Tagged: Buddhism

Meditation techniques offer illusion of control

Esther Simpson, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Esther Simpson, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Meditation techniques, like religion, offer an illusion of control, a false promise of personal mastery.

Helplessness, insecurity, and uncertainty are part of the human condition. Unable to find permanent freedom from our ailments, we willingly surrender our bodies and minds, our time and resources, to uselessly following the advice of charlatans, of spiritual teachers, gurus, or buddhas.1 Meditation techniques may act as a placebo (sham or fake) treatment to our ailments that give us an illusion of control.

To begin, let’s define “illusion” as a thing that is or that is likely to be wrongly perceived and that probably we have wrong ideas about. Now, let’s proceed with our discussion of the illusion of control offered by meditation techniques.

Helplessness and the human condition

Life largely operates beyond our control. Our birth, death, and much of life’s events unfold mostly outside our power. We crave security and certainty and want to exert our influence over other people. Many people believe that meditation techniques provide them with unlimited access to secret knowledge, to magical cures, and to personal mastery over one’s body, mind, and world.

Meditation philosophy, inspired by Hinduism and Buddhism that will be discussed below, is built upon the false premise that there is something wrong, missing, or corrupt within us, which is beyond our awareness and control. (Read my post Duped by Meditation? for further elaboration on false premises underlying many meditation practices).

Charlatans, gurus, and spiritual teachers implant in our minds the need of a cure (from our unawareness, asleepness, or out-of-controlness), and then offer us sham products that offer the illusion of control.

Mind-control disguised as self-control

Meditation teachers are seen by many of their followers as moral authorities who implant in their minds the necessity of self-control. Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, in their book The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, warn, “All mind control operates under the guise of self-control”.2 Under this psychological, spiritual, and theological pretext, meditation is a fraudulent technique that is sold on the pretense of offering self-control.3 Practitioners often willingly surrender control to teachers who have already implanted in them the need for self-restraint as the right path to ultimate freedom of body, mind, and spirit.

Self-Realization Fellowship, a Hindu-inspired religion that I used to follow, promises that disciples who correctly practice the given meditation techniques every day will eventually, if not in this life then in a future incarnation, attain total self-realization, self-mastery bringing complete awareness of Self or God.

In the Samadhi Padi chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra says, “Yoga is the restraint of mental modifications” (“Yogaś citta-vritti-nirodhaḥ”).4 Mental control or restraint, a core component of yoga, is supposed to eventually lead the practitioner to the penultimate state of Dhyana (meditative trance and total absorption in self-awareness or Samadhi).5

For many people, meditation techniques offer a theological or moral framework that appeals to their unmet needs to control body, mind, and world.

Masters, frauds, and the uncontrollable self

The more we feel helpless, the more we want to assign control to someone or something else to cure or fix us and our world. We attribute magical agency to spiritual teachers, religions, and meditation techniques.

Kramer and Alstad, point out that in the East the prevailing idea is that the self is limited and to be transcended (Hinduism) or that the idea of the self is a false identity of the mind that is to be transcended (Buddhism). These Eastern ideas are biased towards the reduction or elimination of the self or ego to attain a permanent selflessness or egolessness.7 Any teacher or mystic who claims to be totally selfless or egoless must also claim to be totally conscious.

In Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at University of Virginia, gives reasons why our unconscious is inaccessible: “The bad news is that it is difficult to know ourselves because there is no direct access to the adaptive unconscious, no matter how hard we try…. Because our minds have evolved to operate largely outside of consciousness, it may not be possible to gain direct access to unconscious processing.”8

For gurus and spiritual teachers to admit that unconscious factors are at play within oneself would mean that no one can be certain that any person can ever be completely self-aware or can be totally selfless and egoless. It is debatable that so-called advanced masters, mystics, and saints are what they say they are: totally self-aware, in complete self-control, and perfected in selflessness or egolessness; and that the teacher knows what is best for disciples who strive to follow in her footsteps.

Kramer and Alstad write, “If there were even the remote possibility that a totally realized being had an unconscious, how could anyone (including the realized one) be certain that all motives and actions were pure and selfless?”9 Many Eastern-inspired religious teachers negate or devalue Western psychology because its concepts about the unconscious (uncontrollable self) undermines their power and authority.

Countless people look to charlatans, spiritual teachers, or gurus who they believe are completely conscious, totally selfless, and have foolproof answers and magical cures.

