After going deep into the research on wellbeing, I have been impressed by the number of studies showing benefits of mindfulness and meditation. Today, this has bubbled up out of the research journals and into the mainstream media. From the cover of Time magazine to Anderson Cooper on 60 minutes to the boardrooms of large corporations (like Google,) mindfulness has hit the big time.
But not everyone is a fan. Barbara Ehrenreich, for example, just wrote a scathing review of the adoption of mindfulness by American corporate culture. Businesses like it because it appears to be supported by science (“no ‘hippie bullshit,’” she says.) But the science on mindfulness, Ehrenreich points out, while ubiquitous, is less than conclusive.
Ehrenreich is a self-proclaimed “negateer,” so I have to take everything she says with a grain of salt. But I have to admit she has a point. Mindfulness has become the media darling as a cure-all. And it’s probably not as good as the media would have us believe.
Authors Dr. Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm also look at mindfulness with a critical eye. Their book is called The Buddha Pill, because in our modern culture, everyone is looking for some “hack” or shortcut to wellbeing, and meditation seems to be the latest “pill” that everyone prescribes.
What makes their book interesting is that Farias and Wikholm, like me, are believers in the power of meditation. In fact, they teach yoga and meditation to prisoners in an attempt to help them find a more peaceful and benign way of life. But as they researched their book, they realized that meditation may not be the panacea that many think it is. For example:
- The science is not as strong as people think. Yes, there are a lot of research studies on mindfulness and meditation, and they show “a moderately positive effect on most variables.” But many of the studies are poorly designed and metanalyses show that the effects are not necessarily any stronger or more pronounced than other psychological interventions (such as therapy or relaxation techniques.)
- The results are subject to interpretation. As Ehrenreich reported, much is said about “neuroplasticity” and the changes to the brain observed in experienced meditators. But what do these changes mean? “Unlike physics,” said Farias and Wikholm, “the research fields of psychology and physiology very, very rarely yield clear, black-and-white results.”
- Meditation has a dark side. People assume that meditation leads only to enlightenment, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Farias and Wikholm tell the story of Aaron Alexis, who was learning to meditate at a Buddhist temple, and even considering becoming a monk, before he grabbed his shotgun and opened fire on a bunch of innocent victims at a U.S. military base. Aaron Alexis’ story flies in the face of those who subscribe to the Dalai Lama’s claim that teaching meditation to children could “eliminate violence in the world within one generation.” According to the Farias and Wikholm, “not all is plain sailing with meditation.” There are a certain percentage of practitioners that have adverse effects. Stories abound of meditators experiencing the so-called “dark night of the soul,” describing states of spiritual crisis and even mental illness as outcomes from their practice.
- Mindlessness is important too. In another book, The Upside of your Dark Side, psychologists Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener point out that in spite of all the buzz about mindfulness, it really is only one of many mental states that are important for optimal functioning and wellbeing. While it’s nice to imagine this everlasting Buddha-like attunement to the present moment, humans also benefit from savoring the past, anticipating and planning for the future, and occasionally, just zoning out and getting things done on autopilot. Sometimes it’s good to just tune out and give the mind a rest. “Really what this is,” says Kashdan, “is the incubation period for creativity.”
- People would rather do . . . well, just about anything. In one study cited in The Buddha Pill, researchers found that people would rather self-administer painful electric shocks than sit in a room and do nothing for 15 minutes. People simply do not like to be alone with their thoughts. (Although I would argue that this is exactly why we need to practice the skill.)
Farias and Wikholm don’t discard meditation. They acknowledge that it can be an important step on a pathway to positive change. But it is “only the first step.” The practitioner’s values, motivation, and context will all have an influence on the outcome. Like most aspects of human wellbeing, it is complex. There are no easy fixes. There is no “Buddha Pill” shortcut.
For the record, I don’t discard meditation or mindfulness either. I think mindfulness is here to stay and will only get bigger from here (more on that in a future article.) It just might not be as good as we all think it is.
References and recommended reading:
Farias, M. & Wikholm, C. (2015). The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Actually Change You? Watkins Publishing.
Kashdan, T. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2014). The Upside of your Dark Side. Hudson Street Press.
by Jeremy McCarthy