Earlier this year, I did a show about the benefits of meditation. That’s episode #439 for those who want to check it out. Shortly after that interview, I came across a book called The Buddha Pill, which takes a critical look at the research on meditation and exposes some of the weaknesses of the hype that currently surrounds it. As someone who loves to look at both sides of an issue, I was certainly intrigued and today talk to one of the co-authors of that book.
I begin my conversation with Miguel Farias, a psychologist and therapist trained at Oxford University, by discussing how the current mindfulness craze we’re experiencing in the 21st century isn’t entirely new, but is similar to a trend which emerged in the 1960s and 70s around the practice of Transcendental Meditation. Miguel explains how meditation research began with Transcendental Meditation, the limits of that research, and why Transcendental Meditation has now been eclipsed by mindfulness meditation. In the second half of the show, Miguel shares some problems with the Western approach to mindfulness meditation, including detaching it from a spiritual framework, making it a self-centered affair, and using it to take a more passive stance to life.
We also explore the often overlooked downsides of meditation, including the fact that it can sometimes have the very opposite of the calming, centering effect people are seeking. We end our conversation discussing whether meditation is truly effective in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression, Miguel’s conclusion on whether people should practice it, and if you should ultimately feel guilty if you don’t.
- The current cultural phenomenon of mindfulness meditation
- The Transcendental Meditation (TM) craze of the 60s, and why it dwindled in popularity
- The research studies pertaining to meditation (and why research on meditation is so hard to conduct)
- Is meditation just a relaxation technique? Are meditation and relaxation sort of the same thing?
- Does meditation work simply because people want and expect it to?
- Meditation and prayer
- How meditation can paradoxically disconnect you from reality
- What can meditation really do to help depression/anxiety?
- What are the downsides of meditating?
- Using meditation in a healthier manner
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Episode #439: Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics
- Why You Should Go to Church (Even If You Aren’t Sure of Your Beliefs)
- A Primer on Meditation
- Mindfulness Meditation
- Transcendental Meditation
- Love Is All You Need
- An Introduction to Stoicism
- Does Stoicism Extinguish the Fire of Life?
- AoM series on male depression
- How to Deal With Anxiety
Connect With Miguel
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Recorded on ClearCast.io
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Earlier this year I did a show about the benefits of meditation. It’s episode number 439 for those who want to check it out. Shortly after that interview, I came across a book called The Buddha Pill, which takes a critical look at the research on meditation and it exposes some of the weaknesses of the hype that currently surrounds it. As someone who loves to look at both sides of an issue, I was certainly intrigued. And today on the show, I talk to one of the coauthors of The Buddha Pill.
I begin my conversation with Miguel Farias, psychologist and therapist trained at Oxford University, by discussing how the current mindfulness craze we’re experiencing in the 21st century isn’t entirely new, but is similar to a trend which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s around the practice of transcendental meditation. Miguel explains how meditation research began with transcendental meditation, the limits of that research, and why transcendental meditation has now been eclipsed by mindfulness meditation. In the second half of the show, Miguel shares some problems with the western approach to mindfulness meditation, including detaching it from a spiritual framework, making it a self-centered affair, and using it to take a more passive stance to life. We also explore the often overlooked downsides of meditation, including the fact that it can sometimes have the very opposite of the calming scenery effect people are seeking. We end our conversation discussing whether meditation is truly effective in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. Miguel’s conclusion on whether people should practice it, and if you should ultimately feel guilty if you decide not to.
Really fascinating show. After it’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/buddhapill.
Miguel Farias, welcome to the show.
Miguel Farias: Thank you, I’m really happy to be talking to you, Brett.
Brett McKay: So you are a psychological researcher. You’ve done some time as a therapist as well. And you got this book out called The Buddha Pill where you take a critical Look at research on meditation and the effects of it. So how did you get started looking at meditation and the psychological effects of it?
Miguel Farias: It wasn’t originally intended to be as critical as it turned out to be because I’m actually a fan of meditation overall. I’ve been doing it for a while. So what happened is that when I was doing my undergraduate degree in psychology back in Lisbon in Portugal, I became more and more interested in spiritual practices. And I mean, there has been some research from the psychological perspective on religion and religious practices. But mostly on standard stuff. So there is a growing literature for instance on religion and health. Mostly coming from the US. But there was very little on spiritual practices such as energy healing and also meditation. So I actually, when I came to do my doctorate in Oxford, I was already interested in trying to ascertain to what an extent, the claims that … There was lots of claims. Starting in the ’60s, with many new age ideas that if you do this, if you do this technique of meditation, if you do this kind of chanting, this will radically transform you. So I was interested in looking into that back when I started my doctorate. Then I realized that this is actually really, really difficult to try to measure and quantify. I mean, starting with personal change and then these people are doing lots of different practices.
