Tagged: reason

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

meditation devalues thought

How Meditation Devalues Thought, Thinking, Acting

Techniques for quieting the mind can be valuable. But valuing silence or stilling thought as superior devalues thought, thinking, and acting. Here are some other ways to find similar benefits to meditation techniques.

Commenter: I’m interested in hearing of other ways to find similar benefits to yoga and meditation techniques. What other ways can you think of?

SkepticMeditations: Techniques for quieting thought can be valuable: being quiet with yourself, being out in nature, hearing music or bird song, sitting or lying comfortably can help us relax and be more centered, to counter the busyness and distractions of a modern life.

But valuing silence and stilling thought as superior or more valuable than thinking or acting is the problem. It devalues thought, thinking, and acting in the world.

“Who” says certain techniques for stilling or quieting thought are superior? “Who” says withdrawing from the world is superior?

Eastern spiritual authorities promise superior techniques, concepts, and worldviews. The irony is that the thought withdrawing into thoughtlessness (stilling or silencing thought) is a thought, or web of thoughts, embedded in a certain ideology or worldview that claims to be superior.

Techniques for quieting and relaxing can be valuable. Select whatever works best for you. Unicuique suum (Latin: to each their own). Approval from others does not validate your ideas or your technique. Some ways, especially those purportedly superior, could be harmful. What are some other ways to find similar benefits of meditation techniques?

Other ways to find similar benefits of meditation techniques

There are many ways to still thought, to relax, to counter the busyness of modern life. Be quiet with yourself, be out in nature, listen to music or bird song, sit or lay comfortably to relax and be centered. Or, engross yourself in some activity so much that you forget yourself, your thoughts and your distractions. Who says meditation techniques are superior?

Meditation techniques can be helpful. They also can be harmful, especially when embedded in a worldview that values stilling thought (meditation techniques) as superior. This devalues thought, thinking, acting. There are countless other ways to quiet thought, to relax, and to be engrossed in meaningful activities. What benefits you will not be withdrawing from thought, thinking, or acting that is embedded in second-hand testimony from Buddha or any other Eastern or Western spiritual authority.

If you have any thoughts on other ways to “still thought” while valuing thought, please write in the Comments link or in the box “Leave a Reply” at the bottom of this post.

Motivations of Meditation Practitioners

By examining certain types of meditation techniques it’s possible to gauge the motivations of its practitioners. Imagine, for example, that scientists or sages came up with the following devices or techniques. In each pair, which one do you think would be more popular?

a) A meditation device that helps you gain wealth, repairs broken relationships, and grants peace and wisdom.
b) A device that reminds you of each of your personal flaws.

a) A meditation device that projects the realistic illusion that your self, your life, is eternally peaceful and blissful.
b) A device that projects the realistic illusion that your self, your life, is a death march to oblivion and nothingness.

a) A special meditation device that you use that guarantees a happy ending regardless of what you think or how much you suffer.
b) A device you use that guarantees nothing regardless of what you think and how much you use it.

a) A special device that turns off external noises and static and turns on internal quiet and serenity.
b) A special device that amplifies noises and static and turns up internal disquiet and conflict.

These are all features of the same device—meditation technique or practice—but you will have no trouble picking which of each pair sells better. That’s because you already have a good sense of what people want, what they want to believe and what they prefer to avoid and ignore.

Our ability to predict a device’s popularity is based on an intuitive grasp of the human condition.1 The degree of consistence with human preference, more than the devices themselves, determines which devices succeed in the human marketplace.

To put it another way, designing successful products is the art of catering to human psyches—our wants, fears, and needs—and avoiding their opposites—our flaws, suffering, and internal insecurities.

Any wonder that meditation products have become so popular? Gurus and marketers know how to cater to our human condition by giving us devices that promise to overcome our fears, suffering, and grant us power.

Alex Martinez, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Alex Martinez, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A convertible sports car, for example, is marketed to us with the promise that the little red roadster will boost our self-esteem, impress others, and make us happy. Yet, we know the little red roadster could crash, injure or kill, and drain our pocket books. The other side to the device is seldom presented or sold.

Meditation devices are heavily promoted but seldom presented as coming with endless conflict with a restless monkey mind, petty thoughts, and occasional psychotic episodes.

