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.

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Parental Expectations, Perfectionism and Spirituality

A fascinating study from the University of Michigan has recently revealed a correlation between perfectionism, spirituality and parental expectations.

Chang et al examined the relationships between perfectionism and spirituality in a sample of college students. They found that students who exhibited perfectionist behaviours, such as maintaining excessively high personal standards and organisational skills, also scored highly on a spirituality scale.

100_0556.JPGUpon conducting regression analyses, the team found that dimensions of perfectionism were also unique predictors of different dimensions of spirituality, and that parental expectations were a positive predictor for all three dimensions of spirituality being studied.

Interestingly, maladaptive dimensions of perfectionism, such as concern about making mistakes or parental criticism, were negatively associated with spirituality.

Personally, I would be interested in seeing an extension of this study in which the religious beliefs of the adult students were charted against those of their parents, in particular looking at those who had converted to a different religious faith upon growing up. Presumably Chang et al‘s results indicated that the level of spirituality remains the same regardless of the beliefs themselves, but I believe it would be interesting to look into conversion rates, compared with the general population, and any potential differences in fervency of belief between those who had converted to a different spiritual belief system and those who had remained with the beliefs of their parents.

The full study can be found in volume 79 of Personality and Individual Differences.

photo credit: 100_0556.JPG via photopin (license)

Atheist Pilgrims

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The Pilgrimage Project has been going on for seven years now (or maybe eight. Wow, is it eight already? It actually is), and in that time we’ve made a number of unexpected discoveries. One of those was the sheer number of people on pilgrimages who declared no religious interest at all.

The paper that I’m currently rewriting, per the ‘revise & resubmit’ guidelines given to us by the journal we submitted it to, looks at some of those atheists. Travelling a traditionally Catholic pilgrimage route which has seen a huge uplift over the past twenty years, many of them profess no belief in a higher being, but report similar experiences to the Catholics’ own.

Unfortunately our survey wasn’t set up to record people with no spiritual beliefs – although ‘Atheist/Agnostic’ is an option on the questionnaire, it’s not something we expected to have to explore in-depth, so we didn’t include much in the way of questions regarding the nature of non-belief.

My job at the moment is to try to make something of the data anyway. Part of the survey we did was qualitative, giving people the chance to explain their thoughts and experiences to a certain extent, and this was helpful. Ideally I’d like a larger pool, and some more broken-down data, but you can’t have everything in this world, and especially not in academia.

I’m intrigued by these atheist/agnostic pilgrims and want to know more about them. One of my favourite quotes from an atheist on one of the pilgrimages was:

“Over the last few years I’ve become a committed atheist, so I’m investigating this belief in nothing. That’s what I’m investigating. How much there is to this nothingness.”

I liked this explanation, and I’d be interested to see how this pilgrim felt at the end of the journey, but unfortunately he was one of those whom we didn’t manage to interview again.

Reading through the literature – specifically, looking at Bainbridge, Baker & Smith’s papers on atheism, I’m seeing a trend in people who identify as unreligious and/or unspiritual, but who still sometimes engage in activities that most would put under these headings. One of our atheists said they pray “several times a week”. I can only assume that, since they said they were atheist rather than agnostic, they took ‘prayer’ to mean the same as ‘meditation’, but I’d like to have explored it more as a concept.

I’m thinking about proposing a new study of atheists taking part in activities that would traditionally be viewed as religious, and talking about how they would define these activities in the light of their own beliefs. Whether there is a latent religiosity there, or whether they would class themselves as more spiritual than other atheists, or whether they are hardcore atheists engaging in such activities for reasons arguably completely unrelated to religion. As an atheist myself, for example, I can still enjoy the silence and stillness of sitting in an empty church. But what I experience in such a building is an appreciation of its atmosphere without attributing it to a spiritual being. I assume that the atheists we met on pilgrimages have similar thoughts, but it would be good to gather some empirical data to back it up.

I would also be grateful for any recommendations you might have regarding the current literature on atheism, and particularly on atheists practising spiritual rituals. And, of course, any suggestions to feed in to future research would be very welcome.

Out of interest, how do you identify religiously? Do you practise rituals or engage in activities that would traditionally be viewed as part of a different religious group? Why?

photo credit: Brain of the Sistine Chapel via photopin (license)

Reasons Why I Love Kierkegaard – Part One

My first ever introduction to philosophy was reading Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder when I was twelve. I was quickly hooked, and devoured as many philosophy books I could throughout my teenage years. I’d still say, though, that my first true introduction to philosophy was through Kierkegaard.

