Tagged: meditation

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.

consumers of meditation mindfulness and nirvana

Consumers of Meditation, Mindfulness, and Nirvana

By meditating the consumer believes they can find happiness, health, or Nirvana. Most of all, to practice mindfulness or meditation consumers believe they can collect pleasurable experiences (whether couched in physical, emotional, or spiritual terms).

Here we explore how mindfulness and meditation are used to get people to spend money and consume products that they otherwise might not buy1. We are exploited by elite authorities who tell us we should meditate. What causes us to be consumers of meditation mindfulness and nirvana?

Thus, meditation and mindfulness are the ultimate products, writes Jeff Wilson in his praiseworthy book Mindful America (2014). [Read my post reviewing the book.] The act of mindfulness can not be packaged or measured. So the benefits of practicing are cleverly “packaged”, promoted, and pushed as workshops, retreats, and lessons (books).

Consumers of meditation, mindfulness, and nirvana

Peddlers of meditation and mindfulness use:

  • Scientific studies to promote the benefits of their products and services,
  • Testimonials of people who were once stressed out and unhappy, and thanks to meditation, are now blissed out and happy.
  • Marketing tactics used to sell “ancient” meditation techniques.

A quiet, empty mind is fairly easy to influence, manipulate, and fill with desires. We relax and empty our minds by practicing mindfulness and meditation. It’s then fairly easy to sell us more workshops, retreats, and lessons.

We desire after happiness, self-improvement, and Nirvana; desires that previously were not present before we bought the premises that are promoted by peddlers of meditation and mindfulness products. Ironically, there are thousands of other free products (exercise, relaxation, or sleep to name three) that work just as good or better than meditation.

consumer meditation yoga
Sombilian Photography, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

Game of gain

Playing mindfulness and meditation is a familiar game. We quickly learn to seek and collect experiences. The practitioner accumulates meditative experiences and gains points. The goal is to earn rewards for health, happiness, and enlightenment. The “spiritual” equivalent to earning Frequent Flyer Miles is to meditate more often and longer. Meditators choose from a menu of aspirations and benefits. Practitioners accumulate Frequent Flyer Meditation Miles. The more they practice (fly) the more points they can earn towards rewards of health, happiness, or Nirvana.

There are negative consequences to playing the game of meditation. When players of the mindfulness meditation entertain “bad” thoughts or do “wrong” acts points are lost. In the Orient and Occident this is the notion of “karma”, the cosmic scoreboard, which tallies the meditator’s points for and against the attainment of happiness and ultimately arriving at their destination, Nirvana.

We are led to believe, by meditation peddlers, if we use their products we will gain happiness, health, and Nirvana. In believing, we rely on the authority of those who taught us about meditation products and benefits in the first place. We use mindfulness research studies to bolster our beliefs that our favorite products (techniques) “work”.

Consuming and trusting dubious authorities

Hence, we think meditation works (gives us beneficial experiences). And, when we want something to work we will seek evidence that supports our beliefs. At this stage in the post-purchase process, any experiences in meditation will confirm whatever beliefs we think we choose. In reality, we are not in control of this process. Rather we are conditioned to consume by an elite group who claims to know what’s best for us.

So we are conditioned to consume what we are told is best for us: fixes or gives us health, happiness, and Nirvana. Consumption is the heart of capitalism. “Consumerism”, remarked documentary film maker Adam Curtis in The Century of the Self, “is a way of giving people the illusion of control while allowing a responsible elite to continue managing society.”3 We consume meditation because we trust dubious authorities who created our wants and desires. These authorities then sell us the fix, meditation techniques.

Concluding thoughts

In conclusion, consuming meditation and mindfulness is to seek experiences: happiness, health, or Nirvana. We seek what has been promoted to us by meditation peddlers. When we buy into the underlying premises–that we are “broken” and meditation is the “fix”–it’s fairly easy for “authorities” to get us to consume workshops, retreats, or lessons.

[Read my post Duped by Meditation?]

Notes

[Featured image credit: Buddha Store by Gone-Walkabout, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0]

1 Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture. (2014) Jeff Wilson. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK. p156. [Read my post Mindful America]

2 Letters to a Young Contrarian. (2001). Christopher Hitchens. Basic Books: Cambridge, MA. p19

3 The Century of the Self. Episode 4. BBC. (2002). Quote from Director Adam Curtis ~0:53:00m. YouTube. Accessed 17 Jun 2017 https://youtu.be/VouaAz5mQAs?list=PLktPdpPFKHfoXRfTPOwyR8SG8EHLWOSj6.

