Tagged: pseudoscience

evaluating credibility meditation experiments

Evaluating Credibility of Meditation Experiments

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

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

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

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

Listen to this blog post: Evaluating Credibility of Meditation Experiments

Meditation as Complementary Alternative Medicine

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

How Common are Meditation and CAM Therapies?

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

CAM practiced in absence of evidence

CAM therapies are practiced in the absence of:

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

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

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

For credible evidence CAM therapies must demonstrate:

1) A biological basis which is plausible and credible;

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Active Ingredient” in Meditation?

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

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

Placebo and Meditation or CAM

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

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

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

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

In Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine, R. Barker Bausell, a former Research Director of the National Institute for Health-funded Complementary Medicine Program, points out that,

If a completely inactive pill, ointment, or procedure (in other words, a placebo), accompanied by the expectation of effectiveness, can result in pain relief, then surely any therapy–no matter how bizarre–that we consider credible enough to seek out (and pay for) can also result in pain relief [or give us feelings of control and well-being], compliments of the placebo effect.[3]

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

Six Points of Belief Affects Effectiveness

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

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

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

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

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

How to Evaluate the Research Yourself

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

Methods and procedure section.

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

Results section.

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

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

Six Steps of Increasing Credibility of Experiments

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

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

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

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

Flaws with Meditation Experiments and RCTs

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

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

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

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

Harms of Meditation or CAM Treatments

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

science mindfulness lost mind

Science of mindfulness lost its mind?

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

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

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

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

Two major problems with research of mindfulness

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

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

Potential difficult psychological problems with mindfulness

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

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

Mindfulness practice does not add up

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘mind gym’ can be dangerous to your health

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

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

Recommend what?

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

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

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

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

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

10 Reasons to be Skeptical of Meditation Studies

Alice Popkorn, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Alice Popkorn, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Discovering the difference between fact and fiction with meditation studies can be difficult, especially without the right research. This list of 10 reasons to be skeptical of meditation studies examines the problems with the hype, contradictions, and conflicts of interest in meditation research.

This article originally appeared in Scientific American

1. Hype Problem

Every week there’s a new study out to illustrate an alleged new benefit of meditation. Or, rather, some ancient benefit just now being confirmed by science, in a clinical lab, or on a brain scanning fMRI or EEG machine.

This week “Practicing yoga, meditation can result in fewer doctor visits: new study says” my newsreader was inundated with variants of these headlines to supposedly illustrate more benefits of the ancient “science” of meditation.

Read my post Is Meditation Overrated? Scientific Evidence Is Scant

2. Allegiance Problem

Meditation research is plagued by investigators who tend to find evidence that support the particular meditation method they favor.

In 2014, the Johns Hopkins University reviewed 17,801 papers on meditation and found 41 relatively high-quality studies involving 2,993 human subjects. Of these, 41 studies, 10 had low-risk of confirmation bias, according to the John Hopkins team. The confirmation bias is that meditation researchers actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and to disregard or under-weigh evidence contrary to their hypothesis. 

Tack on the media’s tendency to hype the benefits, the difficulty in scrutinizing the studies, and we find ourselves enmeshed in Hype and Allegiance Problems. Some of the public does not either know any better nor cares to scrutinize the media’s claims or the studies findings.

3. “Everyone’s A Winner” Problem

Reading the meditation studies carefully reveals that the alleged benefits are low to moderate, with no evidence that meditation is actually superior to specific therapies they were compared with, say with sleep or drugs.

Read my post Meditation Not Better Than Drugs or Exercise, Study Finds

4. Placebo Effect Problem

What is meditation’s active ingredient? What exactly about meditation “works”–that is, what is it that makes people feel better?

Alina Sandu, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
Alina Sandu, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

What all meditators share is an expectation that the method will make them feel better. Guess what? Most practitioners do feel better without being able to identify exactly what caused it. Expectations of benefits run high and are fed by the media, gurus, and romantic notions of Eastern-styled enlightenment. When practitioners are primed to expect benefits their symptoms are likely to improve through increased efforts in meditation whether or not the active ingredient was indeed meditation.