Results from meditation: placebo effect?

Our feelings of powerlessness feed anxieties and hunger for coping mechanisms.10 The times we feel most uncertain and helpless is when we most want answers and control. Even an illusory sense of control is enough to satisfy.

Our expectations that a technique or treatment will be helpful can sometimes give us beneficial effects. A meditation technique can enhance a practitioner’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that the practice will be helpful. Medical scientists say that the placebo effect–when a fake treatment or technique (an inactive substance like a sugar pill or meditation technique)–can sometimes improve a patient’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful.11

In Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine, R. Barker Bausell, a former Research Director of the National Institute for Health-funded Complementary Medicine Program, points out that, “If a completely inactive pill, ointment, or procedure (in other words, a placebo), accompanied by the expectation of effectiveness, can result in pain relief, then surely any therapy–no matter how bizarre–that we consider credible enough to seek out (and pay for) can also result in pain relief [or give us feelings of control and well-being], compliments of the placebo effect.”12

The effects we may feel from meditation practice then may be largely a sham, a treatment that creates temporary relief and illusion of control.

The Journal of American Medical Association published a landmark meta-study of 47 clinical trials with 3,515 participants on the effects of meditation. The researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore concluded that meditation treatments were not better than drugs or exercise. (Read my post Meditation Not Better than Drugs or Exercise, Study Finds). “The studies overall failed to show much benefit from meditation with regard to relief of suffering or improvement in overall health, with the important exception that mindfulness meditation provided a small but possibly meaningful degree of relief from psychological distress,” wrote Allan H. Goroll, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School-Massachusetts General Hospital.

A wish for you

In summary, meditation techniques may act as a sham or fake (placebo) treatment for ailments and give an illusion of control. Whether any person is ever able to be completely self-aware, self-controlled, and selfless is debatable. The false promises of personal mastery and magical cures from charlatans is something everyone needs to guard against by using critical thinking.

If you suffer, are in pain, or feel powerless; if the meditation techniques you practice help, then, I am happy for you. Or, if you discovered that meditation techniques didn’t ultimately help, like I did, then I hope you find an effective treatment or another placebo. Understanding that illusions or placebos may have benefits also means there are countless ways you could improve your situation and get a sense of control over your life.

Notes

1 The seed idea about the illusion of control was gleaned from James A. Lindsay’s, Everybody Is Wrong About God (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2015) p. 79

2 Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (Berkeley, CA: Frog Books, 1993) p. 225

3 James A. Lindsay, Everybody Is Wrong About God (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2015) p. 79

4 Quoted from “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga_Sutras_of_Patanjali

5 See “Samadhi”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samadhi

6 James A. Lindsay, Everybody Is Wrong About God (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2015) p. 79

7 Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (Berkeley, CA: Frog Books, 1993) pp. 101-102

8 This quotation of Timothy Wilson is from On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not by Robert A Burton, M.D. (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2008) p146

9 Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (Berkeley, CA: Frog Books, 1993) p. 102

10 James A. Lindsay, Everybody Is Wrong About God (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2015) p. 80

11 See “Definition of Placebo Effect”, MedicineNet.com, http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=31481

12 R. Barker Bausell, Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007) p. 256

Selfless Realization from Meditation?

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Meditation techniques are often used to negate the self.

Assuming the “self” is a product of the human mind, and with the idea of self as limited or false, Hindus and Buddhists created mental methods to transcend or reverse this faulty self-identity1.

What is meant by self-identity is who and what one thinks one is. It is the pillar of one’s personality2.

Traditional Eastern Hindus and Buddhists often used techniques to deconstruct self-identity.

Hindu-inspired meditation movements treat self as delusion.

The ultimate aim in Hindu meditation is transcending the self. The self is to be sacrificed for a so-called Higher Self.

Buddhist-inspired practitioner’s try to perceive the self as illusion.

The ultimate aim for the Buddhist is destruction of the self. That is, the ideal is annihilation of self-concept that supposedly is the cause of one’s suffering.

Read my post about the Contradictions with Samadhi 

What many Hindu- and Buddhist-inspired meditation techniques have in common is that they involve negating thought to transcend thought.

Whether one can actually transcend or negate thought may be debatable. But these mental methods, that some claim are beneficial, even miraculous, contain contradictions and warnings.