So I ended up spawning that part of my question for some 10 years until I met the director of a small charity in Oxford that organizes yoga and meditation classes across most British prisons. And they had lots of anecdotal evidence, letters from prisoners who had been trying out yoga and meditation. But they didn’t have any quantitative study. And then when I looked at the literature, I realized that there had never been any nicely conducted randomized control trial looking at the effects of yoga and meditation in prisons. So that’s what really got me started looking into the science of meditation. It was this collaboration with this charity called The Prison Phoenix Trust.
Brett McKay: And we’ll talk more about that because I think it’s interesting and the sort of the findings. You did do a study with them. But before we get to that, let’s talk about the history of meditation research and the history of meditation as part of a cultural phenomenon. So right now, in the 21st century, there’s a lot of talk about mindfulness meditation. You can take courses on it, there’s books on it, there’s blog articles on it. And they’re all talking about how the mindfulness meditation can transform you, can reduce anxiety, alleviate depression, reduce stress. But as you mentioned, this isn’t new. You talked about in the ’60s and ’70s, we had something very similar with transcendental meditation. So for those who aren’t familiar with it, what is transcendental meditation and how is it similar to the cultural phenomenon that we’re seeing with mindful meditation today?
Miguel Farias: Yeah, no, really, really interesting and good questions. So many people of my parents’ generation, for instance, who are in their 20s and 30s during the 1960s and ’70s, they would be acquainted with the idea of transcendental meditation. What’s really interesting about these meditation technique is that it was really what we call the first wave of the scientific studies of meditation. Up to then, you had these small scale studies mostly looking at experts. But then Maharishi, who is the founder of TM, transcendental meditation, shows up. The Beatles are also helping in spread the words about Maharishi and TM. And the technique is really simple. While lots of other meditation techniques are embedded within a larger belief system and you have to do lots of other rituals, this one only involves a small ceremony when you learn the technique. And the technique is really simple. You basically meditate for 20 minutes twice per day. And you focus on a word. Which we call a mantra. It’s a sound. Actually, it’s not even coming from Sanskrit. It’s just a sound that Maharishi said that he received from his teachers. So people are given a sound. They focus on the sound for 20 minutes twice a day.
And within a few years, you had quite a lot of people who were being introduced to this technique during the ’60s and then throughout the ’70s. Many of them were young graduates from good US universities. It also comes then to Europe. So I mentioned in our book that I was actually introduced to meditation via TM. I was a child. I didn’t practice it then. But my parents had just done a course on it. And Maharishi who was a graduate of physics. So he actually studied physics before he dropped out and then became a guru. When he came to the west, he have a very good insight that the only way to pull meditation out of a sort of metaphysical new age-ish niche would be to have science backing it up. So he contacted a number of researchers. And they started in what would become really what’s this first wave of scientific studies of meditation. And so this happens 20, 30 years before mindfulness became a really big thing. I mean bigger now than TM was. But there was so much enthusiasm about the growth of TM that by 1975, Maharishi thought that it’s a kind of new age-ish psychological idea. That the sort of the essence or the waves around the practice of all these hundreds of thousands of people practicing TM would defect the global consciousness of our planet, which would bring about an era of peace.
Brett McKay: Well in fact, they tried doing studies to prove that. You mentioned one, I think it was in Washington DC or around there where they had a whole bunch of people doing transcendental meditation at the same time for a month. And then they tried to find reduction in crime.
Miguel Farias: Yeah. So I usually mention that study because it’s the largest single most expensive study ever conducted on meditation. There’s been large grants. But that is a single study that cost them something like $4 million US dollars back then because they had to bring all these people from different places in the US, concentrate them in a place in Washington DC, and then they kept them for some weeks to meditate. And they increased the number of meditators. It was actually a really interesting idea. I have to say, it’s quite unique. There really isn’t anything like this in the study of meditation or even on the idea that any kind of individual practice may have such a social, large social effect. The idea was that it would affect this global consciousness of the planet and it would decrease the levels of stress at these somewhat ethereal or non-physical level. But this would then filter down into people’s individual consciousnesses. And that’s would bring about a reduction in things like violent crime, burglary, rape. And the paper shows that it did decrease overall.