Meditation practices are similar to a sugar pill. The practitioner harnesses the power of the placebo effect: OM, nirvana, the blissful sweetness of nothing.

5. Brain Scan Problem

Using fMRI brain scans, meditation has been shown to cause changes in the brain. But so what? Listening to music or checking Facebook shows changes in brain scans. The fact that findings or brain scans show activated or changed areas of the brain does not make meditation’s alleged benefits more credible.

6. Niceness Problem

Some meditators and researchers suggest that if more people meditated then the world would be a better, more peaceful, and a nicer place to live. Yet, U.S. Marines are taught mindfulness meditation, which apparently will help them feel better about carrying out violent U.S. policies.

Behind bars thousands of convicted felons have been trained to regularly practice yoga meditation. “Despite positive results”, writes Dr. Miguel Farias in The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?, “there were no real changes in how aggressive prisoners felt.”

Read my post on The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? 

7. Bad Guru Problem

Many charismatic teachers have claimed that they meditated their way to enlightenment or to soul liberation while in the body. Some prominent teachers and gurus–Chogyan Trungpa, Bhagwan Rajneesh, Sai Baba, Andrew Cohen–have been embroiled in abuse scandals and have behaved more like sociopaths rather than saints. Meditation buyer beware.

8. Compassion Training Problem

When Matthieu Ricard come out of Nepal, where he spent tens of thousands of hours training himself to be compassionate he went to New York, where he taught meditation to “financiers”. A business coach I had would urge me to always follow the money. Ricards guru maybe told him the same?

If a person is truly compassionate, shouldn’t he spend more time actually helping others rather than meditating? argues Horgan. Also, is teaching wealthy financiers about meditation an act of compassion? Seems the Western gurus follow the money, compassionately of course.

9. Truth Problem

Some meditators insist that the goal of meditation is ultimate knowledge of mind, reality, or Self.

“The problem is”, writes Horgan, “that different meditators ‘discover’ different truths. Some find confirmation of their belief in God, the soul, reincarnation, extrasensory perception and other supernatural phenomena. Others find confirmation of their materialism and atheism. The problem is similar to that posed by mystical experiences. You discover heaven, I discover hell”.

Read my post Religiously Interpreted States of Consciousness

10. Having No Goal Problem

Some meditators insist you should not seek anything from meditation. That a practitioner should have no goal. If meditators had no expectation or goal, if that were even possible, why would anyone even want to meditate. Isn’t the notion of meditation to attain something that can’t be found by not practicing meditation: feeling better, experiencing consciousness as infinite or some such goal?

Having no goal is a goal. “When meditators tell me that they meditate without a goal, it confirms my view of meditation as a form of self-brainwashing” says Horgan.

Does Horgan think meditation is a waste of time? “Not at all”. Neither do I.

But, neither is reading poetry or listening to music a waste of time. Research studies have found that reading poetry and listening to music positively affects and changes our brains, makes us feel better, and has many other physical and emotional benefits. So why be obsessed with meditation?

Read the full article Meta-Meditation: A Skeptic Meditates on Meditation by John Horgan in Scientific American

Rating Self-Realization Fellowship & Its Paranormal Claims

Church service and altar at SRF Hollywood Temple
Church service and altar, SRF Hollywood Temple

Ross and Carrie, in their podcast ‘Oh No!’, investigate the SRF (Self-Realization Fellowship) and rated the SRF on creepiness, dangerousness, and paranormal claims. They both studied the SRF Lessons and attended church services and the World Convocation.

“The stories [of Paramahansa Yogananda told by SRF monks at Convocation] were about how incredibly patronizing the guru was of his devotees.” – Carrie

Oh No, Ross and Carrie! is a podcast about Ross and Carrie’s travels through the world of paranormal claims, fringe science, and spirituality. Their website says “We show up, so you don’t have to”.

