Tuesday, February 06, 2018

another blow against meditation/mindfulness

Remember when I wrote that post on how "mindfulness" is bullshit? (Of course you don't, so here.) Here's another article claiming that meditation doesn't improve one's character at all (article edited for form, grammar, mechanics, and clarity):

'If every eight-year-old in the world is taught meditation, the world will be without violence within one generation,' the Dalai Lama claims, but it appears the respected monk could be wrong, for scientists have revealed the trendy Buddhist practice does not make you more compassionate, less aggressive, or less prejudiced. Meditation, incorporating a range of spiritual and religious beliefs, has been touted for decades as being able to make the world a better place. However, researchers from the UK, New Zealand, and The Netherlands have found meditation doesn't change how adults behave towards others.

Dr Miguel Farias, co-author, from Coventry University, said: 'All world religions promise the world would change for the better if only people were to follow [their] rules and practices. The popularisation of meditation techniques in a secular format is offering the hope of a better self and a better world to many. In the early 1970s, Transcendental Meditation conveyed this message openly, announcing that the rising number of individuals practising this technique would lead to world peace in the short term. Psychologists using mindfulness or other Buddhism-derived meditation techniques are now advancing similar ideas about the prosocial effects of meditation. The popularisation of meditation techniques, like mindfulness, despite being taught without religious beliefs, still [seems] to offer the hope of a better self and a better world to many.'

The team of researchers reviewed more than 20 studies that investigated the effect of various types of meditation to make the conclusion. They involved mindfulness—paying more attention to the present moment, and loving-kindness—imagining objects such as cute animals. [The review] only included randomised controlled studies, where meditators were compared to other individuals that did not meditate. Initial analysis, published in the journal Scientific Reports, indicated that meditation, whether it was three-minute classes or three-month-long getaways at secluded retreats, did have an overall positive impact. It made people feel moderately more compassionate or empathetic, compared to if they had done no other new emotionally engaging activity.

However, a further analysis revealed that meditation didn't reduce aggression or prejudice or [improve] how socially connected someone was. The most unexpected result of this study, though, was that the more positive results found for compassion had important methodological flaws: compassion levels in some studies only increased if the meditation teacher was also an author of the published report. Overall, the results suggested [that] improvements reported by psychologists in previous studies may be the result of methodological weaknesses and biases.

Dr Farias added: 'Despite the high hopes of practitioners and past studies, our research found that methodological shortcomings greatly influenced the results we found. Most of the initial positive results disappeared when the meditation groups were compared to other groups that engaged in tasks unrelated to meditation. We also found that the beneficial effect of meditation on compassion disappeared if the meditation teacher was an author in the studies. This reveals that the researchers might have unintentionally biased their results. None of this, of course, invalidates Buddhism or other religions' claims about the moral value and eventually life-changing potential of [their] beliefs and practices, but our research findings are a far cry from many popular claims made by meditators and some psychologists. To understand the true impact of meditation on people's feelings and behaviour further, we first need to address the methodological weaknesses we uncovered, starting with the high expectations researchers might have about the power of meditation.'

It's important to keep in mind that meditation is just a tool, like a wrench. You can use a wrench to repair your car, or you can use it to cave in someone's skull—how "good" or "bad" the tool is depends entirely on people and context. Does meditation produce salutary effects? In my case, I can say the answer is a definite yes, and I've written on the topic. But your mileage may vary, which is the most "duh"-level obvious statement I can make about meditation. Over time, I expect neuroscientists to become more methodologically rigorous as they continue to study the human brain while it's in a meditative state; we've barely scratched the surface when it comes to scientific insights about the mind.

In the meantime, I'm happy to agree that religious practices in general come freighted with plenty of bullshit. This is why a tradition like Zen is so insistent that you must always come back to your experience: your experience is, really, all you have: it's your metric for, well, everything in the universe. Will meditation grant you special powers (Skt. siddhi) as you penetrate deeper into the enlightened sphere of consciousness? Personally, I doubt it, but again, your mileage may vary. Will meditation lower your blood pressure, release you from depression, and take away all stress? I'd say that it can do these things, but there are no guarantees. The Buddhist point of view is that meditation is but one medicine in your cabinet, and you use that medicine only if it works for you (upaya, the pragmatic doctrine of skillful or efficient means). There are other medicines available to you if meditation doesn't work: engaging in artistic activity, taking long walks, helping your neighbor, serving your community, or otherwise doing something you love. There are many paths to happiness, contentment, and equanimity; meditation isn't going to be the answer for everyone.

Some Westerners want their Buddhist practice to be as shorn of "religion" as possible: they want a distilled Buddhism that is all metaphysical principles, abstruse philosophy, and pure meditative techniques with no distractions coming from monastic commentary through the ages. They don't want the beads or the chanting or the incense; they want Buddhism divorced from its organic context and repurposed into modern American-style psychotherapy. A monk would say this attitude is not-good, not-bad, but I personally feel it's a bit cavalier to blot out nine tenths of a venerable tradition just to get at some "essence." Buddhism doesn't even believe in essences (although it does traffic in essentialist language and concepts all the time, so beware)! The Westerner who wants a stripped-down, just-the-facts Buddhism is like a person who rips away a fish's flesh so he can suck on the bones. It all seems a bit silly.

Anyway, yes: meditation is only a tool, and you can use it any way you please. Keep that in mind: use the tool well, and you'll benefit from it. Use it unmindfully, and you'll still be the same asshole you were before you engaged in meditation.


King Baeksu said...

A close relative has been meditating for decades, and even after all these years he's still the same insufferable ass.

Kevin Kim said...

Yeah, I've met plenty of monks who didn't seem particularly enlightened despite, supposedly, years of meditating.