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/.

Superiority Complex of Meditators

Meditation systems often instill followers with harmful ideas of superiority.

The attitude of superiority by meditators, yogis, and avatars is morally, spiritually, and scientifically bankrupt. Violence or agression need not be overt or expressed physically to be harmful. Destructive ideas, even notions of passivity, can breed indifference and incite actions of hostility towards others, especially outsiders. Meditation and yoga, as a spiritual ideology, as a soteriology1, has embedded within it harmful superiority complexes.

This article examines harmful superiority complexes within meditation and yoga practitioners, within their systems of ideologies and soteriologies.

Soteriology is the study of religious doctrines of salvation, liberation, or release:

  • In Hinduism is the primary concept of moksha (liberation, release).
  • In Buddhism is the primary aim of liberation from suffering, ignorance, and rebirth.
  • In Mysticism, generally, is the primary notion of liberation of soul or self through union with a transcendent being.

Many meditation practitioners have one or more of these soteriological aims or goals. If not, top of mind, then somewhere in the background is the desire or seeking of liberation, release, or salvation from suffering, ignorance, and rebirth.

Nothing wrong with the desire to reduce suffering or ignorance. However, systems of yoga and meditation that promise liberation often also instill followers with superiority complexes and psychic conflicts.

Psychic conflict and superiority complexes

First, in this article we use “complex” to describe a group of emotionally laden ideas that are repressed that cause psychic conflict leading to abnormal mental states or behavior2. Superiority3 in this article is defined as an exaggerated sense of one’s importance that shows itself in the making of excessive or unjustified claims.

Superiority complex, then, is an explicit or implicit attitude of superiority that conceals feelings of inferiority and fears of failure.

Yogis, masters, and avatars (exalted persons supposed to be enlightened, compassionate, and “One” with everything) and their followers usually proclaim that yoga (their particular spiritual ideology or practice) is the highest, ultimate, and superior path for humanity.

The ideological or soteriological systems of yoga and yogi-masters typically proclaim to achieve for practitioners “Oneness”, inclusion, and compassion towards all beings. While in actuality there are internal conflicts. Everything outside their particular yoga system, tradition, or ideology is seen as inferior, illusory (Maya, Satanic), and ultimately worthless.

“Weird Statue of figure ontop of temple Batu Caves Malysia” by amanderson2 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Yoga scriptures illustrate superiority complexes

To illustrate the ideological superiority complexes embedded within yoga systems, consider the following examples:

Shiva, the Hindu god of yoga, in the Rasārṇava4 condemns all other forms of yoga or religious practice, not sparing even the six major philosophical schools of Hinduism–which allow liberation with release from the body upon death5:

“The liberation that occurs when one drops dead is indeed a worthless liberation. [For in that case] a donkey is also liberated when he drops dead. Liberation is indeed viewed in the six schools as [occurring] when one drops dead, but that [kind of] liberation is not immediately perceptible, in the way that a myrobalan fruit in the hand [is perceptible] (karamulakavat).

In The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, David Gordon White, explains that the Hindu yoga god, Shiva, continues in the Rasārṇava to emphasize that the yogic quest is superior to all other religious practices:

Liberation [arises] from gnosis (jnana), gnosis [arises] from the maintenance of the vital breaths. Therefore, where there is stability, mercury [sexual fluid of Shiva] is empowered and the body is stabilized. Through the use of mercury one rapidly obtains a body that is unaging and immortal, and concentration of the mind. He who eats calcinated mercury (mrtasutaka) truly obtains both transcendent and mundane knowledge, and his mantras are effective.

It is now known that exposure to mercury and its compounds causes hydrargyria or mercury poisoning, which may lead to peripheral neuropathy, damage to or disease affecting nerves, which may impair sensation, movement, gland or organ function, or other aspects of health, depending on the type of nerve affected. Perhaps to the Raseśvara the symptoms from mercury poisoning and nerve damage was believed to be a sign of spiritual achievement, liberation, and superiority?

Greater than followers of other paths?

The Bhagavad Gita, Song of the Lord, is a part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. In it the Lord Krishna, who is proclaimed a great yogi and avatar (Lord come to earth to save humanity), extols the superiority of yogis.

