The huge interest in the benefits of meditation today is being catered to by an ever-expanding community of visionaries, proselytizers, teachers, and coaches, as well as practitioners, and that response is both industrial in scale and commercial in packaging. Paralleling this, in certain circles, is an ever-growing interest in “scientifically proving” (or disproving) the effectiveness of meditation. In this I see dangers abounding that could hurt all of us: those who practice meditation and those who could benefit from doing so.
There is a conceit underlying the idea that meditation has not been proven effective by long-term, objective research already. The conceit appears to be founded on the belief that for thousands of years, the hundreds of millions of humans who have thought their dedicated practice was useful and effective were deluding themselves because they had no “scientific” evidence. Their delusion may have been based in spiritual beliefs or because of positive placebo effects that they naively took to be evidence of effectiveness. This belief seems to also suggest that “science” never existed before it was created by Europeans, and thus, there could be no rigorous testing of these techniques in their originating cultures.
The hubris in this conceit is an excellent example of the kind of self-delusion that spiritual traditions have specifically used meditation to break free from. This raises the question of whether a non-meditator can even understand the goal of meditation; the issue being the difference between a conceptual idea about something and a direct experience of it.
We can see the defects caused by this conceit already present in so-called “secular meditation,” which is how meditation seems to be marketed, packaged, and sold today. The thinking appears to be that the explanatory spiritual doctrines that usually accompany traditional meditation practices are not important and can be jettisoned in favor of defining a completely secular technique for meditators to use.
But this assumes that the goal of meditation is something physical and concrete. This has never been the goal of meditation. This faulty understanding of meditation appears specifically in research efforts to record physical effects of meditation in the brain. The disparity here is that the absence of such effects is seen as evidence of the ineffectiveness of meditation, while the presence of it becomes evidence of possible effectiveness.
Meditation initially develops one’s focus of attention and concentration. Yet scientists are still trying to work out how the brain attends to anything at all — such as selecting a particular object in the visual field. Can science measure “development of attentional focus” if attention itself is still an unknown?
Meditation also allows one to directly experience the nature of the mind, but for science, there is no “mind,” only a brain. And, at best, its “contents” might be called the “mind,” but not in the sense meant by spiritual traditions. Can a scientist, then, study the effectiveness of meditation if they cannot fully comprehend its focus?
Most scientific studies stick to attention and concentration—i.e., “mindfulness”—and what their development provides people. But they do so while ignoring what happens when an individual’s meditation naturally glides from the initial development of attention and concentration into a direct experience of mind; or that of the lack of any inherent self-existence, qualities, or identity in anything; or the spontaneous nature of all that is believed to be intentionally caused. Such experiences can occur sporadically and without warning. They aren’t physical effects in the brain, nor doctrinal ideas learned from someone. Instead, these are direct experiences of the nature of the mind that don’t compute in a secular context for a strict disciple of the worldview of physicalism.
For instance, Ute Kreplin, a psychology lecturer at Massey University in New Zealand, wrote an essay in Aeon magazine, asking “Does meditation work?” But the essay focused on whether research into its effectiveness met scientific standards. The question of standards is an appropriate one—in relation to the study of modern secularized techniques of meditation. The focus of the question is constrained, however, by the nature of the actual subject of these research efforts: secularized meditation techniques that have been warped to focus on the manifestation of “side effects” of traditional meditation.
What is actually being studied, then, is characterized by Kreplin as the “elimination or reduction of stress, anxiety and depression, as well as bipolar disorder, eating disorders, diabetes, substance abuse, chronic pain, blood pressure, cancer, autism and schizophrenia.” While these are all worthwhile and positive effects, they are only possible side effects of traditional meditation, not its actual goal.
Just because a three-week meditation course is being marketed doesn’t mean a three-week study can give any relevant data about the effectiveness of meditation.
The research efforts that are the subject of her essay may be the result of a desire to enhance the marketability of a product or service by giving it some scientific “cred,” but the presence or absence of these side effects doesn’t evidence of the effectiveness of meditation — which includes traditional meditation, not just secularized meditation.
In the article, Kreplin references a widely shared quote, often attributed to the Dalai Lama: “If every eight-year-old in the world were taught meditation, the world would be without violence in one generation.” She uses this as a theme to point out the inadequacy of certain scientific research efforts on meditation and its side effects — specifically “enhanced compassion.” Kreplin references a study where individuals participated in an eight-week program of meditation, and the authors reached a finding of improved compassion across participants based on questionnaire responses before and after their eight-week course of meditation. Kreplen criticizes the lack of an active control group (i.e., a group of individuals who were also instructed to do something other than meditating, such as listening to lectures about compassion in this case, rather than doing nothing), stating: “here the results of our analysis suggest that meditation per se does not, alas, make the world a more compassionate place.”
But is that an objective takeaway?
While the absence of an active control group, as opposed to an inactive one, is a valid criticism of the study, it’s not an automatic rebuttal of the effectiveness of meditation. That popular Dalai Lama quote points out the effect of every child around the world being taught to meditate—and doing so continuously for a generation, a vague term for a span of time approximately the difference in age between children and their parents. Is it scientifically rigorous to apply the results of an experiment with a term of a few weeks to an assertion about something that would take about 20 years to accomplish? Also, we don’t know if the referenced study used the specific meditation practice the Dalai Lama was referring to—and there are many, each geared to a certain goal or the use of a different support.