Yes, some people may find meditation beneficial. Yet, there is no denying, as we have discovered on this website, there is a dark- and dangerous-side to meditation techniques and organizations. To emphasize only the upside of meditation devices—as most gurus and meditation groups do—is to pander to the human condition and prey on vulnerable and gullible believers. The way to counter this is to think critically and skeptically about the claims of meditation promoters and believers.

Image credit: Motivations (scrabble), Nichole Burrows, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
1 The inspiration for this post came from Kentaro Toyama’s Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, PublicAffairs, New York:NY, 2015.

Guru-Manipulation & Self-Mistrust

pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Mental or psychological control is easy when people doubt themselves.

Trusting in gurus and persons presented as higher, more knowledgeable, more powerful, or morally superior tends to make one more susceptible to manipulation.

Children, of course, need to rely on their parents and elders for protection, wisdom, and authority. But when children are taught to mistrust themselves, then as adults they are more likely to look to someone else to trust and to save them, especially in a crisis.1

Instilling Self-Doubt In Children

While a child, whenever I asked reasonable questions about church doctrines that didn’t make sense my parents and Sunday school teachers retorted “god works in mysterious ways”. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity was one nonsensical idea I questioned:

How could God be one and three at the same time? and, what was this Holy Spirit thing?
Did being told to trust in a mysterious god instead of in reason lead me to mistrust myself?

As a young adult, against my parents wishes, I was ordained a monk in a Hindu-inspired meditation group, Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF).

The teachings of SRF and their Guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, like many gurus, are fraught with suggestions that followers should doubt themselves and instead unconditionally trust the Guru.

In SRF Lesson 51, Paramahansa Yogananda taught:

“I never found complete satisfaction, comfort, and God-contact until I attuned myself with unconditional loyalty and devotion to the divine consciousness of my guru.”2

Below is a partial list of methods used by gurus and manipulative authorities who impose mental controls by instilling self-doubt. Followed by a partial list of ways that healthy individuals and groups use to boost self-trust.

Methods used by Gurus to instill self-mistrust:

  • Patronizes followers (treats with kindness while betraying superiority)
  • Assumes superiority (knows what’s best for others)
  • Instills fear, guilt, or shame
  • Belittles reason and personal experience
  • Emphasizes dangers of ego, lower self, self-interest (reason, intellect, personal experience)
  • Provides methods (such as meditation) to realize soul or higher self (beyond reason, intellect)
  • Emphasizes service to guru or authority (versus taking care of one’s self-interests)
  • Masks abusive behavior as “training” or as beyond understanding of lessor humans

Methods used by those who boost self-trust, includes:

  • Nurtures self-expression, creativity
  • Values first-hand experience over others’ experiences
  • Encourages evaluation of outer and inner world
  • Values critical thinking, reason, and intellectual development
  • Respects feelings, is aware of, and allows processing of personal experiences

The above lists are not exhaustive and are meant to be a sample of the kinds of methods, both subtle and overt, that gurus and controlling authorities use to manipulate followers. Let me know if you have any items to add or to change these lists.

1 p 10 The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, Frog Books, Berkley, CA. 1993
2 Self-Realization Fellowship Lesson 51: My Guru, Sri Yukteswar

Three Best and Worst Reasons to Meditate

premasagar, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
premasagar, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

The three reasons people meditate are: to attain enlightenment; to gain power or control; or, for relaxation or health benefits.

The best reason I can think of to meditate is to seek salvation. Is that a good reason? I don’t think so. Below I explain why.

This post presents three common reasons used for practicing meditation. Each reason for practicing has serious flaws. I argue that there are many easier, simpler, and healthier alternatives than using meditation for relaxation. We begin by exploring why many people practice meditation to attain salvation or to gain super powers. Then discuss relaxation and health reasons for practicing meditation.

The three reasons people meditate are:

1 Enlightenment

The ancient and medieval Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains invented magical alchemies, such as the practices of yoga meditation, for the purpose of transmutation and bodily immortality. For our post here, we’ll define enlightenment broadly to include transcendent insight, wisdom, or spiritual consciousness beyond body and mind.

Kevin Dooley, Flickr CC BY 2.0
Kevin Dooley, Flickr CC BY 2.0

For the Hindu sages who wrote the Upanishads (the earliest known texts to reference yoga) salvation was reached when the body was yoked to a chariot that sped into the sun[1]. Read my post Yogic Bodily Possession and The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions In Medieval India.

For modern yoga meditation practitioners the motivation is similar, that is, to attain spiritual liberation, to liberate soul from limitations of the body, from thinking, or from evil or worldly thoughts and desires.

