I highly recommend this book called The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Actually Change You? I found it through a short article by the authors in New Scientist magazine. I loved this book for multiple reasons. The authors write in a clear style and they make the subject matter very interesting. They take a skeptical approach to meditation and yoga that is sorely lacking these days. The authors seem to take a fair and balanced approach to the topic of meditation. They clearly show a personal interest in the topic, but they also show an interest in being critical and scientific in their thinking. They mention their own experiences, they ask others about their experiences, they speak with meditation teachers and they also review the scientific literature on meditation.
I found it particularly helpful that the authors review some of the history of the “Western” interest in meditation and scientific study of it. They start with Transcendental Meditation (TM), because the interest in TM and the claims made about its use were very similar to the current claims made about mindfulness meditation, meditation generally and yoga. People tried to argue that TM could help with a large number of problems and TM could make you a better person. The research on TM lacked decent methodology, though. When the methodology was good, the results that were unfavorable were not publicized. One of the few studies of TM with decent methodology failed to show it was better than placebo meditation (most research on meditation, almost ALL of it, lacks a decent control group or useful placebo even though it is possible to develop a good placebo for it). Similar problems can be seen with mindfulness meditation research. The authors exhaustively reviewed the mindfulness research prior to writing the book and they summarize their findings in the book. Basically, the research has overwhelmingly had poor methodology and there is also a poor description of how mindfulness is supposedly working. However, neuroscientists, psychologists, therapists, journalists, etc rave about mindfulness meditation (as well as mindfulness generally) and yoga (has a meditation component).
Some people make claims that meditation is like a form of mental hygiene, wherein you can cleanse your mind. However, meditation does not work for everyone, it mainly just helps with reducing stress, you could probably reduce stress in other ways and the authors show how meditation can actually be harmful to some people (leading to depression, anxiety, psychotic symptoms and even mania). So it is quite different from other forms of hygiene. There is no good evidence that anybody needs to do it as opposed to, say, exercising, distracting yourself with calming stuff or using relaxation techniques The authors also address a widely circulated claim that people can become more empathic, more compassionate and less violent by meditating. The authors point out multiple examples of violent Buddhists (not just the Zen Buddhists during World War II that many of us might already know about) and even examples of people who became MORE violent after intensely training in meditation. In addition, research they did on yoga that had a meditation component used on prisoners showed no effect on aggressive behavior. They also point out how Buddhism is so much like other religions in terms of conversions, extremism, war, etc. I especially liked this part as Buddhism has been considered a “philosophy” instead of a religion by many people and many people also seem to be ignorant to how similar Buddhists are to people in other religions. Basically, Buddhism will not save the world, at least not for the reasons many people have claimed. It is not that different, coherent or more rational from many other religions. I am glad somebody wrote about it.
They also call attention to the fact that there is no logical connection between meditation and being nicer. Even some devout Buddhists they interview and quote are bothered that meditation has been divorced from the other aspects of Buddhism as they do not think it would be helpful to change a person in a signficant positive way without the other teachings of Buddhism. I especially liked that the authors argue people should take into account the bias many meditators could have going into meditation for the first time. For instance, they could have been taught beforehand by researchers, people they met, an article or in general that meditation makes you more compassionate. They then could have become more compassionate because of said expectation (this is a well known psychological effect). So, in such a case, the meditation operates like a placebo and the real thing that makes a change in the person is the belief that it is 1) important to be compassionate, 2) they are going to become more compassionate if they do this thing. There are thoughts about meditation that could be the real active ingredient, in which case mindfulness meditation is not “thoughts without a thinker” and getting in touch with “pure awareness,” but instead is being indoctrinated to believe certain assumptions about the mind, self and experience.
There is much more I could say and I definitely do not do the book justice. I did not cover everything that is in the book and reading it is a good experience. Again, it is a much needed book and I recommend it to anybody! I especially recommend it to people who are not religious, care about the scientific method, think critically and think meditation might help them transform themselves in a positive way.
I wonder why they started with Transcendental Meditation if the book is mostly about Buddhism? I don’t think that’s Buddhist at all, although I could be wrong about that.
As to ‘some Buddhists in history have been violent’ or ‘some parts of Buddhism are religious and superstitious’, I think that’s relatively obvious and kind of neither here nor there. What I would be interested in, as a critical analysis, is:
- How they think separating meditation from the general philosophy ‘changes things’ (for want of a better phrase), i.e., how they connect those dots.
- Why they think the studies are poorly designed. There have been many studies done on mindfulness and meditation and I think some of them have been done at pretty big name institutions that should have a quality standard to meet - if all of those studies were poorly designed it would be problematic not just due to a sort of false advertising for meditation / mindfulness, but in regard to how that was happening on a significant scale in the research community. I’m pretty skeptical of that claim, but I do think it’s important to be open to evidence, so if they really show this, I’d want to know about it.
I’m curious as to what they considered a placebo for this research—not sure how that would work when we’re not talking about an actual pill or anything strictly physical at all. You don’t “take” anything to do meditation—it’s all a mind thing, though there are physical components (how would you apply a placebo to test a batting technique in baseball or a tackling form in football, for example). But medical research is notorious for being sloppy and uncritical of foundational prior research (just accepting the findings of prior research and what I would consider blindly running with it), all the more this sort of kinda-sorta fringish public health/self-help/mindfulness material. I also find the idea of scientifically testing what sort of effects meditation has on convicts curious. The methodology would be pretty important. You can’t really expect mindfulness to operate like a pill or a treatment that doesn’t require ... well, mindfulness. In my own mind I can imagine a formation of prisoners sitting on zafus in the lotus position, to varying degrees of success and discomfort and building frustration and anger and disgust, while a cadre of drill instructors cruise around and single out individual prisoners hollering in that special drill instructor way CLEAR YOUR MINDS!!! DON’T LOOK AT ME!!! DO YOU THINK I’M CUTE!?! DO YOU WANT TO BE MY GIRLFRIEND!?! CLEAR YOUR MINDS—RIGHT NOW, YOU WORTHLESS, SLIMY PIECES OF AMPHIBIAN SHIT!!!
Not to suggest anything remotely that extreme was going on, but I hope the point is clear. Environment and mentality are pretty important aspects of meditation.
It’s entirely valid to question and challenge the available research and I’m all in favor of it, but applying inappropriate methods and pointing out that they don’t produce very positive results doesn’t really do that. I’m by no means certain that’s what’s going on here, but some definite questions come immediately to mind about that sort of thing based upon the info in the OP.
There is no good evidence that anybody needs to do it
First of all, i’m not reading the book - i barely got through your post - (obviously it was interesting enough to me to do so) perhaps it’s because i’ve been a student of meditation for about 40 years now.
Allow me to address the part of your post i cut -
Johns Hopkins University researchers carefully reviewed published clinical trials and found that although meditation seems to provide modest relief for anxiety, depression and pain, more high-quality work is needed before the effect of meditation on other ailments can be judged.
So in so far as anxiety, depression and pain, yes it is statistically significant that meditation is a cause for improvement/relief of anxiety, depression and pain (isnt that enough?), as for “other” ailments we haven’t given enough money for students, graduate students, pre and post doctoral students to do THEFUCKINGRESEARCH.
(for want of a better phrase),
We must be ‘kindred spirits” for as they say - “great minds think alike” (or fools seldom differ) - i use a form of your phrase - ‘for lack of a better way of saying it” or even ” hey, that’s the best i could come up with on such short notice”
Post Scriptum: hi namaskar