But when we looked better at what was happening is that they didn’t report everything. So for instance, there had been a crime. A single mass murder committed here during the period in which they were studying. But they considered that what we call a statistical outlier, which means it was a single event. So it’s very different from a normal distribution of how crime, even murder, would happen. So they deleted that from the data set, which is why they didn’t report it. So the results aren’t as stellar as they seemed to be at first.
Brett McKay: So besides that one study, as you mentioned, there was a lot of research around transcendental meditation that was getting published in prestigious journals. I mean, so what were these research articles saying that are the results of meditation? And when you look back at that research, say, now they’re 40 years later, do those findings hold up?
Miguel Farias: So the first paper by transcendental meditation researchers was actually published in the Journal of Science. So one of the major scientific outlets for science publications. And the kind of claim and the kind of measurements that they’re interested in is very much what will then are going to find. So they’re interested in how it affects our physiology, our psychology, and our wellbeing. So there was a plethora of studies looking at simple things like does it affect your heart rate, does it affect how you breathe, does it affect your levels of anxiety, stress, depression, does it affect your overall wellbeing? But also things like does it change your personality traits? If you’re particularly anxious or neurotic, does it lower your levels of neuroticism? Does it increase your IQ levels? Does it make you act in a more empathic social oriented way? It’s very much what we’re still interested in when we’re studying mindfulness these days.
And overall, they have positive results. There was a large meta analysis published some years ago which looks at both transcendental meditation and mindfulness. And because the times were different, there are some methodological issues which are now somewhat outdated in the sense that they have less randomized controlled trials that mindfulness has. That the main reason for that is that back in the ’70s and the ’80s, there weren’t so many psychological trials conducted in this way. But many of the physiological results stand out such as the benefits for heart problems. So quite a lot of these studies are still good research and they give us a sort of decent indication of how meditation can affect your psychological wellbeing and your physical health.
Brett McKay: But as you mentioned earlier, researching or doing experiments on meditation is hard because typically the best study to do is a double blind placebo. But the thing is like how do you do a placebo for meditation, right?
Miguel Farias: Yeah, this is an ongoing debate. That’s a very good point. Many meditation researchers think that you can’t do a placebo because you can’t find anything that would replicate meditation and that would also be cheating on the participants. I feel more ambivalent. There were a couple of earlier studies with TM in the mid-1970s by Jonathan Smith in which created in a very, a very ingenious placebo for meditation where he wrote the whole manual about a pseudo-meditation technique which consisted of simply sitting down for 20 minutes and doing nothing. But he convinced participants that this was a new meditation technique which put together the theories of all other meditation techniques. And perhaps because of this that he convinced people that this was going to work, the outcomes he got from this placebo meditation were the same as for TM. So both the TM condition and this placebo meditation condition had better outcomes than those who weren’t doing any meditation. And the problem with this is that it leads us to another ongoing debate which is whether meditation is just a form of relaxation or if it’s doing something more than relaxation.
Brett McKay: Okay, so there’s a debate on whether meditation is just relaxing you, that’s all it’s doing? So what is the consensus in the psychological field on that?
Miguel Farias: Well, there really is no consensus. There are attempts within some studies to compare this to relaxation. And sometimes the results are different, but that doesn’t happen always. But the thing is, most of these problems are embedded within a context, which is what exactly is meditation and what exactly is relaxation. And most of the meditation researchers aren’t aware that physical relaxation, the way it started out in the west, is very similar to that of meditation. It was coming out of certain spiritual traditions. And it was an attempt to take out some of these techniques and make them purely secular, right?
But the kind of processes you find in simple physical relaxation have some clear overlaps with that of meditation in the sense that you’re, for instance, you’re doing muscular relaxation. You’re focusing slowly through various parts of your body. Your muscles. Sometimes you’re contracting them and relaxing them. But the kind of mental process involved in this. The kind of focusing. It does have many similarities with the kind of focused process of meditation.
Brett McKay: And another issue that it’s hard to resolve too is this. So you mentioned that study where you had the placebo set up where it’s basically a guy came up with sort of a fake meditation process where they just sat and did nothing and it worked. And then someone meditated and it worked, reduced stress. So one issue is does meditation work people just want it to work?