“Such an one ranks Above ascetics, higher than the wise, Beyond achievers of vast deeds! Be thou [a] Yogi, Arjuna! And of such believe, Truest and best is he who worships Me With inmost soul, stayed on My Mystery!”6

Famous yogi guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, claimed he was a channel of Krishna/Christ- Consciousness in his interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita, God Talks with Arjuna:

“The Lord Himself here extols the royal path of yoga as the highest of all spiritual paths, and the scientific yogi as greater than a follower of any other path”7.

Shiva, Krishna, and the mahesvaras (great yogis or avatars) belittle other religious systems and practitioners as inferior. Meditation practitioners are led to believe they and their particular techniques are superior, and that all followers of other systems are inferior.

“Misa dominical” by Serge Saint is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Implanting superiority to get and keep followers

Meditation and yoga traditions and systems use their Super Men (avatars and masters), like Krishna, Shiva, and spiritual gurus, to impose their values and implant their superiority complex into their yoga followers.

The spiritual Superman (avatar or master) proclaims all other systems of liberation (soteriologies) are inferior, “worthless” in an effort to get and keep followers. All other people who do not practice the Guru Lord’s version of “royal” yoga (meditation techniques) are explicitly and implicitly deemed inferior, ignorant, or damned–doomed to wander in darkness of Maya.

Instilling fear in followers

Fear is instilled in followers of these systems. The system, with the spiritual authority at the head, needs to ensure its continuance by keeping followers, and fills them with ideas that instill fear should they consider leaving the system. Remember these are ideological systems: built and maintained on ideas. They are not dependent on physical proximity or even actual adherence to practice.

Feelings of guilt for questioning the system is one way to prevent you from leaving. Followers when trapped inside these systems of ideas justify their loyalty to the system, group, or teacher to protect themselves from questioning their doubts and repressed feelings.

Competing for followers

Yogis, avatars, and spiritual masters compete for followers. It’s not enough to follow any system of yoga or meditation. Theirs is superior. Their followers are told they are superior. It has to be this way for this system to survive, to keep its followers. If gurus or yoga systems are not perceived by their followers as superior to any others, why follow that particular ideology, system, or meditation practice?

The “others”–followers of other systems to liberation–are therefore condemned as inferior by the “superior” meditators, yogis, and so-called spiritual masters of a particular system. Or, at best the “others” and their inferior systems are pitied (with condescending “compassion”) as those other peoples are in “reality” lost, ignorant, and part of the mindless masses.

To err is human. We often believe our team or tribe is the best (superior) and everyone else’s is inferior to ours. That in itself is not the problem. Repression of superiority complexes and the lack of awareness of followers is the problem.

Overcoming superiority complexes of yoga and meditation systems

Superiority complexes, like we discussed above, are often implicit or explicit within the ideological or soteriological systems followed by meditation practitioners. Repressed within these systems followers often have hidden feelings of insecurity and feelings of failure. By transforming feelings of inadequacy or inferiority into superiority complexes, these systems pretend to be more spiritual, to be greater than others. The harm and dangers lurk in this repression of inferiority that pretends to be superior.

I am not saying all practitioners or all yoga or meditation systems have superiority complexes.

What I am saying is followers of these systems are at higher risk of repressing their feelings through claims of superiority, having all the answers, following an infallible authority or unchallengeable system. Hence the popularity of articles hyping the “scientific” benefits of certain meditation methods.

Feelings of being “chosen”, “special”, or greater that others can be an indicator there is superiority complex. If one person or system is superior, then the other must be inferior.  A system, like yoga or meditation, that claims to be superior, infallible, and unchangeable is a potentially harmful ideology.

Ideological superiority = This is a natural, human trait, but dangerous thinking. The yogis, avatars, or spiritual masters are not exempt (indeed in this article we’ve shown them to often be the perpetrators) of needing and competing for followers who seen them as superior to others, especially to other spiritual systems or techniques. Anyone claiming to be superior to others or to be a part of an infallible, unchallengeable system is at increased risk or harming themselves and others. Awareness of this fact is an important step towards doing less harm to oneself and others.