There is an unwarranted and unproven assumption across scientific studies of meditation that the results of meditation are accomplished linearly, e.g., eight weeks is sufficient to test a practice’s results. Research would have to prove first that meditation was effective at all before it could attempt to prove it was linearly effective, which would have to come before a reliance on protocols for research over short durations. The latter two steps have not been done, and Kreplin takes as a given that the first hasn’t as well.
Can researchers validly perform curt examinations of techniques that are meant to be practiced over a lifetime—or at least decades—for their effects to take hold? Just because a three-week meditation course is being marketed doesn’t mean a three-week study can give any relevant data about the effectiveness of meditation or generate any useful data at all.
Kreplin also seems to misunderstand that any mental effort can be used as a support for meditation. Her example of a concocted 71-page manual describing the rationale and benefits of a nonexistent meditation technique is not inherently a placebo as she suggests. Especially when participants, who were considered in this instance to be the control group, were instructed to sit quietly for 20 minutes twice per day in a dark room and think of anything they wanted. Depending on how they were attending to their thoughts—as opposed to the contents of those thoughts—this could easily have been a very effective form of meditation. In fact, using thoughts as a support for meditation is a well-known type of traditional practice. Kreplin makes no mention of how these participants could be instructed to not meditate on their thoughts—and that, I argue, is a widespread fault of secularized meditation research.
By not understanding that the focus of traditional meditation is on the mind (as the traditions define it, not as science does today), researchers might think that this example represented a valid control group. When they saw no difference in the results obtained by the two groups—only one of which was deemed to be meditating—they “found” that meditation was no more effective than sitting quietly in a darkened room thinking. But such a “finding” hardly seems valid.
Kreplin goes on to detail important considerations about the techniques used to scientifically study secular meditation, as well as important considerations for the investigators themselves, such as experimenter bias and confirmation bias. She also discusses selectively chosen results that are deemed material, rather than marginal, and the problem of demand characteristics that may be present in the protocol and can lead participants to “behave or respond in a way that they think is in line with the expectations of the researcher.” All of these are important considerations for structuring a research protocol, but they do not overcome the deficiencies implicit with studies of meditation overall.
Kreplin also turns her attention to the problem of “negative side effects” of meditation, a mischaracterization of well-known and understood direct results of traditional meditation. These can become negative when they occur in a secular setting with uninformed or inexperienced teachers. By failing to comprehend, or actively ignoring, the actual goal of traditional meditation—while reformulating ancient techniques into a secularized form stripped of accompanying doctrinal context—paying customers face the possibility of intense disorientation that could result in mental illness if they’re left to fend for themselves, which can occur in secular contexts.
In traditional meditation practice, the selection criteria is focused on making sure that people being taught meditation are qualified to handle the expected results. They are taught under the guidance of an experienced meditator within an explanatory framework; no such criteria seems to be used for current secular meditation programs and applications.
Meditation is presumed to deliver results in a smooth linear fashion, which experienced meditators know is false, and this presumption is used to validate the short-term duration of most experiments.
The disorientation people can experience, such as the so-called “dark night” mentioned in Kreplin’s essay, is not a side effect of traditional meditation. Rather, it can be a documented sign of progress that can be competently handled by experienced guides in those traditions. But this can become a real danger in secularized meditation taught by unknowing teachers who think the only results of meditating are the main selling points, like stress reduction.
Kreplin does acknowledge this, saying: “In Buddhist circles, these so-called ‘dark nights’ are part of meditation. In an ideal situation, ‘dark nights’ are worked through with an experienced teacher under the framework of Buddhist teachings, but what about those who don’t have such a teacher or who meditate in a secular context?” The issue, though, is not with meditation overall. It is that secularized meditation is not the same thing as traditional meditation, for exactly the points she makes: the absence of an experienced teacher (from a tradition) and a framework of teachings (Buddhist, in her example).
But Kreplin lumps all meditation practices and settings together and then becomes alarmed at what happens with a particular kind of meditation in a particular context:
The absence of reported adverse effects in the current literature might be accidental, but it is more likely that those suffering from them believe that such effects are a part of meditation, or they don’t connect them to the practice in the first place. Considering its positive image and the absence of negative reports on meditation, it is easy to think that the problem lies within. In the best-case scenario, one might simply stop meditating, but many webpages and articles often frame these negative or ambivalent feelings as a part of meditation that will go away with practice. Yet continuing to practice can result in a full-blown psychotic episode (at worst), or have more subtle adverse effects.
This particular issue is not going to be settled anytime soon, as is evident in Kreplin’s closing remarks focused on “the limitations of meditation and its adverse effects.” While she calls for a more balanced view of meditation, her focus is only on the effectiveness claims of secularized meditation. She does not mean that science should accept the non-material nature of the goal of traditional meditation, a failing that dooms us to the “warped” understanding that she blames on the techniques of meditation, rather than on the interpreters, marketers, and beneficiaries of the modern secular version.
The danger is that most modern research efforts into the effectiveness of meditation are directed toward the potential side effects, both good and bad, of secularized—and preliminary level—meditation only, yet the results of such limited studies seem to be applied to all meditation, including traditional meditation practices. In addition, researchers are disadvantaged by a worldview that specifically excludes the actual focus of traditional meditation practices—which is the mind—and they cannot recognize certain experiences for what they are.
Finally, meditation is presumed to deliver results in a smooth linear fashion, which experienced meditators know is false, and this presumption is used to validate the short-term duration of most experiments. Researchers who are not advanced meditators themselves do not have the contextual experience necessary to be able to construct a fault-free research protocol because they don’t understand what is and isn’t meditation.