Miguel Farias: Oh, well, the more we know about the so-called placebo effect, the more we know that expecting something to work is part of the reason why it works. This has become so prominent in the placebo studies that they’re now doing what they call open placebo trials where they explicitly tell people that I’m going to give you a placebo. And I’m going to give you a placebo because there’s all these studies showing that placebo works. And the results are astonishing. Even things which we think of as completely physical, such as lower back pain. They seem to have very good results when they give these open placebos. So undoubtedly, with meditation, particularly now that there is this sort of media hype that this is going to cure everything, that your expectation about it is certainly going to interfere with the outcomes.
Brett McKay: And TM was really big in the ’60s and ’70s. And it had a huge cultural impact. I don’t think a lot of people know if you’re younger that a lot of the self-help gurus that we see today, Deepak Chopra, John Gray, the men are from Mars, Women are from Venus guy. They all started out in transcendental meditation.
Miguel Farias: That’s true, yes.
Brett McKay: Right. But it dwindled. I’ve never met a 20 something transcendental meditation practitioner. So why did TM dwindle in popularity?
Miguel Farias: That’s a really good question. So there’s still people doing TM, and researching TM, and publishing on it. There’s still at least on university of transcendental meditation in the US. And they somewhat resent the fact that mindfulness has become so big. And most of these mindfulness researchers don’t even site in their articles the TM research. I think it’s simply because we don’t know of it. Just because researchers are very focused on what’s going on right now. And they don’t tend to read what’s happened in the past. Which sometimes isn’t very a good way of doing science, but that’s how it is. No. Different things happens with TM.
One is that they sort of kept the trademark for it within the organization. So the major difference in terms of the expansion of TM versus mindfulness is that TM is still organized by a central organization. Sorry, organize, organization. It’s still held by the central organization. You need to have a certified teacher that introduces you to the technique. There’s a kind of formal initiation and you pay for this. Well, most of the people doing mindfulness courses, you also pay for them, but its become much more liberated. So anyone can learn from anyone. There is no central organization. There is no central control. In this sense, TM claims that we have much better control over the quality of our teachers because they’re all trained in the same way by us, which doesn’t happen with mindfulness. And this may be true.
The other thing which happened with TM going back to the mid-late ’70s is that they got somewhat enthusiastic. Not just with these claims that this would change the world. But Maharishi thought that as more people got into TM, he started talking about advanced TM techniques, which would allow people to develop all kinds of paranormal powers, such as levitation. So the idea of levitation became a big embarrassment. They even developed, well … How do you call it? So while sitting cross legged. And there’s lots of wonderful pictures of some of these early TM meditators in which they seem to be floating. But in fact they’re jumping while cross legged in this advanced state of TM. So it became somewhat of an embarrassment because people didn’t actually levitate. But there were these kind of paranormal claims that couldn’t be verified. So that didn’t help the image from a certain point onwards. But I think it had more to do with how this was marketed and the fact that they held the control, which is why it didn’t keep growing.
I should say that with mindfulness, there are similar utopian claims. The paranormal stuff is less clear although there are still ideas of experiencing pure consciousness. But there’s, I mean, people like Kabat-Zinn, who’s the creator of the major secularized format of mindfulness, he’s become more and more open about his utopian beliefs on how mindfulness is going to change the world in various ways.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about the difference between mindfulness meditation and TM. So TM you said there’s a mantra that you repeat. It could be om, I think is the most popular one. What does mindfulness meditation do that’s different?
Miguel Farias: So the kind of … While in TM and other meditation techniques, you’re either focusing on the sound, the mantra, or an image, or the breath. With mindfulness, the idea is that you just keep the focus on the flow of consciousness in a non-judgmental way. There are different definitions. Even Kabat-Zinn is somewhat ambiguous about what essentially characterizes mindfulness. But as a technique coming from Buddhist meditation, the idea is to keep this kind of overall awareness of everything that comes into your perception, to your awareness, and let it go. So you just keep focusing on the flow of your awareness without focusing on anything in particular.
Brett McKay: And there’s a lot of research now done about mindfulness meditation as you mentioned. Are the same problems that existed with the first wave of research or meditation, do they still exist now with mindfulness meditation research?
