Pub Date May 21 2015
Published by: Watkins Media
Millions of people meditate daily. Many believe it affects how we feel and behave. But can we actually change through meditation? Does it work like a pill to alleviate stress? Can it put us on the path to personal transformation? Psychologists Dr Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm explore the human ambition for personal change and its possible illusions, with a focus on yoga and meditation.
They examine the psychological and biological evidence, from early research on Transcendental Meditation to recent brain-imaging studies on mindfulness. They also include personal accounts from practitioners, as well as recounting their own experiences of testing the effects of meditation and yoga on incarcerated criminals.
This isn’t simply another book about the route to enlightenment and happiness, nor is it a ‘how to’. Farias and Wikholm challenge assumptions about the uses and effects of meditation and yoga.
Controversially, The Buddha Pill argues that personal change effected by these spiritual practices can vary widely from one individual to another, and that peace and compassion may not always be the end result.
Combining insights from decades of scientific research with fascinating accounts from gurus and prisoners, The Buddha Pill weaves together a unique story about the science and the delusions of personal change.
I chose this book to review next, from my stack of eleven or twelve, because my therapist suggested, at my last appointment, that it might help. Apparently there’s lots of evidence. Being me, I thought I’d look at an analysis of the metadata. I just happened to have requested this book a few weeks ago but was too busy to get it read. Hmm, it may or may not have been a good thing to wait because I’ve started listening to a mindfulness meditation audio on YouTube and now I’m beginning to worry about its efficacy. To be fair, I only use it to relax, there’s no chance I’ll get seriously in to meditation. Not now anyway.
The reason I won’t is after reading this book I’ve discovered that the supposed overwhelming evidence in favour of mindfulness meditation to treat recurring depression is in fact nearly nonexistent. There have been lots of studies done, most of which were not double blind studies, nor did they have a control group. In their analysis of the available studies, from the ’70’s Hinduism inspired Transcendental Meditation to the current interest in the Buddhist inspired Mindfulness Meditation, currently available on the NHS, the authors, both experienced psychologists with an interest in the spiritual, discovered, and here present, their findings. The most important, at least for those with clinical mental health problems, is that mindfulness meditation works for a limited number of patients. In one fairly robust study, although it was pointed out that like most other meditation studies it was not controlled for participant expectations, it was found that 37% of the participants, in total, avoided relapsing but for the subgroup of those who suffered from depression due to childhood abuse and trauma this increased to 57%. The conclusion is that meditation isn’t a one size fits all treatment but instead that it can help very specific groups if people.
The project that resulted in the book, in which the authors worked with the Phoenix Prison Trust, involved the authors asking for prisoners to volunteer for a ten week yoga/meditation course with interviews/questionnaires/computer based tests before and after, as well as the prisoners keeping diaries to record their out of class practice, with a control group that were put on a waiting list, asked to continue as normal and to complete their own diaries. This study found that, while prisoners were less stressed and slept better, and some showed increased impulse control, violence levels did not decrease. While this study was not ‘perfect’ it is difficult to see how the authors would be able to create a perfect control group, it’s not like with drugs testing where the randomised, double blind subjects are given either drugs or placebos; how would you design a placebo participants might consider to be the actual subject of the research?
The authors also discussed the dark side to meditation. The authors were under the impression that meditation lead to every practitioner becoming calm and balanced. Yet they found evidence, when collecting testimony from yoga teachers and practitioners that having a bad reaction wasn’t uncommon. When they approached various Buddhist and Hindu meditation meditation teachers/gurus they found that, among these groups at least the belief held that personal change doesn’t come about by meditating alone, but at part of a worldview – right thinking, right action. It seems fairly obvious that if you’re going to stir up the pain without suitable support then some people are going to struggle with dealing with what comes to the surface.
This book is interesting, accessibile and will probably crop up in conversation when I next see my therapist – I only have two of my eight sessions left. The NHS have a limit in how much help they give mental help patients. The authors have used their personal experience and academic skills to look in to an important area, especially as meditation is being used as a cheap alternative to psychological assessment and ling term therapy for the mentally ill (My sister and I have been trying to get me referred to the local hospital psychiatry department for a proper assessment of my conditions but we’re having an uphill struggle. I may have suggested that the doctors only take you seriously after you try to kill yourself a few times); the number of sessions is limited to eight one-to-one or eight group sessions, depending on where you live, and no longterm support. I recommend this book to those who treat and those who live with mental health problems. Mindfulness meditation may help you relax but it probably won’t make you magically depression-free.