  • Meditation is supposed to free practitioners from karmic past errors, wrongs, guilts, and sins committed in this or past lives–along with following the instructions of an infallible guru or spiritual teacher claimed to be free from karma or sin.
  • Meditation frees the soul. It washes or cleanses the body of light from impurities of worldly existence.
  • Another goal of meditators is attainment of nirvana or nirvikalpa samadhi, the supposed exalted state of cosmic consciousness achieved by legendary Buddhas, Siddhas, or gurus. Essentially, the practitioner seeks through meditation practice to render himself godlike, a second Shiva[2], a Buddha, or a Yogananda.

“All souls are equal. The only difference between you and me is that I made the effort. I showed God that I love Him, and He came to me.” ― Parmahansa Yogananda

eric, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
eric, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

2 Power or Control

Meditation is often practiced to attain control over one’s body, mind, and ultimately for control over physical universe.

  • Though most meditators will not admit, they often seek supernatural powers. The foremost power sought is mentioned as one of the eight Hindu Siddhis: Prākāmya, realizing whatever one desires[3].
  • Western Buddhists tend to talk down these powers, though clearly nirvana and other power states are part of buddhist and meditative doctrine. In Buddhist Tantra these super powers include clairvoyance, materialization, having access to memories from past lives[4].
  • To become Christlike is to be able to have power over Self, to have healing powers, to control nature and the physical universe. To perform miracles, read minds, walk on water, raise the dead and all manner of fantastical and unsubstantiated claims that defy the laws of the natural world.

“The servant Nature rebels and grows unruly when the master of creation sleeps. The more spiritually awakened he becomes, the more easily shall he control Nature.” — Paramahansa Yogananda

Meagan, Flickr CC by 2.0
Meagan, Flickr CC by 2.0

3 Relaxation or Health

Relaxation as defined here is the quieting, rejuvenating, and resting the body and mind from constant movement and agitation. Obviously, appropriate relaxation is vital for overall health.

  • There are countless, often simpler and easier, ways to attain relaxation and health besides meditation, including: sleeping, napping, getting a massage, bathing, listening to music, playing a musical instrument, walking in nature, and countless hobbies and games such as fishing, flying kites, playing chess, golfing, cycling and so on.
  • Popular culture and the media often portray meditation as a silver bullet that is the supposed antidote to a modern stressful lifestyle, the cure-all for nervousness and depression.
    While meditation practice may have benefits there are many situations where it is common to have adverse side-effects such as anguish, despair, hallucinations, psychoses, and even suicidal tendencies and death. See my index of posts Adverse (Side) Effects.
  • My personal anecdote is that many times in a five to fifty minute meditation session I would be agitated psychologically. Meditation may create anxiety. It is common to realize how restless the monkey mind actually is during meditation and how impossibly far one has to go to please and to reach the idyllic state of yogic perfection as touted by an infallible guru.

To Meditate or Not to Meditate?

By all means if meditation helps, meditate. Though there are many other more natural and easier ways to relax such as sleeping, fishing, and walking in nature to name only three out of thousands.

The solution, I believe, is education. The important questions arise not from the experiences of yoga meditation but from the belief systems by which practitioners explain their experiences.

The long-time meditators that I know who have been practicing for years apparently continue out of strong desire (or fear) of attaining salvation or of gaining super powers over body, mind, and the material universe.

The popular assumption that meditation is an effective method of relaxation or that it provides measurable health benefits is debatable. Behind the health claims is often a theology, morality and beliefs in salvation and super powers.

Most studies about meditation are flawed and unconvincing. The objective evidence suggests that meditation is not any better than drugs or other methods. See my post Meditation Not Better than Drugs or Exercise, Study Finds.

Rather than meditate to seek salvation or powers in another dimension or a future life, I recommend spending less time in meditation and more on education. To learn the wonders of how our minds can be tricked into believing strange, improbable things and finding reliable ways to make ourselves and the world a better place to live.

Question for readers: Are there other reasons to meditate that don’t fall under one of the three broad categories: attainment of enlightenment, power or control, and relaxation or health?


1  p 53 The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, David Gordon White, University of Chicago Press, 1996
2 p 53 The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, David Gordon White, University of Chicago Press, 1996
3 Siddhi (powers): Usage in Hinduism: Eight Primary Siddhis, Wikipedia
4 Siddhi (powers): Usage in Vajrayana Buddhism, Wikipedia