Miguel Farias: Well, yes. Basically yes. There’s no some thousand over a few thousand papers published using mindfulness. And there’s even more looking at mindfulness not just as a meditation technique, but as a kind of cognitive ability to be mindful of non-judgmental eye. But most of these studies, when you have lots of methodological problems, most of them don’t have control groups, most of them aren’t randomized controlled trials. Even when they are randomized control trials, we published a meta analysis of mindfulness and compassion, love, and kindness meditation studies where we found out that there are other kinds of bodies is introduced even in randomized controlled trials.
For instance, you tend to become more compassionate in the studies where the meditation teacher is also one of the authors in the published study. Which means that there is some kind of experiment or effect, which happens. We know it happens in most experiments that you want your experiments to work, therefore implicitly, you bias participants to act in a certain way. So yes. The basic answer, yes. There are still methodological problems with this kind of research with mindfulness.
Brett McKay: And so another issue with meditation research, just the idea that meditation can have benefits for you. So the first one is meditation might work just because you want it to work. Meditation can just be a form of relaxation. But another problem with meditation that whether it works or not is that meditation is originally a spiritual practice. But the way it’s practiced in the west, it’s been stripped of that underlying spiritual nature. Right? You can just be mindful without having to identify with any sort of religious practice. But can meditation be as effective without being part of some ethical or spiritual framework?
Miguel Farias: Yeah, there is ongoing debates about this. The problem is we tend to think that meditation was a thing, was a technique that people have been practicing for thousands of years. And it doesn’t … That’s not the reality. There’s different forms of techniques. Which in the west, we call contemplation. We didn’t even call them meditation. But the thing is this is just one part of a whole package which involved lots of other things. But for instance, if you go to asia and you go into Buddhist temple, you don’t see people meditating there. People go there to pray. To ask things to the Buddha. So it’s very similar to what happens in a church or in a synagogue. But we develop this curious idea that Buddhists and Hindus have been doing these things for eight hours a day. And that’s not true. Even people who are sort of monks and nuns who did it for more frequently, this was just one part of the whole package. And they never expected the meditation technique perse to work out some kind of wonders. It was the whole package. It was the whole way of life. It was renouncing your worldly life. Giving up everything and studying the sacred scriptures, whatever. I mean, whether they’re Buddhist, or in the Hindu context.
So that’s one of the problems. That we’re sort of ignorant about how this works. That people never expected meditation to be the thing. But it was the whole package. And most of this, so most of these techniques were only used by a very, very restricted elite of these people who left everything behind, which were a tiny minority.
The other problem, which is … I’m not sure I call it a problem. It’s really, really interesting. It’s just the way that we think about the world these days. That everything can be turned into something else. Into a mental health gadgets or whatever. And this of course goes completely against the spirits of some of these world religions like Buddhism. You are never expected to be using any of these techniques for your own personal gain. No, no. It was quite the opposite. You were supposed to use this to erase the idea of personal gains and to erase your sense of self. To become more selfless. Not to become a better self. So that’s really, really creating an interesting existential paradox. But the intention is very different from the original.
Brett McKay: Right, so us individualistic westerners have made a selfless act into a selfish act in a way.
Miguel Farias: Yeah. I have to say. I have to create a nuance here in the sense that within the eastern traditions, there is a variety of ways in which these contemplative meditative techniques have been used. So within some Indian schools, some people were using these to try to obtain particular paranormal powers or even to extend your life so that you could live for much longer. I mean, concerns that we have had for a very long time. So it’s not that there weren’t people thinking of how I can use this for my own personal gain back then. There’s always been that possibility. It’s just that that used to be the sort of the exception, but it’s become now the norm.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And I think the other issue of when you try to extract meditation and spiritual practice from that ethical framework, you get the idea that you can become more compassionate just by sitting alone in your room, thinking loving, kindness thoughts. I mean, they can help. But really the work a day stuff of actually being compassionate is being around people, right, that annoy you and actually being compassionate in that moment where you have to do it, right? So with Buddhism, you’re embedded in a community that reinforces those ideas as well.
Miguel Farias: Yeah, absolutely. And I have to say, as a psychologist, I am somewhat disappointed that we’ve driven ourselves to think in a very counterintuitive and sometimes silly way. And there are various reasons why as psychological researchers, we have been pushed in this way. Mostly because there is money to do research and they want research being done in a certain way. So part of our brain shuts off and we go where the money is, which is really stupid and that it’s not very helpful. Of course, I mean, any sensible psychologist would tell you that you’re absolutely right. That things done within a group context are usually much more powerful.