Notes

Image #1: “Alchemy” by Riding on a comet is licensed under CC BY 2.0

1 Soteriology. Wikipedia. Accessed May 31, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soteriology.

2 Complex in this article, is used in the psychological or psychoanalytical context. Google definition. Accessed May 30, 2017 https://www.google.com/search?q=complex+definition&oq=complex+defin&aqs=chrome.0.0j69i57j0l4.4331j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

3 Superiority and it’s synonyms. Merriam-Webster. Accessed Jun 2, 2017 at https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/superiority

4 “Raseśvaras, like many other schools of Indian philosophy, believed that liberation was identity of self with Supreme lord Shiva and freedom from transmigration. However, unlike other schools, Raseśvaras thought that liberation could only be achieved by using mercury to acquire an imperishable body.” Wikipedia. Accessed May 24, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raseśvara].

5 The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, David Gordon White, University of Chicago Press. 1996. Print.  p174. https://www.amazon.com/Alchemical-Body-Siddha-Traditions-Medieval/dp/0226894991

6 Bhagavad Gita, VI:45-46, Sir Edwin Arnold’s translation http://hinduism.about.com/library/weekly/extra/bl-gitatext6.htm

7 God Talks with Arjuna, Ch 6 v45-46, Paramahansa Yogananda. Self-Realization Fellowship. Print. https://www.amazon.com/God-Talks-Arjuna-Self-Realization-Fellowship/dp/0876120311

meditation paranormal supernatural

Effects of Meditation: Normal or Supernatural?

Meditation is an example of how our experience changes as our understanding changes. Often meditation has been thought of as producing paranormal or supernatural experiences. As we learn more about the brain, psychology, and physiology in meditation, its effects are seen as normal or natural, though some experiences may seem extraordinary.

What are the effects of meditation on our senses and perceptions?

In this post we’ll explore the effects of meditation and discuss three psycho-physiological concepts—habituation, inhibition, and proprioception–and how understanding these three concepts can change our understanding of the effects of meditation from something supernatural to natural.

Let’s begin our discussion with how meditation is monotonous stimulation and involves habituation.

Monotonous stimulation and meditation

Our nervous system is designed to respond to stimulus change. After awhile we stop noticing continuous, unvarying stimulus. The diminished sensitivity of our senses to a constant stimulus is known as habituation.1 For example, when we first hang a new picture on our bedroom wall we are stimulated upon entering the room and notice the new picture. After a while though we don’t notice the picture at all. Habituation is when we cease to respond to stimulus after repeated exposures.

Most of meditation practice involves monotonous stimulation. Meditation involves habituation. The meditator sits in one pose, concentrates on or repeats one thought, mantra, visual image, breath, and so on. With habituation, with unvarying, monotonous stimulus over time our nervous system “habituates” and ceases to be aware of the stimulus. Excessive practice of meditation can produce a physical, mental, and emotional withdrawal from people or activity.

Sometimes with withdrawal, depersonalization-derealization occurs when you persistently or repeatedly have the feeling that you’re observing yourself from outside your body or that you have a sense that things around you aren’t real, or both. [Read my post on Depersonalization and Derealization.]

Later we discuss how habituation relates to understanding meditation experiences. Next we explore inhibition and meditation.

Inhibition and meditation

The mental ability to tune out stimuli that are irrelevant to the physical or mental task at hand is called inhibition. Occasionally when concentrating intently on one task at hand you may have noticed you forget time, space, and may not even hear noises such as a doorbell or phone ring. Cognitive inhibition can be experienced wholly or partially, intentionally or unintentionally.2 Inhibition, in physiological psychology, refers to the suppression of neural electrical activity.3 Inhibitory neurons, inhibit or block the activity of other neurons. Inhibitory neurons, writes Andrew Neher in Paranormal and Transcendental Experience, in essence cancel our awareness of a stimulus.4

Meditation practice can produce habituation and inhibition. Adept meditators may, through inhibition and habituation, be unresponsive physically and psychologically to stimuli such as loud noises that normally would startle or cause involuntary reaction. A coveted by-product and goal of meditation practitioners is sensory withdrawal and deprivation.

Sufi dancing, photo by madmonk on Flickr
Sufi dancing, photo by madmonk on Flickr

Sensory withdrawal and deprivation

Sensory isolation, similar to sensory deprivation—such as floatation tanks, extreme fasting and sexual abstinence—can produce altered states of awareness and transcendental experiences. Short-term sessions of sensory deprivation may be relaxing and conducive to meditation. But extended sessions of sensory deprivation may result in extreme anxiety, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts, and depression.5

Meditation, like other religious rituals such as holy rolling (whirling dervishes), chanting, and prayer with repetitive and monotonous stimulation, can produce habituation, inhibition, and sensory withdrawal and can produce anxiety, hallucinations, and bizarre thoughts.