I’m not sure quite how to define the difference. I’d loved chewing over the big philosophical questions for years; I read Plato on the train, imagining myself at the Academy, taking part in the conversations. But Kierkegaard was how philosophy became personal to me.

I was seventeen years old and trying to decide what to do with my life. A lecturer at one of the universities I’d applied to sent me some quotes from The Sickness Unto Death, which he thought would be helpful. They were.

I went to my local library and asked if they had The Sickness Unto Death. I wanted to read the whole thing. They didn’t, but they did have a copy of Fear and Trembling. I checked it out, took it home and read it. And philosophy became real to me. All of a sudden I understood how I could create my own philosophical arguments; how I could look around at the world and think more deeply about it, without having to lean on texts that had already been written. It also helped me to make my decision about what to do with my life. It is a very special book to me. And I’ve had the same experience ever since: whenever I pick up a book by Kierkegaard, it seems to have entered my life at precisely the right time.

A couple of weeks ago I was wandering around London when I found myself in a bookshop. You know how it goes. Suddenly you have eighty-three books and no money. It wasn’t quite that bad, but I did find a biography of Kierkegaard for £7. It had to be mine.

Usually, I read obscenely quickly, but this is one of those books which I enjoy so much that I’m savouring it – reading slowly, reading other things in between – because I never want it to end. One of my favourite extracts so far:

“When I look upon the many and varied examples of the Christian life, it seems to me that instead of strength, Christianity… has deprived such people of their manhood, and that in comparison to the pagans they are like a gelding compared to a stallion.”

This amused me. In context, it also spoke of a similar phenomenon to one which we have studied as part of the Pilgrimage Project: that Pagan rituals are often less structured and ‘freer’ than Christian ones. By this I don’t mean that they’re superior. There’s a lot to be said for ritual that includes a level of gravity. The Catholic rituals we encountered on the Pilgrimage Project were often serious, perhaps even sombre: each part of the ritual including a sort of solemnity that underlined just how sacred the Catholics’ god is to them.

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The Pagan rituals, by contrast, often felt like more joyful affairs. Perhaps to some this might seem inappropriate for a religious or spiritual setting, but it is representative of Pagan spirituality in general, or at least the parts of it I’ve studied. The goddesses, gods and spirits of the Pagans are more earthy, more real. They don’t bring to mind a faraway, unreachable being who may or may not be listening to entreaties from its followers, so much as a cacophony of voices who are accessible and somehow quite human – or perhaps not human, so much as ‘having personhood’.

A Pagan Beltane ritual
A Pagan Beltane ritual

Well, there you go. I have a few other quotes in my notebook and I was going to write about all of them, but this has taken up more words than I’d thought it would, so I shall leave it there for now and continue my raving about Kierkegaard in some future posts.

photo credit: Beltane 33 via photopin (license)

photo credit: White Wafer, Body of Christ, Film ‘Angels and Demons’, “Cardinal Strauss”, fictional depiction of the Catholic faith via photopin (license)

Paper Planning for 2015

I can’t believe I haven’t posted since September. The final part of 2014 went by really quickly and most of it was spent travelling around doing all my other jobs, so despite having a couple of other papers to write I didn’t get around to looking at them at the end of the year. This means I now have to plan my papers for 2015 and probably have a bit more work to do than I’d anticipated. But that’s not exactly something I’m unused to.

There are three main papers planned this year:

1. A study of atheists travelling the Santiago pilgrimage. We met quite a lot of them along the way and conducted some interesting interviews. We have a paper already written, but it needs to be expanded with a bit more of a literature review, and maybe made into something a bit more involved than just a research note.

2. A study of the psychological impact of investigating crimes against children online, and the different methods people use to deal with this. I still need to start reading the literature on this; I’ve read a lot about the investigative methods themselves, but not so much about the psychology behind the investigators’ motives for doing these jobs and their coping methods, so that’s step one for this project. And funding, I need to find funding. That’s always the exciting part…

3. And if those two get under way properly and aren’t too time-taxing, I’m also thinking about doing a study into the psychology of terrorism and its similarities with fringe religious cults. Specifically, looking at the ways in which counter-terror deprogramming methods parallel the steps taken to deal with people who have been brainwashed by religious indoctrination.

Studies #2 and #3 are quite ambitious projects, I think, which will take a lot of time and involvement, but I’m hoping I can get at least one of them started this year. Plus, the bulk of the actual work for #1 has already been done, I just need to write the literature review and add in a few more statistical bits, so I’m sure it will be fine. Or that’s what I’m telling myself.

What about you? What are your research plans for the year?