The other thing that we know also from history is that whenever there are movements in which you seem to start caring more about ideas which drive you away from the world and social movement and within yourself. And this has been happening since Ancient Greek. There has been philosophical movements that have said very similar things. Oh, no. You just have to think in a different way. You don’t have to care about the world, about the politics. This is a sort of copping out thing. It’s like we’ve reached one of those civilizational stages where we just don’t think that much of what we do can have any real influence in the world. So we are just driven much more inwards because we’ve sort of given up on the idea that as we can create groups of people that actually make a difference. And that’s really sad. Yeah. It’s just where we are at this stage in which we are. I think that part of what is driving the interest in mindfulness is actually a sort of hopelessness about our future in our current situation.
Brett McKay: I think it also speaks to the increase interest in stoicism as well in the past decade, right? Stoicism is very similar. It’s like, well, the thing itself doesn’t hurt you. Just how you think about it, right? And there’s nothing you can do, then don’t worry about it. It’s okay.
Miguel Farias: Yeah. There again. It’s a very, very interesting example. How Stoicism also happened at a particular historical moment when lots of people were feeling that no, there’s no point in engaging more with the social world as it is. Let’s just find another way of perfecting ourselves.
Brett McKay: So when you’ve taken a look at this research, are the claims that meditation components make, is there something to them? Can it actually alleviate depression for example? That’s one you’ve seen. Or anxiety which are two mental health issues that a lot of people are struggling with today.
Miguel Farias: So yes, but it can alleviate things … The better evidence is for people who have had three or more episodes of depression. So to prevent them from relapsing into depression. Depression is a horrible thing. It’s kind of a … Almost like a virus that stays within you. Like malaria that never leaves. And if you’ve had it three times, then it just … The odds of you having it again just increase tremendously. And that’s the reason why people like Mark Williams and others started looking at using mindfulness meditation. They were all doing cognitive behavior therapy and realized there was this subgroup of people who keep getting depression. And cognitive behavior therapy had its limits in how effective it could be. So they started looking elsewhere. And there are some good results for mindfulness when used within this context. What is curious is that it seems to work better for some people even within this specific sample of recurring depressed people. So those who have higher childhood trauma, they react better to meditation. An we still don’t know why that is.
Now with things like anxiety, pain, stress. With anxiety and pain, for instance, there is some evidence that it works. There is moderate evidence that it can help you. For stress, there really is very, very weak evidence that is can help you strangely enough because the first application of mindfulness by Kabat-Zinn was particularly directed at stress. But on the other hand, what I always try to highlight is that all the … Everything the results indicate is that it works differently for various problems. But it usually doesn’t work better than other techniques. Or nothing in the results shows that it’s something miraculous or even somewhat miraculous.
Brett McKay: Okay. So it’s not … There might be a lot of hype about it. So it can work for some people, might not work for other people. But I thought the interesting thing about this book … And the reason that it caught my eye when I first came across it is that whenever you talk, hear about, or read about meditation, it’s always positive. Meditation can help depression, anxiety, stress, et cetera. But they never talk about the negatives. The downsides of meditation. But there’s actually research on that. So walk us through. What are the downsides of meditating?
Miguel Farias: So this is a sensitive issue. And there are people who feel very, very strongly about this in the sense that if there is literature going back to the early ’70s showing that there are paradoxical effect. This was highlighted first with the physical relaxation literature. Some people have what they call a paradoxical reaction. This is supposed to make you feel more relaxed. But for some people, it makes them more anxious. I mean, more anxious to the point of having a panic attack when you are supposed to be physically relaxing. So going back to the early ’70s, you start to get first case studies of people who go on meditation retreats and they have psychotic episodes. Some surveys showing that some people are getting more anxious and more depressed. That other people feel all sorts of unexpected things. So this has sort of been under the rug with mindfulness until the last few years. Actually, I think it was our book that explicitly tried to address this. And we weren’t expecting to do so. I remember that when we wrote the book proposal, we wanted to have a chapter that focused on how meditation could be used for ill purposes. But we were more thinking like within some small religious groups some people might use this to manipulate individuals. But when we were doing the research for the book, we then realized that there was this literature that had been mostly forgotten.