Selflessness contains contradictions, including:

  • Self-identity is deconstructed and then built up using a guru’s or a group’s beliefs and worldviews;
  • One’s feelings are given more importance than thought. Negating thoughts may prevent the use of critical thinking which could protect one from unnecessary suggestibility and gullibility.
  • Valuing selflessness and denying selfishness is itself “self-centered”. Humans all are out for self-interest.

We may never know if negation of self is possible. Heck, scientists, philosophers, poets, and mystics have been debating for millennia what “self” may be. We may have many selves. Here we defined self-identity as what makes up one’s personality and sense of who and what one is at any given moment.

My decades of practice with meditation techniques demonstrated to me that thoughts are never actually transcended nor negated. The desire to permanently attain a selfless or thoughtless state of enlightenment seems to me to be a delusion, one that many gurus and groups use to lure and keep followers.

I have had many experiences in and out of sitting meditation where I felt like I was floating above my self, was bursting with love, or was one with everything. Most of these experiences occurred randomly outside of sitting meditation without any effort on my part3. Even while writing this I find that by simply thinking or imaging something intently I can experience overwhelming emotions well up from within. So-called self-transcendent experiences may occur often and may be ordinary to many people. Perhaps they are so ordinary we frequently discount them.

“Before enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water” a Zen monk supposedly told his students.

Can people transcend self using mental techniques that negate one’s thoughts? Might some gurus and groups distort people’s perceptions of the themselves to take advantage of them?

Notes

The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, Frog Books: Berkeley, CA, 1993, p. 101

2 ibid, p. 103

3 These so-called transcendent or mystical experiences that I have had I have interpreted in various ways at different times throughout my life. While I was fervent religious believer, I interpreted these experiences as supernatural, as a gift from god or guru. After I learned to think more critically, I have interpreted my past and present “mystical” experiences as natural, as part of being human. Just because there may not be a definitive explanation for self-transcending experiences does not give us license to say we know they have some extraordinary or supernatural cause.

Monasticism

monk scribe drawingIndex of my posts about the Monastic Order of Self-Realization Fellowship.

Ashram, Monk Life

 Pompous Politics and Bizarre Beliefs

Heresy and Confession

Vows and Rules

Monasticism, general

Souls, Selves, and Afterlife Contradictions

Afterlife, Keoni Cabral, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Afterlife, Keoni Cabral, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

More powerful than beliefs in Gods, our notions of the afterlife shape our self-consciousness. What we think of death drives our desires and actions in the here-and-now.

My quest for self-realization–of life after death–was pursued in decades-long practice of yoga meditation. Paramahansa Yogananda taught the disciples that when yoga meditation was properly practiced it led to voluntary death of the ego and body.

“Many yogis in India can say with St. Paul, ‘Verily, I protest by our rejoicing which I have in Christ, I die daily.’ Yogananda goes on to say, “Death may be either an involuntary or a voluntary switching off of the life current from the bulb of flesh, Yogis who know how to operate the switch of the heart, and to control their heartbeats, can quit the body quickly and at will; or stay in it as long as they wish. [See also my posts Can Yogis Stop Their Heart? and The Evidence Against Breathlessness and Samadhi]

Given the primacy of afterlife beliefs in shaping human consciousness and activities, it is vitally important to examine notions of life after death.

Our post here continues these afterlife explorations with eight quotations from the highly recommended book Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion by Alan F. Segal.

The democratic West is based upon the internal experience of self-consciousness and the conviction that this individual self-reflection is the basis and definition of a unique, even a transcendent self. It valorizes that personal experience as transcendent, saying the examined life transcends our short span of years. p 714

Modern America, Christian or not, has ineluctably retreated to the position of the pagan philosophers of late antiquity: Our souls are immortal by nature; all will be saved…that it is really self-realization that guarantees our salvation. p 715

It was Plato’s doctrine of immortality of the soul that allowed us to focus on our conscious experiences, that valorized those experiences and eventually made the “self” the center of philosophical interest in the West, that made the “self” as well as God, a transcendent value in Western thought. p 716

In traditional religious parlance, notions of the transcendent self are not universal. In many kinds of Buddhism the concept of the “self” is itself a fundamental mistake; for many Buddhist intellectuals there is, in truth, no continuous self. Realizing that we are not ultimate is the better part of reaching enlightenment. p 718

