I first learned to meditate from a Catholic priest in Sydney’s inner-West who was spouting heresies from Matthew Fox in the same breath that he was teaching us the Jesus prayer. Since then I’ve meditated with academics, Buddhists, Christians, and psychiatrists. Therapy gurus such as Herbert Benson and Jon Kabat-Zinn have been recommending the healing powers of meditation for decades, and I’ve even promoted its benefits from the pulpit. But how good actually is it? Will meditation ease your pain? Heal chronic anxiety or depression? Make you a better person? For years enthusiasts have been claiming that there is a lot of scientific evidence demonstrating that meditation and mindfulness make a measurable impact on your body and mind, but in The Buddha Pill (2015) Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm question the validity of these claims and even suggest that meditation might be bad for some people. They’re popularizing a complex field, but they do so in a very readable way and ask some penetrating questions along the way.
There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that meditation is good for you. Farias and Wikholm write about one of their patients, they call her Mary, whose severe depression and sleep problems were alleviated after she began meditating. The archives of the Prison Phoenix Trust, a non-profit that teaches prisoners how to meditate, are overflowing with letters from people who have been helped by this technique. One prisoner from the UK wrote, “It’s been a few months now since you sent me the book on meditation and yoga and for me it’s been great. It’s been a struggle because I never had much patience and I was always quick to anger but I’m learning so much now and I’m able to help others; I’m not fighting everything.” This sounds wonderful, yet one prison in Norway had to stop teaching yoga because they found that it was making prisoners more aggressive, not calmer. Farias and Wikholm recount story after story of people who had mental breakdowns after extended periods of meditation. According to a neuroscientist named Willoughby Britton, who has been researching these effects, others experience twitching, convulsions, depression, or vertigo, and the symptoms can last for months or years. When Farias and Wikholm did their own experiments on prisoners in the UK, they found that whereas practicing yoga does increase wellbeing, mental health and self-control among prisoners, it doesn’t reduce aggression or improve interpersonal relationships. Maybe meditation isn’t all it promises to be.
Farias and Wikholm then turn to the scientific literature on the effects of Transcendental Meditation (TM), and find that most of the results came from inconclusive studies that had been “sexed up” to sound sensational. Often the research was methodologically flawed. “Same sizes were usually very small,” they write, “there was not a control group, or the research drew evidence only from questionnaire measures.” Experiments in Psychology usually use a “placebo” for the control group, who have to do an activity that resembles the ting being tested but differs in one key aspect. None of the early TM studies used placebos, and when Jonathan Smith ran an experiment in 1976 using what he called “periodic somatic inactivity” (PSI), also known as sitting still, he discovered that while both TM and PSI reduced anxiety and increased relaxation, there was no measurable difference between them. TM also claimed that lots of people meditating at the same time could decrease crime in a neighbourhood, and they tested this in Washington D.C. in 1993 when 4,000 people met to meditate for several weeks in one building. Rapes and assaults decreased marginally during this period, but the number of homocides increased. More promising results come from a study conducted in Liverpool between 1988 and 1992, but they have never been replicated either here or elsewhere.
In recent years mindfulness has replaced TM as the technique of choice among people inclined towards the relaxation response, and given that both are practicing therapists, the authors spend quite a bit of time comparing mindfulness and yoga to other popular therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as well as to less common therapies such as trips on LSD. This ends up making the book lengthy and potentially boring, because every time they introduce a new technique or scientific theory they have to explain it from scratch because they assume that their readers know nothing at all about Psychology. What they find is that there is no evidence that mindfulness produces any results that cannot also be gained from practicing CBT for the same amount of time and with the same level of commitment. Some therapists are better than others, and CBT doesn’t work for everyone. Perhaps, Farias and Wikholm suggest, integrating mindfulness into CBT would enhance the therapy session for people who are so inclined, but it is not the solution for everyone. They also argue that just as mindfulness doesn’t help everyone, it isn’t bad for everyone either. Some people might be predisposed to have negative reactions to meditation, they hypothesize, and so whenever it is done within a therapeutic context the therapist needs to be willing to stop immediately if things go wrong.
Meditation, yoga, and mindfulness weren’t invented as therapy techniques, and Farias and Wikholm’s other major critique of the Western appropriation of mindfulness is that we expect it to have all the benefits that it provides Buddhist monks but without any of the Buddhism that goes with it. No Buddhist would expect meditation to make you a better person if you don’t also follow the Buddha’s ethical teachings. They tell one story about a sign at a meditation retreat that read “Allow whatever arises,” which is a typical Western approach to meditation. The Buddha, on the other hand, taught that “a monk does not tolerate an arisen thought of sensual desire … ill-will … cruelty … or any other arisen unwholesome state, but abandons it, eliminates it, and completely dispels it.” Westerners also seem to have strange ideas about Buddhism being a religion of peace, presumably because Buddhists spend all their time meditating on loving kindness. But, Farias and Wikholm point out, Buddhists are just as violent as everyone else. Buddhist monks fight in wars, kill people, and attack their enemies, just as Christians and Muslims do. The book’s argument about Buddhists not being good people grated on me, and at times it feels like they’re arguing that the religion itself (as if such as thing exists) is violent, but insofar as the argument is a corrective to romanticized versions of a pacifist Buddha their point is valid. More important, I think, is the point that the way meditation is used in the West is superficial, limited, and potentially destructive. “For Buddhists,” they write, “its original aim was to be a tool to go ‘beyond the ego’, but it has instead of become a way of reinforcing our needs and desires.” Five minutes of mindfulness can facilitate a week of frantic, stressful activity, which does nothing whatsoever to make us better people or to cure what ails us.