So basically, we still don’t know why exactly it happens. Some people … We know that it happens. And now there is a general acknowledgment. What has happened since we’ve published the book until now is that there is a much more general acknowledgment particularly amongst researchers that these do happen. There are these so called challenging experiences or even adverse effects associated with meditation. There is a huge disagreement about what maybe the cause is for this. Some would say that has nothing to do with the meditation. The problem is with individual’s personal history or whatsoever. I think that’s rather arrogant. The straight answer is that we don’t know yet. We don’t know. There’s evidence that sometimes it happens with people who have a mental health history. Other times, people seem to have no mental health problems at all.
Now, the sort of spectrum of potential adverse events varies considerably. Most of these negative effects aren’t the most extreme such as psychosis. Most of them have simply to do with increases in anxiety or depression. Those would be the majority of them. The people who seem to do it for longer tend to experience more difficulties. But we’re still unclear why that is. If it’s simply because if you’re doing it for much longer, it’s just much more likely that for your normal experience something will happen. And because you’re doing meditation every day that there will be a coincidence. But it may also be that if you’re using meditation for some kind of spiritual or self-exploration purpose, that you may do it for longer periods than other people do. Or more intensely. And this may indeed be causing something unexpected.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think you mentioned one person from the research where they did mindfulness meditation. They got to the point where they kinda lost themselves. They didn’t know where they … I don’t know. They didn’t feel good. Something didn’t feel right. And as soon as they stopped the meditation, that feeling went away.
Miguel Farias: Yes, yes. So what we’re trying to tell people that one of the major problems now is that the mindfulness and meditation teachers because they have this very naïve positive idea of meditation, most of them don’t have it in them to tell people to stop meditating when they’re feeling something difficult or unpleasant, which is what usually they should say. Well, if this isn’t working, you should stop and we have to see what’s happening. But then, again, most of these people don’t have any mental health training. And they don’t have also a very long experience with meditation. So it’s overall a poor combination.
Brett McKay: Right. And they’re incentivized to keep people meditating as well, right? Because they make money if you keep doing the course or keep going for classes. And I think you also mentioned, one of the things they say if something negative starts popping up, they’ll say, “Well, that’s good. It means you’re getting to the surface. This stuff that’s bad. And we’re gonna work through it.”
Miguel Farias: Yeah, yeah. Well, I think of that having a good teacher is really very important. Because there may be indeed some kind of emotional issues coming up. And perhaps the teacher is equipped to help you deal with this. But because otherwise, and I’m thinking of … And we mention this in the book. That Deepak Chopra runs this … His website. And there’s lots of people sometimes asking for advice about meditation. Some of them who have been experiencing something difficult. And sometimes he’s really, really responsible advice. Such as someone who was experiencing deep grief while meditating. Just chant something and it will eventually go away. How does he know? How does he know that it will go away without knowing anything about this person. It’s really, really responsible.
Brett McKay: So let’s go back to this experiment you did with the prison. So there’s been meditation practices going on in prison. There are all this anecdotal evidence that it’s reduced recidivism, people, criminals were less angry, et cetera. When you guys went in there and looked at the research and did the study, what did you find? Didn’t meditation change these prisoners?
Miguel Farias: Well, it really looks at how you’re … Depends on how you’re looking at it. Many things changes. We were particularly interested in looking at changes in emotions. If these people had more positive emotions, less negative emotions. If they were less anxious. If they were less aggressive. Also if they had the better focus and an ability to withhold their impulses, which we know is associated with criminality. And the answer is, I mean, it’s sort of grayish in the sense that we got some of the positive results that we were expecting. People felt better. They had higher scores on positive effect. But they didn’t really reduce their negative effect. They had lower stress and anxiety, but they didn’t really have lower aggression. And there were some indications that they were able to withhold our impulses a little bit better. But again, this one was a weak result. If, indeed, meditation could do that, that would be something quite important. But if you look at the larger literature, even on the effects on meditation on attention, it’s very, very mixed. The results aren’t that great.
Brett McKay: So it sounds like to me, the prisoners feel better, but not necessarily act better.
Miguel Farias: Yeah. And that’s a really, really big thing in psychology. I mean, getting kind of some psychological good effects. I mean, you can invariably get something. But get people to behave in a different way. That’s always much more difficult.
Brett McKay: Right. Because there’s a lot involved there. There’s context. Environment plays a huge role in how you behave or not.
Miguel Farias: Yeah, exactly.
Brett McKay: So Miguel, after doing all this research on meditation, what’s your final take on it? Should people run out and start meditating or should people feel guilty if they don’t meditate? Who should meditate? What’s your take?