In the great Asian religions, transcendence is often signified by inscrutability: the Tao (way) that can be uttered is not the real Tao, say the Tao te Ching in its first statement. Confucianism believes it cannot be fully understood by any one person or in any single instantiation. One cannot reach Moksha (liberation) merely by trying to understand it with the discursive mind but must meditate on it. By claiming that the mind cannot understand or comprehend a value, these systems are affirming transcendence in the values named as “inscrutable”. p 722

People who live with faith today, whether in the majority or minority, are living in a world that does not need the hypotheses of religion to explain the universe. We can live perfectly complete lives without it if we want. But few do. p 730

It is the afterlife that provides the answer to every unbalanced equation. Every injustice can be righted there, every disability can be made whole, every individual, rich or poor, can find solace from personal trials and tribulations. p 697

The sureties provided by the afterlife normally demand that it be a socially shared phenomenon. That confirmation is normally provided by powerful, religious institutions in society. p697

Perhaps even more powerful than beliefs in Gods are socially shared notions of the afterlife. Our beliefs in what may happen after death shape our self-consciousness and actions in the here-and-now.

My own quest for self-realization led me to decades-long practice of yoga meditation under the tutelage of an Indian guru, Paramahansa Yogananda. Yogis and devotees claim that consciousness survives death. Yet, for many Buddhist intellectuals there is no continuation of the self.

Amidst the contradictions, why are so many people confident humans have a soul, a transcendent self, or a life after death?

The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?

the buddha pillCan practice of contemplative techniques bring lasting personal change? If so, are changes always for the better?

Two Oxford psychologists, Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm, examine the empirical evidence and tease out facts from fictions about meditation.

In The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? Farias and Wikholm examine 40 years of clinical studies about the effects of Transcendental Meditation, popularized by Beatles Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and investigate the astonishing claims made by mindfulness meditation advocates.

Meditation practice appears to have physiological benefits. Yet, “a crucial problem”, grapples Farias, “is how to pinpoint the active ingredient of mindfulness that helps with depression.” (p 111)

The authors also did their own empirical studies using inmates of U.K. prisons: stress-testing the effects of yoga meditation on murderers, rapists, and thugs.

Examining 40 years of research on effects of meditation, the authors concluded:

  1. Scientific evidence for lasting change from meditation practice is weak.
  2. Only modest changes for practitioners of meditation. Yet many who use or teach meditation techniques make astonishing claims about their powers.
  3. Meditation gives rise to different mental states, but there is nothing physiologically extraordinary going on.
  4. Studies are poorly conducted: have small sample sizes, lack proper control groups, and full of problematic biases. They explain why in detail.
  5. There is a dark side to meditation–psychosis, breakdowns, and violent behaviors–that seldom is spoken of by meditation advocates and practitioners.

Farias and Wikholm are sympathetic to meditation. Though the empirical evidence revealed that meditation is not a cure-all and is not a magic pill, while some practitioners experience nothing and others have adverse side-effects.

“I haven’t stopped believing in meditation’s ability to fuel change, but I am concerned that the science of meditation is promoting a skewed view: meditation wasn’t developed so we could lead less stressful lives or improve our wellbeing. It’s primary purpose was much more radical–to rupture your idea of who you are; to shake to the core your sense of self so that you realize there is ‘nothing there’.” (p 152)

The chapter The Dark Side of Meditation gives many examples of Buddhist violence and how a Buddha or bodhisattva may justify killing. Farias recounts how during his visit to an Indian yoga guru’s ashram, he was confronted by machine gun-carrying guards and was walled-in by pro-death penalty posters. “What if Hitler had meditated?” they ask: speculating what if the Fuhrer would have meditated and experienced lasting physiological change, conquered the world by compassion and peace instead of killing and violence.

“One of the crucial teachings of Buddhism is that of emptiness: the self is ultimately unreal, so the bodhisattva who kills with full knowledge of the emptiness of the self, kills no one; both the self of the killer and the self of the the killed are nothing more than an illusion (p 166).

“The most recent evidence, which analyzes dozens of studies conducted over more than forty years, suggests that if you are generally anxious or emotionally unstable, TM (Transcendental Meditation) will help you to a moderate extent, and will be more effective than simple relaxation. If you have have high blood pressure, the American Heart Association recommends TM (while mindfulness is not recommended), although physical exercise, such as swimming or running, would be better.” (p 14)

A ground-breaking book, The Buddha Pill, promotes critical thinking about meditation in an easy to follow and yoga-friendly tone. Farias and Wikholm guide the reader to question and think critically about the astonishing claims of meditation advocates.