a subscriber to Skeptic Meditations blog shared: “It’s very satisfying to reconnect with myself again. I am taking voice [singing] lessons. . . The guru’s professed connection to God steals from the disciple the disciple’s own experience of life. It is the worst kind of spiritual theft. The disciple’s own spiritual experiences are stolen from him and instead credited as blessings from the guru-god. The disciple can own nothing. And when one can’t own anything, not even oneself, the connection to life and others is completely severed.”

Under the guise of objective truth

Under the guise of objective truth, assert Kramer and Alstad, the seeker finds “the age-old ploy of authoritarian indoctrination: A worldview is presented by an unchallengeable authority as the truth to be found. Then practices are given that reprogram and condition the mind to that viewpoint”[3]. The guru-disciple relationship dismantles self-trust–instills doubt in follower’s own senses, intellect, and feelings–and reprograms disciples with the guru’s worldview through indoctrination, esoteric teachings and meditation practices.

Critiques and conclusions

The Guru Papers is a patchwork of essays sketched by the authors in 1984 “as a dalliance”. The book has a few irritating flaws. The chapters titled Satanism and the Worship of the Forbidden and The Authoritarian Roots of Addiction “dallied” perhaps too long into Satanism, 12 step programs, and Alcoholics Anonymous. The footnotes referencing Control throughout the book were a planned but unpublished text by the authors. Why did the authors keep these footnote references to Control? To tease and confuse? Publish Control or abolish the dead-end footnotes. But, overall the author’s writing style and tone are straightforward, conversational, and non-technical.

The assertions of Kramer and Alstad are clear, compelling, and incisive. The Guru Papers’ main thesis is that much of humanity or society is deeply conditioned to seek and to obey unchallengeable authorities. And, that surrender and obedience is what keeps humanity from the intelligence needed for solving human and world problems. Will humanity ever get “outside” or “higher” help? Not likely. The solution, say Kramer and Alstad, is moving beyond childish following of authoritarian saviors and for individuals to take personal responsibility for solving world and human problems. The Guru Papers unmask and decode authoritarian power which pervades society, love, and daily life.

Announcement for Skeptic Meditations subscribers

June through July 2016 I took a “sabbatical” from blog posting for personal and professional reasons. After two and half years of regular posting of blog articles, I felt it was time to step back and to stew–creatively and intellectually–on what might be next for you, me, and Skeptic Meditations. My hope is that I’ll be able to post new content regularly and get your feedback.

You have discovered, during my two month sabbatical, several new pages were added to Skeptic Meditations website: including new Home, new Start Here, and new subscription/follow options. Check these out, if you haven’t yet. Please don’t hesitate to float me your comments or emails when you discover anything that could be improved, challenged, or elaborated on by your own comments and critiques.


1 The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, Frog Books, 1998, p. xiii
2 The Role of a Guru in One’s Spiritual Search, Self-Realization Fellowship website. What is one searching for anyway? The guru-authority instills the desire for the objects of the search. Then sells the disciple the methods (meditation, lessons, and trainings) to gain and keep followers. What proof that the guru is a holder of special wisdom? “Wise” words and extraordinary promises (sometimes claims of miracles) are typically all that is offered.
3 The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, Frog Books, 1998, p. 128

Decades of Meditation Practice, Wasted?

By SortOfNatural, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
by SortOfNatural, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Should some devotees continue or stop wasting time in meditation practice? Or, is faith in meditation, in a guru, or in perseverance–despite insignificant results–a virtue?

This post examines long-time meditation practitioners who continue despite little or insignificant results.

Many gurus and their institutions claim that meditation is a science, that if practiced correctly meditation brings empirical results.

One such claim, that is extraordinary, can be found in a quote by Paramahansa Yogananda, guru of Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF):

“The yogic science is based on an empirical consideration of all forms of concentration and meditation exercises. Yoga enables the devotee to switch off or on, at will, life current to the five sense telephones of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Attaining this power of sense disconnection, the yogi finds it simple to unite his mind at will with divine realms or with the world of matter”.1

Some devotees may practice meditation for decades and have little if anything to show for it, let alone “empirical” results to speak of. These meditation practitioners may often rationalize and justify away their lack of significant results.

For example, below are quotes from two long-term SRF meditators, Walter and Bryan, who were interviewed by Lola Williamson, which are excerpted from her book, Transcendent In America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements As New Religion (New York University Press: 2010).

Walter, practiced meditation for forty-three years

“Although he [Walter, a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda and SRF devotee] had been practicing meditation for forty-three years, he expressed uncertainty about how much progress he had made….I was curious why he had stuck with the practice for so many years if he was not seeing results. He replied…’If I don’t meditate, I miss it….It’s seeing the world as consciousness, not as physical reality.’” p. 9

“Seeing the world as consciousness” is a seemingly profound statement, but is vague and vacuous of comprehensive meaning. Is Walter merely justifying his decades of meditation practice as-is rather than examining the actual results from the time, energy, and money he invested into meditation?