Oh No, Ross and Carrie!–The Self-Realization Fellowship (Part 1): Meditate, Meditate, Meditate:

Ross and Carrie immerse themselves in the Self Realization Fellowship, Paramahansa Yogananda’s eastern-inspired religion that urges little eating, little sleeping, and lots of meditation. Can Carrie and Ross survive in a group where “restlessness of mind” is a cardinal sin?

Oh No, Ross and Carrie!–The Self-Realization Fellowship (Part 2): Overpaying For Silence

After months of anticipation, Ross and Carrie attend the Self Realization Fellowship Convocation, where thousands of SRF devotees gather together. They learn to meditate better, chant for hours at a time, and try to get surly strangers to smile.

In conclusion, Ross and Carrie rated the SRF on a scale of 0 – 10 (0 = none or lowest, 10 = max or highest).

Ross’ and Carrie’s RATINGS

Supernatural/Pseudoscientific = 7.5

Reason: Many extraordinary claims, including that the brain can do fantastical things, read others’ minds, control heart/breath, dying at will, etc

Wallet Draining = 8

Reason: Money is portrayed as evil, give SRF church your money, Lessons are inexpensive, accessories and Convocations are expensive.

Creepiness = 2.5

Reason: Ross and Carrie both thought the people they met at SRF church services and properties seemed normal. [Frankly, I was both creeped-out and intrigued when I first attended SRF church meditation services. My creepy intrigue came from the dimly lit altar with golden-framed images of the six SRF gurus, the trance-like chanting of devotees swaying in their meditation seats, and the smoke and smell of exotic incenses that created a hazy, dream-like atmosphere in the meditation temple.]

Dangerous = 1

Reason: Eating and sleeping is portrayed by SRF and Yogananda as for mortals, some breatharian ideas, notion of asking God before you go see a doctor, etc. [In posts and discussions on this website, I examine the evidence I’ve accumulated and in my opinion SRF is more dangerous than the level rated by Ross and Carrie].

SRF World Convocation 2015, Los Angeles
SRF World Convocation 2015, Los Angeles

Visit and listen to Oh No, Ross and Carrie!for the full podcasts Parts 1 & 2 on The Self-Realization Fellowship

Gurus on the Financial Plane

paper money-min
Kevin Dooley, Paper money, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Secrets to success brought to you by Great Masters of Himalayas?

After lifesaving brain surgery, Dad would have intermittent seizures. In his paranoid hallucinations he’d demand that our family of four pack our belongings into the car so we could flee to the mountains for the end of the world. In early morning hours, the police might call. Dad had to be picked-up at the police station. He’d walked for miles in his pajamas and had been found on top of a neighbor’s parked car, yanking the wiper blades, and ranting about the end of the world.

It was during a period of these events, when I was age 15, that I read a book I’d found in my Dad’s library. The book contained the laws of success that altered my impressionable life when it said:

“I whispered, ‘Who are you?’
In a softened voice, which sounded like chimes of great music, the unseen speaker replied: ‘I come from the Great School of the Masters. I am one of the Council of Thirty-Three who serve the Great School and its initiates on the physical plane.”[1]

The book was Grow Rich! With Peace of Mind: How to earn all the money you need and enrich every part of your life, the sequel to Think and Grow Rich, both books by Napoleon Hill.

Eventually and indirectly the secret formula of success peddled by Napoleon Hill led me to a Hindu-Christian yoga-occult community in Los Angeles. The fringe church, SRF (Self-Realization Fellowship), aligned perfectly with the secret formula of success and occult thinking of Napoleon Hill and the Great School of Masters. I accepted the synchronicity as a sign from the divine.

After a few years on the fringe of the fellowship, I plunged headlong and pledged 14 years of my life to following the rules and vows of the Self-Realization Monastic Order [See my posts on Monasticism]. I believed SRF was my link to the Great School of Masters of the Himalayas that I’d read about in Napoleon Hill’s Grow Rich! With Peace of Mind, sequel to Think and Grow Rich.