A simple experiment may demonstrate to you the effects of habituation and inhibition: Stare intently and unblinkingly at one still object for a few seconds or a minute. As your gaze remains fixed on a singular stationary object without moving your eyes you may produce the sensation of hovering outside your body or expanding into space outside of your body. Through non-blinking, non-moving of your eyeballs you can maintain an unvarying and monotonous stimulus and may feel an altered state of awareness. Your location of your mind and body in space—proprioception—has been altered.

Out of body, out of mind—proprioception and meditation.

Our perception of body location and movement in space relies on receptive sensations—proprioceptors—“in the inner ear and in the muscles, tendons and joints of the body”.6 The perception of stimuli related to one’s own body posture, position, equilibrium, and internal condition or sensation is proprioception.

Juliana Coutinho, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Juliana Coutinho, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

People who have proprioceptive disorders have difficulty knowing where their body is in space, difficulty understanding physical boundaries when interacting with other people or objects. When our proprioception is altered we may also lose our sense of gravity, feel a weightlessness or extreme heaviness of our body.

When one or more of our senses—even one eye or ear—is not functioning properly we lose our sense of balance and distance from objects and ourselves. We may bump into objects, lose our sense of direction in space, or may fall down or injure ourselves.

I used to wear contact lenses to correct my nearsightedness. Occasionally I would get  pink-eye, a common eye infection. Then I would remove my contact lense from my infected eye, keeping one lense in my healthy eye. With my vision lopsided, my ability to judge distance between my body and objects in space—my proprioception—was altered. With good vision in one eye only my proprioception was altered. It was not uncommon for me to bump my head in low doorways or to smash my toes into furniture. Maybe observers thought I was a klutz or drunk from bliss from meditation?

Natural or supernatural effects of meditation?

During meditation, when the body is still and when habituation and inhibition are operating, proprioceptors sometimes stop signaling a sense of body and mind location. When that happens our awareness of body and mind changes. We may feel a sense of “self” expansion, levitation, or a “pure” consciousness detached from or hovering outside the body.7 You may have experienced this feeling when falling to sleep. Or, as you wake up and before your awareness or sensation has fully returned to your body.

Sleep paralysis is a temporary inability to move or speak when waking or falling asleep. The Mayo Clinic estimates there are more than 3 million US cases of sleep paralysis each year.8 Perhaps you have experienced sleep paralysis. I have. The experience can be terrifying. As I lay awake I panicked: paralyzed, unable to move, a lump of flesh in bed. Within moments though I was able to muster the will to move my limbs. What a relief to be able to move again.

Some people may interpret temporary paralysis, habituation, and proprioception imbalances as “out of body” experiences, astral projection, or altered states of awareness.

Meditation experiences as natural phenomenon

If our premises are that meditation is a “gateway” to supernatural or paranormal dimensions then that’s what we interpret or make our experiences mean. But, when we understand natural, ordinary sensations—such as habituation, inhibition, and proprioception—we are less prone to interpret these sensations as paranormal or supernatural.

Probably so-called samadhi, nirvana, or cosmic consciousness experiences are partially or wholly caused by a combination of habituation, inhibition, and proprioception imbalances.

The psycho-physiological concepts of habituation, inhibition, and proprioception don’t explain all the effects of meditation. Mystery not fully solved. However, by understanding these concepts we may better understand many meditation experiences as natural phenomenon. Through understanding habituation, inhibition, and proprioception we have alternative and plausible explanations for what many believe are paranormal and supernatural effects of meditation practices.

Notes

Top image credit, Ryan Somma, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
1 Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination. New York: Dover Publications, 1980 and 1990. pg 25
2 “Cognitive inhibition.” Wikipedia. Accessed August 20, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_inhibition.
3 “Inhibition.” Britannica. Accessed August 20, 2016. https://www.britannica.com/topic/inhibition-psychology.
4 Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination. New York: Dover Publications, 1980 and 1990. pg 25
5 “Sensory deprivation.” Wikipedia. Accessed August 20, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensory_deprivation
6 Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination. New York: Dover Publications, 1980 and 1990. pg 25
7 Ibid.
8 “Sleep Paralysis.” Mayo Clinic and Google. Accessed August 20, 2016. https://g.co/kgs/z2HyyL.