Bryan, after decades of meditation, “It’s just not what I expected”

“Bryan’s dramatic mystical experience occurred continuously over a period of two to three months. They happened before he started meditating….He puts forth tremendous effort to follow the daily disciplines he has learned through Self-Realization Fellowship, yet he does not feel he has gained control over his experiences. I [Bryan] kept asking, ‘Where’s some dramatic stuff? Where’s the beef?’…’It’s hard. In hindsight I know what I’ve gotten back; it just hasn’t been what I thought it would be. Meditation has made me a much calmer person. It’s helped to be in the present moment. And this is a lot. It’s just not what I expected.’” p. 165

by JD, Wasted Time, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
by JD, Wasted Time, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

The meditation practice and particular worldview that is often taught with it, such as in SRF, may be difficult for many devotees to question or to not stay attached to. Psychologists call the tendency in people to be attached to their investments, despite heavy losses, the sunk-cost bias2. It may take a person years to give up on poor investments. The greater the loss of the investment often the longer it may take a person to let the investment losses go.

After thinking critically about my experiences with meditation practice and in SRF I realized that the results I got from meditation practice were insignificant compared with the great investment of my time, energy, and money.

Are long-time meditation practitioners too invested to quit or at least to question the value of continuing to meditate as-is? What other excuses or arguments might devotees have to try to convince themselves or others that they are not wasting precious time in meditation?

No True Meditator Argument

At this point, I’m guessing that some devoted meditators who read this will invoke the No True Scotsman3, or, what I will call the No True Meditator, argument to try to rationalize why they may not, nor anyone else may not, get significant results from meditation.

The fallacious No True Scotsman (No True Meditator) argument may go something like this:

Walt: Meditation practitioners will get tremendous results of concentration and realizations.
Tom: Then why are there so many meditators who don’t get results?
Walt: They were never true meditators.
Tom: What’s a true meditator?
Walt: Only those who get results.

Question for readers: What other reasons or arguments are there for why some long-time practitioners don’t quit meditating when results are insignificant?


1 Autobiography of a Yogi, Chap 26: The Science of Kriya Yoga, Paramahansa Yogananda (Self-Realization Fellowship)

2 The sunk-cost bias or fallacy is described as “reasoning that further investment is warranted on the fact that the resources already invested will be lost otherwise, not taking into consideration the overall losses involved in the further investment.”–Logically Fallacious, 

No True Scotsman, also known as No True Christian, and what I’ve taken the liberty to call here the No True Meditator argument or fallacy that is described as “when a universal (“all”, “every”, etc.) claim is refuted, rather than conceding the point or meaningfully revising the claim, the claim is altered by going from universal to specific, and failing to give any objective criteria for the specificity.”–Logically Fallacious,

Problems with Beliefs & Practices of Hindu-Inspired Meditation Groups

meditation group Hindu yoga
premasagar, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

A 20 year insider investigates the worldviews and practices of Hindu-inspired meditation movements.

In Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements (2010, New York University Press) Lola Williamson explores the worldviews, mystical experiences, and guru-disciple relationships of Hindu-inspired meditation movements (HIMMs) and examines three famous gurus and the organizations they founded: Self-Realization Fellowship of Paramahansa Yogananda, Transcendental Meditation of Maharishi Maheshi Yogi, and Siddha Yoga Dham Associates of Swami Muktananda.

She interviews followers of these organizations who have 20+ years of tutelage under these famous gurus. These three organizations combine Hinduism with Western values that form a hybrid, new religion that Williamson calls HIMMs[1].

Williamson, at the time she began writing this book, had participated for 21 years in Siddha Yoga and saw herself as a devout disciple of Gurumayi, the guru-successor of that movement. Before that Williamson was involved for 10 years in teacher trainings with Maharishi in Transcendental Meditation.

As Williamson investigated these movements to write this book she learned of disturbing accounts of abuses and organizational dysfunctions that were endemic to many of these groups[2].

She and many followers of HIMMs felt it was necessary to distance themselves from rumors of scandals and negativity that was reported by persons who left the ashrams and the organizations.

In 2005, Williamson abandoned this book project and quit Siddha Yoga because of the “cult-like atmosphere pervaded by many of the movements”.

In 2007, she resumed writing of this book that offers a unique perspective on HIMMs from both inside and outside.

Two perspectives, insider and outsider, reveal bits of reality in different ways, like the lame man riding on the shoulders of the blind man[3].

Williamson, as an insider understands the “heart” of the tradition and what makes the HIMM faith attractive to its followers. Outsiders, on the other hand, like Williamson [and myself included], may provide a different perspective and a willingness to examine and critique abuses.

