Tagged: Buddhism

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

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.

If you have any thoughts on meditation-related challenges, please write to us in the box below titled “Leave a Reply” and enter your comments there.

whats wrong mindfulness zen

What’s Wrong with Mindfulness: Zen Perspectives

Raising urgent questions, twelve essays offer critical, Zen perspective on mindfulness and meditation practices.

What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (And What Isn’t): Zen Perspectives1 (2016) is a critical examination of what’s wrong, and what isn’t, with the mindfulness movement in contemporary Western society.

What’s unique about this collection of twelve essays is they are written by committed, lifelong Western Buddhist meditation practitioners and lay-teachers. The essayists are simultaneously pessimistic and cautiously optimistic about the long term impact of mindfulness in Western society.

What’s Wrong with Mindfulness?

This collection of twelve short essays was edited by Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum and Barry Magid.

Rosenbaum is a psychologist and psychotherapist formally trained in Zen and Qigong. Magid, also a psychologist and psychoanalyst, is founder of a school in New York, the Ordinary Mind Zendo, that teaches Zen.

Along with Rosenbaum and Magid, other contributing essayists include: Janet Jiryu Abels, founder and coresident teacher at Still Mind Zendo in New York; Zoketsu Norman Fischer a poet, writer, and Zen Priest; and Gil Fronsdal, a Vipassana teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center; and seven other contributors–all contributors are Buddhist, Zen, or Vipassana meditation practitioners and ordained lay-instructors.

Below is my review of this engaging collection of essays.

Curative Fantasy

In Part One, Critical Concerns: Mischief in the Marketplace for Mindfulness, Marc Poirier, a law professor and lay Zen teacher, writes [I’m paraphrasing]:

The practice of mindfulness in popular culture is troublesome as it should not be a “goal-oriented technique”. That is, mindfulness is often promoted outside of a Buddhist context as a technique to gain [something]. For instance, Poirier criticizes corporations such as Google and law firms that train employees in techniques of mindfulness to help the company be more productive. To Poirier, and the twelve other essayists, mindfulness will not be useful, in the long term, when it is disconnected from its roots in an Asian-Buddhist  worldview.

The “curative fantasy”, writes Poirier, is symptom of a Western, Americanized, quick fix approach to solving problems. He explains that day-long or weeks-long workshops, retreats, and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an eight week intervention format, are problematic. When mindfulness is packaged for quick results, advocates leave out crucial components: sustained engagement, community, and support of qualified Buddhist meditation teachers. All these components, Poirier believes, are crucial for healthy and long term Buddhist or Zen practice.

The removal (secularization) of mindfulness from its Asian-Buddhist context deemphasizes the need for a sustained commitment to a lifelong practice within Buddhism.

What’s Wrong (and What Isn’t) with this book?

Firstly, I’m not an advocate for Buddhism, Zen, or meditation practices. Nor am I convinced by this book that I should practice mindfulness, especially within an Asian-Buddhist tradition. I remain skeptical of claims of superiority of meditation, Zen, or Buddhist systems.

However, I understood the questions raised and the concerns identified by the essayists, including:

zen mindfulness meditation
Zen, Michael Day, Flickr, CC by 2.0

Self is a movement, not a thing

Many benefits and fruits of Zen practice are real, but they are not to be gained, nor pursued. Just sit, regularly, for a sustained period, and see what is here right now. p27

Zen differs from mindfulness practice in placing less emphasis on training in modes of awareness. p34

Self is not a thing. It is a movement in time. p34

Awareness itself doesn’t make you a better person

“[Being] ‘more attentive’ while clinging to your sense of self [mind]…will not necessarily make you a better person.” Awareness itself does not offer a path forward to self-improvement.

The authors advocate that mindfulness practice (which they say is useless as an end or means to an end itself) should be tethered to a traditional Buddhist worldview, with a lifelong commitment to practice within an Asian spiritual-lineage, teacher and religious community.

In the epilogue, Is Mindfulness Buddhist? (And Why It Matters), Robert Sharf, Chair of the Center for Buddhist Studies at University of California-Berkeley, criticizes the popular idea that mindfulness can lead to “bare attention”.

mindfulness meditation zen critique
Zen Coffee Shop, Nguyễn Thành Lam, Flickr, CC by 2.0.

Critiques of Mindfulness as Bare Attention

The “mind” is not a blank slate or tabula rasa, writes Sharf. He says there is no such thing as bare attention. “Bare” (clean slate) attention is fake. Most of what occurs in our thoughts and awareness is unconscious, influenced by our unconscious conditioning: society, tradition, and genetics.

Proponents claim, says Sharf, that mindfulness practice is not “conditioning” but deconditioning or deconstructing of the mind or awareness. Yet, everything we are aware of is filtered through our unconscious conditioning. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t meditate. But it does raise the question about claims that meditation is somehow special in knowing our “true” mind or self.

You can be aware of being aware, and aware of being aware, and aware of being aware of being aware of being aware, and so on. p33

An underlying premise held by many practitioners of mindfulness or meditation techniques is that through practice one can actually “see” what’s going on in the mind or self.

But “mind” or “self” are mostly unconscious. Mostly vague, changing many “minds” or selves”. Not just one or fixed things. Since most of our mind or self is and probably always will be unconscious, we cannot really “know” mind or self. Mind or self is a movement, a relationship. Assuming that this is so, then there is no mind or self “out there” or “in here” to grasp.

Concluding thoughts

What’s most important is experience of awareness, of life as it is. Nothing is needed to be gained. p44

What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (And What Isn’t): Zen Perspectives is engaging and thought provoking for students and persons interested in meditation and mindfulness practice. I recommend this book to learn more about what’s wrong and what isn’t with mindfulness or any meditation practice.

Read my other writings critiquing mindfulness and meditation:

What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (and What Isn’t) inspired the first three articles listed below.

Notes

Feature image: Zen by iggyshoot. Flickr. CC by 2.0.

1 What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (And What Isn’t): Zen Perspectives, Paperback. Edited by Robert Rosenbaum & Barry Magid. 2016.

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, What’s Wrong with Mindfulness: Zen Perspectives].

Barry Magid is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst practicing in New York City. He is a founding member of the Ordinary Mind Zendo in New York and author of several books, Ordinary Mind: Exploring the Common ground of Zen and Psychoanalysis, Ending the Pursuit of Happiness: A Zen Guide, and Nothing is Hidden: The Psychology of Zen Koans.

Marc Poirier (1952-2015) was professor of law at Seton Hall University Law School in New Jersey. He received lay entrustment from his teacher, Barry Magid, to teach meditation to students and faculty of his law school and was a longtime practitioner of meditation and active with Zen Teachers Association.

“McMindfulness”drive-through

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 Meditation, Mindfulness, and Nirvana]

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?

Gain? The problem (of making mindfulness an instrument for gain), say the authors, is the value of the activity of meditation is not in the activity itself but in what it is to be gained. It’s commodified products or results.4

What’s the harm of removing mindfulness from Buddhism?

Removing Buddhism from its Asian cultural and religious contexts, say Magid and Poirier:

  • Obscures traditional practices [of Buddhism and distorts them].
  • Consequences [of practice ] are no longer considered sacred.
  • Loses lineages of Eastern tradition; mindfulness is no longer part of a religious container.

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.

Notes

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 http://fortune.com/2016/03/12/meditation-mindfulness-apps/.

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

Fact:

“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.

Notes

Image credit: Public Domain. affen ajlfe, brain 18, www.modup.net/. 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 http://minet.org/www.trancenet.net/research/abs.shtml.