Miguel Farias: So one thing that we’re still trying to work out is for whom meditation works better and worse. Once we know something more about that, we’d be able to give a much better answer to who should be doing this? To whom will it really help? I think what’s really … What keeps me doing things on meditation is that it’s fascinating. The way it’s become not just a psychological or a health issue, it’s really societal issue. Why have we become so interested in an inwards technique. Are we using this in the best way? I think it’s somehow tapping into something good. It’s tapping into a kind of ideal is more romanticism that we still hold despite everything happening around us that isn’t so great. So it’s still tapping into that resource of goodness and hope in us. And I think that’s really, really valuable. The thing is we know that meditation as an inwards or reflecting technique, it is inevitably limited.
So what is it that we need to do to make it more effective? So for instance, now in the UK, I think it’s the same in the US, lots of people trying to get meditation programs in schools. With children of various ages as early as six. And again, this is being driven by a good idea by the hope that this will allow children to do better with anxiety, depression, to make them more resilient. But I think it’s stopping short. We should be asking what … How can this allow us to really pause for a second and think better about how we’re educating these kids. What is it that they need that we’re not giving them? So the whole idea about mindfulness in particular is that it just allows us to stop. And we do need to stop because the way things are, it’s just ridiculous and unhealthy, right?
So I wish that meditation could be used to give us a proper way of pausing and reflecting deeper. Right now, it’s not leading to any deeper reflection in most cases. And if we get to that deeper level, it then lead us to the next stage which is … Actually, we can think about doing things differently and we do need the other people, right? If we want to do things differently and for this to work at the level that extends beyond myself. So in that sense, I think there is something potentially good about meditation. But within that possibility of stopping and making us think. I think psychologists are in a way not helping this because of all the focus on the mental issues that this helps through this, this helps through that. No, it will help very little most people. I think the best thing coming out of it is the possibility to stop and allow us to rethink lots of stuff that is happening within us in our lives and around us which really needs to be rethought carefully and to be changed. So I wish that we can use meditation more in that why there context and not just looking within.
Brett McKay: So it sounds like meditation isn’t an end. Right? It’s not a solution to the problems. It’s a way for us to pause a bit so we can think about solutions to the problems. You mentioned the school kids. I’ve read that too where they’re really doing this in inner city schools where kids are facing a lot of stress at home, et cetera. And it’s like, well, instead of solving the problem, eliminating that stress, we’ll just make the kids more mindful. Right? And it’s like, well, okay, you did that, but they’re still … Things are still bad, right? So maybe meditation can be, well, stop, pause a moment. Then that’ll allow us to solve those larger problems.
Miguel Farias: Yeah. And I saw this. I mean, this was exactly what happened during the ’60s. There were lots of interesting ideas going on. But it was so individualistic at that stage that people were unable to get together and make these work as a whole. As a societal whole. And the way things are being organized or disorganized with mindfulness, it’s again, they’re looking at it in a micro way. So in a way, they’re throwing the baby out with the water. There’s something potentially good about this, but the way we’re using it is just not going to bring about anything either than disappointment. And this then leads me to think, well, after this, what will happen? What will come next? What will we attach our hopes to when we realize that meditation isn’t going to help us?
Brett McKay: So bottom line, I think it sounds like if you want to give meditation a try, it can be useful. But it’s only a tool. It’s not gonna be the solution to your problems. If you don’t meditate, it sounds like it’s okay. You should feel guilty for not meditating?
Miguel Farias: No, you shouldn’t feel guilty for not meditate.
Brett McKay: Right. Because I think there’s a lot of guilt. You don’t mindful meditate? You should be mind … Okay, you shouldn’t feel that.
Well, Miguel, is there some place people can go to learn more about your work?
Miguel Farias: Yeah. So I have a website. We have a Facebook page for The Buddha Pill as well. There’s a new edition coming out with some updated material. And there’s a number of programs, even a BBC Radio 4 documentary called Mindfulness and Madness, which may be interesting for those that are looking at the adverse events of meditation. Yeah. Have a look at my website. There’s a number of things out there.
Brett McKay: Well, Miguel, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Miguel Farias: Thank you so much, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest here was Miguel Farias. He is the coauthor of the book, The Buddha Pill. It’s available on Amazon.com. You can also find out more information about his work at MiguelFarias.co.uk. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/buddhapill, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. And if you enjoyed the show, you’ve got something out of it, please give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time. This is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.