“Also termed the ‘law of attraction’ as early as 1906, [New Thought’s] core belief was that thoughts are things”, says Scott Carney in A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment[2]. “In 1908, Andrew Carnegie met a young journalist named Napoleon Hill and asked him to interview the richest people in America to learn their secrets to generating wealth. The project took him almost 20 years, but in 1934, he published Think and Grow Rich, which quickly became one of the best selling books of all time.[3]”

“New Thought created a spiritual framework to explain earthly success”, writes Carney, “Think and Grow Rich formed a recipe and spawned an entire genre of self-help books.

“Hill wrote that the most successful people on earth followed a simple secret: They visualize their own success and cultivate their emotions to feel as if they had already achieved their goals.

“According to Hill’s theory, thoughts are things and our desires act like magnets in the spiritual ether and could attract real world riches.”

Hill’s secrets of success totally synchronized with SRF’s, and its founder’s, Paramahansa Yogananda’s,  teachings and books such as the Law of Success, Scientific Healing Affirmations, Applying the Power of Positive Thinking, Focusing the Power of Attention for Success, Answered Prayers and dozens of other publications. Hill’s and Yogananda’s are occult philosophies that represent the New Thought movement.

“New Thought lent American optimism a sort of a mystical quality”, continues Carney. “It argued that the mind is a force of nature in the same way that gravity is”. Thoughts can make a person rich, cure disease, reverse aging, and achieve any imaginable goal.

“Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe it can achieve”.
“There are no limitations to the mind except those we acknowledge. Both poverty and riches are the offspring of thought.”
Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill

As a troubled teen, eagerly reading Napoleon Hill’s books in my dad’s library, I didn’t know how gullible and vulnerable I was to occult authorities and magical-thinking. It was a decade and a half after I left the SRF Monastery that I discovered that Think and Grow Rich was part of the occult and New Thought movement.

Meditation is an escape. Or, can be. It was for me. Laws of success can be an escape–pat answers giving comforting certainty. These secret formulas for success are steeped in mystical-, magical-, wishful-thinking.

Meditation is sold by Cadillac-driving gurus as the panacea for human ills. Yogananda, Daya Mata, and Rajneesh (to name only three gurus) tooled around in chauffeur-driven Cadillacs. Meditation is promoted as the key to earthly (and heavenly) success, peace, and happiness.

Laws of success are peddled like snake oil: sometimes wrapped and marked with Om, Bliss, or Nirvana. Placebos for the gullible and cash for the infallible? “Think like I want you to”, says the guru. “Buy my secret formulas, laws of success and meditations and you I will grow rich.”

It pays (can save thousands of dollars and years of time) to doubt the guru’s so-called laws of success and to be a skeptic. [See my post 21 Great Reasons To Think and Be A Skeptic].

Notes

1 “The Great School of Masters! That is the school of wisdom which has persisted secretly in the Himalayas for ten thousand years. Sometimes known as the Venerable Brotherhood of Ancient India, it is the great central reservoir of religious, philosophical, moral, physical, spiritual and psychical knowledge. Patiently this school strives to lead mankind from spiritual infancy and darkness to maturity of soul and final illumination”. Napoleon Hill, Grow Rich! with Peace of Mind, paper, p159. Fawcett Crest Books. 1967. On the same page, Hill substantiates his claim of his visitation by the Great Teachers by quoting from The Great Message: The Lineal Key of the Great School of the Masters [Harmonic Series, 1928 Editions] by Richardson, J. E. [John E.] (1853-1935), an occult, New Thought book.

2 In A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment, Scott Carney, Hardcover, 2015

3 ibid “By Hill’s death in 1970, Think and Grow Rich had sold fifteen million copies. Its success has since been dwarfed by The Secret, which has reportedly sold fifty-six million copies worldwide, with approximately the same philosophy”. Footnote pg 114