Review – The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?

My colleague and head of The Pilgrimage Project research team, Miguel Farias, has recently written a book about meditation along with Catherine Wikholm.

I went to the launch party in Notting Hill a few weeks ago, took the book home and have been gradually reading it in between travels over the past few weeks.

Millions of people meditate daily, but can meditative practices really make us ‘better’ people?

In The Buddha Pill, pioneering psychologists Dr. Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm put meditation and mindfulness under the microscope. Separating fact from fiction, they reveal what scientific research – including their own groundbreaking study on yoga and meditation with prisoners – tells us about the benefits and limitations of these techniques for improving our lives. As well as illuminating the potential, the authors argue that these practices may have unexpected consequences, and that peace and happiness may not always be the end result.

Offering a compelling examination of research on transcendental meditation to recent studies on the effects of mindfulness and yoga, and with fascinating contributions from spiritual teachers and therapists, Farias and Wikholm weave together a unique story about the science and the delusions of personal change.

The book did something all my favourite academic books do: it gave me ideas for future research projects. There are now so many notes scribbled in the margins that it’d probably keep me going in research paperwork for the next twenty years (which perhaps speaks more to the amount of time each project takes than the number of ideas I had).

It did throw up some interesting questions though. The book talks us through some of the previous research into meditation and mindfulness, both the one or two studies that gave statistically significant results, and the vastly larger number that were conducted with inadequate controls (but often reported on in the media all the same).

The Buddha Pill begins with a discussion of a couple of projects which have been set up to aid prisoners to make meditation and similar practices a part of their day. It contrasts these with the experience of actually choosing to be an ascetic and discusses some of the difficulties that inevitably crop up when you’re essentially forced into an ascetic lifestyle.

The descriptions of the various types of meditation, mindfulness and yoga were comprehensive and useful. It’s an area I know very little about, although I have a passing interest in it as it often crops up when I’m researching modern Pagan practices, and it was good to find descriptions that both made sense and clearly delineated between different techniques and systems.

Some of the most interesting parts were the discussions about what had gone wrong with previous studies. In recent years I’ve discovered that failures and mistakes can teach us a lot more than successes can (a lesson learned the hard way) and The Buddha Pill backed this up.

When discussing some of the issues with research on transcendental meditation (TM), for example, the book stated:

One methodological limitation… is that the effects were probably less driven by TM’s ability to produce a ‘fourth state of consciousness’, than by the strong motivation of meditators to believe in its effects. A related problem was what scientists call a ‘sampling bias’ – basically, transcendental meditators were not the average American John Doe.

And actually, that quote brings me to another point I liked about the book: it’s equally accessible for psychologists and people with no academic experience alike. I find a lot of books written for a popular audience are so dumbed down as to be practically useless, and I find a lot of psychological books to be peppered with explanations that are fine for me, but not fine for people who don’t already have a grounding in the subject area. The Buddha Pill strikes the perfect balance, explaining terms that are commonly used by scientists in a way that anyone can understand, but still providing the reader with an in-depth analysis of the studies and concepts being discussed.

The book also discusses the more practical difficulties with prison intervention projects: the main one being money. After all, rehabilitating offenders isn’t just a case of finding what works and doing it, it’s a case of funding what works.

Chapter six, The Dark Side of Meditation, was particularly interesting as it looked into the elements of meditation that many people don’t like to think about. It discusses some of the side effects commonly associated with meditation, and why certain techniques may not work for different people; why it’s important to proceed with caution.

I don’t want to give away the ending of the study, or of the book itself, but I will say that I found the conclusions refreshingly sensible. So many studies in this kind of arena try to point to a ‘one size fits all’ solution, or they seem to have their own agendas to fulfill. Miguel and Catherine’s book is much more well-rounded than that, taking into account a lot of literature, personal experiences, their own research, and balanced points of view across the board.

I’d definitely recommend this for anyone who has an interest in meditation, mindfulness and yoga; for psychologists in general; and for people who don’t really understand what these things are but want an overview so they can decide whether or not to pursue them.

The Buddha Pill is published by Watkins Publishing and is available from Waterstones and on Amazon, priced £8.29.

Book Review: Words of Wisdom

Books about quotes often fall into the trap of being a bit twee. Wise words from the ancients are recycled all the time, taken out of context, not thought about and bantered around as if you can boil down a whole philosophy into a couple of lines.

This is my usual rant about quotation books. Luckily, it doesn’t apply to Gareth Southwell’s Words of Wisdom. There were many, many things I loved about this book, so I’ll start with arguably the most important: Southwell’s analysis of the philosophies (and philosophers) he’s quoting. It’s evident that he’s thought deeply about all the meanings, that he’s read them in context, and that he’s spent a lot of time studying philosophy. The descriptions are well thought out and not at all cloying.

Whenever I open a book, I also open my notebook and jot down any interesting passages I find. In a book about quotes, I expected these to be numerous, and they were. The surprising thing was that many of the most interesting quotes in the book were from Southwell’s descriptions as well as from the philosophers he was paraphrasing. His sense of humour shone through and provided an easy-to-read but still in-depth analysis of philosophy from ancient to postmodern.

Which brings me to my next point: the number of modern and post-modern philosophers in the book. Often I find myself slightly irritated by the proliferation of quotes from Plato, Confucious and so on. Sure, they’re fantastic, and they have a place in any book about philosophy, but there are a lot of people who have been around in the past 200-300 years whose views are also well worth sharing. Southwell devotes a significant part of the book to these guys, thus avoiding the trap of writing a fusty, outdated tome and instead showing the relevance of philosophy to life nowadays, which is especially important in an age in which philosophy seems to be viewed more and more as ‘just people waffling on about their own empty opinions.’

Yet another thing I appreciated was the fact that Southwell doesn’t only treat writers as ‘valid’ philosophers if they have a philosophy degree and lectured in it at some point. The inclusion of Helena Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley pleased me especially; controversial figures many people would shy away from, but still leading lights in the philosophy of spirituality.

All in all, a glowing review for a fantastic book. I think it would make an excellent introduction to philosophy, and also a great point of reference for anyone looking for inspiration. It took me about four times as long to read as most books do, because I kept having to stop to jot down ideas that had been inspired by the writing. Definitely worth a read.

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