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.


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


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)

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?

The Pilgrimage Project Photo Diary

Around the fire at the Stonehenge winter solstice.
Around the fire at the Stonehenge winter solstice.
The morning ceremony at Stonehenge in December was not warm.
The morning ceremony at Stonehenge in December was not warm.
Being mature academic researchers, we made faces in our salads.
Being mature academic researchers, we made faces in our salads.
The restaurant where we ate dinner had pet cats.
The restaurant where we ate dinner had pet cats.
Wandering around Glastonbury was a necessary part of the project, of course.
What's a research project without a selfie?
What’s a research project without a selfie?
The view from the Tor.
The view from the Tor.
The Goddess weekend opening ceremony.
The Goddess weekend opening ceremony.
A procession of Pagan pilgrims through Glastonbury.
A procession of Pagan pilgrims through Glastonbury.
Ritual at the Chalice Well.
Ritual at the Chalice Well.
A Pagan procession.
A Pagan procession.

Quotes from the Pilgrimage Project Interviews

The Pilgrimage Project began as an interdisciplinary research project at Oxford University in 2007. Covering Anthropology, Psychology, History, Sociology and Religious Studies, it aims to discuss the motivations and experiences of people from different Western religious groups as they journey to sacred spaces. The excerpts below are from interviews with Pagans who had travelled to Glastonbury for a summer Goddess ceremony.

On Paganism
“A lot of what I think makes me me is them.”

On War
“I can understand that [soldiers] are the people of peace… but I don’t believe that we’re gonna find peace staring down the end of a barrel and… like… “I’M GONNA SHOOT YOUR FUCKING HEAD OFF!”, and… what are you gonna do? Make your mind up. Are we gonna just say, OK, fine, yeah, I’m gonna be nice, I’m gonna do whatever he tells me to, so that I’ll find peace? No.”

On Reawakening the Abbey at Glastonbury
“So, it’s not a monk, it’s women, and we’re not Benedictines, but we are the new monks.”

On Dark Magic
“I think where people are being manipulated for the benefit of the manipulator, I would call that a dark path.”

On Women
“But I learnt some wonderful things about working with women there. I was used to working with men; we just make a decision and get on with it. And we’d have an important meeting about something here, and we’d all be together, it’d be me and the four other… whoever the trustees were. And they would start by saying “Isn’t it appalling what that girl Gladys is doing?” “Yes, I think she’s run away with somebody else…” All this stuff would go on. And I would sit there boggling, like I thought we’d come to talk about… we must just clear this first. And I learnt a really important thing: that these women, they needed to clear the emotional stuff that was hovering in the room. Once that was clear, we could get on with the discussion. It’s not at all how men work, but it’s really important, and I’ve learned – here I’m working all the time with women – that you must allow the emotional charge to be diffused, it’s perfectly valid. It’s hovering, you see. They’re worried about something. It’s got nothing to do with what we’re talking about, but it’s really important.”

On Intuition
“But my brain can’t solve it, it’s… my intuition accesses [spirits’] wisdom and back comes the answer.”

On Dying
“I’m delighted to die whenever it’s time. And in a way, I have to make a huge effort to be here now. I’m really actually somewhere else. Not physically. No, physically I’m very fit. But I’m actually – my consciousness is somewhere else, and I have to make a tremendous effort to be here. If you understand it.”

On Glastonbury
“I think Glastonbury’s just a little microcosm of where we’re all going. I do believe… self-employment, self-empowerment, but sharing, is the way that society’s moving. And it’s very threatening to a lot of people, it’s very frightening, the old structures are collapsing. You can see they’re not working. And I think we’ve got here a microcosm of what’s happening worldwide. And I think we have a responsibility to make it work here, and it doesn’t work completely. But if we can make it work, and there’s a model, then other people can begin to say “Right, that mad lot in Glastonbury have got something going there.” That’s what I think we are. I think we’re a sort of petri dish for the new consciousness.”

On God
“I have a problem with the term ‘god’, and I don’t know whether it’s because of the association with the Christian god, or certain dogma. Also it makes it very monistic, is it? Meaning it’s only one. Yeah. It tries to make concrete something that is very massive.”

On Pilgrimage

“It’s like a concentration of normalcy.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt more… it sounds so sappy, but more human, really. More human but not human as a special creature on the earth, just like another one.”

“This has the capacity to be profoundly not abstract.”

“It was not really a feeling of belonging, but it was a feeling of not belonging. Somewhere I’m not looking to belong, something like that.”

On the Motivation Behind Pilgrimage

“To find out something true. Not the truth, necessarily, but to find something that’s true.”

“I think I’ll be able to maybe… more fluidly be consistently abstract.”

“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.”

On Consciousness
“I’m becoming more… maybe more conscious of my unconscious actions.”

On Prayer
“There came a point where prayer… where life became prayer.”