“I also realized that some people use Hindu-style meditation and the philosophy accompanying it to escape from facing hard truths about themselves or about people and events around them”- Williamson [For example, see my post Abandoning Family for a Guru]

This post is the first in a series that will summarize Lola Williamson’s book, Transcendent In America: Hindu-Inspired Movements as New Religion

Beliefs and Practices of Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements

Paraphrasing from Transcendent In America here are some of the beliefs and practices common to HIMMs:

1. Strong commitment to meditation as a means to attaining inner peace, and ultimately, to attaining a state of consciousness described by practitioners variously as liberation, enlightenment, or unity consciousness;

2. Belief that the guru of the movement has attained this state of liberation and serves as their guide;

3. Initiation into a deep, personal relationship with the guru, who is the center of charismatic authority;

4. Each HIMM sees itself as a sort of “family” centered on the guru;

5. Share common beliefs such as karma (natural law of retribution) and reincarnation and the ideal of “enlightenment”;

6. Share common lifestyle; purity is necessary for attaining enlightenment and adherence to dietary restrictions, most are vegetarians and try to avoid stressful situations or “negative” thinking;

7. Seek a balanced life that combines self-effort with a sense of ease, often limiting exposure to popular “worldly” culture or entertainments often viewed as not helpful to spiritual evolution;

8. Belief that self-reflection aids spiritual growth, may include introspection, psychotherapy, or participation in human potential groups;

9. Share common rituals (eg. chanting, meditation), myths (eg. ascending chakras in an astral spine service as a ladder up to samadhi, awakening of kundalini or serpent energy), and metaphors (eg. yoking the five senses to the “chariot” of yoga meditation–an allegory from the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture);

10. Conceive of HIMM practices and beliefs as more than or greater than “religion”, that it’s a universal, spiritual approach to life available to anyone irrespective of faith tradition.

The are several problems, says Williamson, with this interwoven system of meaning used by people who participate HIMMs.

Problems with Beliefs & Practices of Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements

According to Williamson, there are several problems with the beliefs and practices of HIMMs, including:

HIMMs do not adhere to “universal” beliefs nor practices

A. First, the notion that the beliefs and practices of HIMMs are universal actually disregards the fact that many religious practitioners do not believe that “God” dwells within a human being or that union with God is possible or even desirable.

B. The notion that differences in religions can be transcended if everyone where to experience unity consciousness is a particular dogma or belief system of HIMMs, even if it arises out of personal experiences.

C. Essentially, followers and gurus of HIMMs are asserting that unity among religions would be possible if everyone accepted the HIMM worldview or practiced the HIMM forms of meditation.

HIMMs adhere to dogmatic beliefs and ritualized practices, like other religions

D. HIMMs compare the inner depth of their religious system to the outer expressions of others. To outsiders, though, that observe HIMMs, the particular rituals, practices, and dogma appear as forms like any other religion, for only the external can be observed.

E. Rituals most valued by HIMMs center on practices of meditation and initiation into its methods. Traditional Indian Hinduism, like traditional Asian Buddhism [See my post From Monastic to Domestic Mindfulness], reserved the initiations and practices of meditation exclusively for monks and renunciates, not for householders as is touted by HIMMs as a way to recruit people from all walks of life.


Transcendent In America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion questions and discusses, from both insider and outsider perspectives, the problems, beliefs and practices of Hindu-inspired meditation movements (HIMMs).

In the above article I summarized and paraphrased what Williamson noted is the system of meaning of people who participate in HIMMs, including: strong commitment to meditation as way to peace and liberation or enlightenment, initiation into a guru-disciple relationship with a charismatic authority, share common beliefs such as karma (retribution), reincarnation, dietary restrictions, and a set of Hindu-inspired but Westernized rituals and myths that are similar externally to any other religion.

Some problems with HIMM’s beliefs and practices, paraphrasing Williamson in Transcendent in America, include: adherence to a dogma that meditation is universal when actually only if other religions believe like HIMMs do that god is within all human beings and that god may be found in their forms of meditation practice. Traditional, Indian Hinduism reserved meditation practice for monastics. HIMMs promote meditation as a necessary and desirable practice for people from all walks of life.

Question for readers: Have you ever considered yourself a participant in a HIMM, as outlined above? Are there other key components (not included in the lists above) that more clearly represent the system of meaning, practices, and beliefs of participants in HIMMs?


1 In defining HIMMs, Williams says, “There is a qualitative difference between people who have been raised in a tradition in which the rituals, the foods, the prayers, and the ethics are second nature, and people who have incorporated only parts of a tradition into their religious style. This is why I use the term ‘Hindu-inspired’ rather than ‘Hindu’ to describe Transcendental Meditation and similar movements….Western traditions of individualism and rationalism also influence the style and ethos of these movements.” p 4 Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements (2010, New York University Press). On p 25 of The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009, Penguin Books) Wendy Doniger says, “The books that Euro-Americans privileged (such as the Bhagavad Gita) were not always so highly regarded by ‘all Hindus’, certainly not before the Euro-Americans began to praise them.”

2 In future posts I intend to explore some of the abuses and dysfunctions of HIMMs as described by Williamson in her book.

3 Adapted from p 34 of The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009, Penguin Books) Wendy Doniger