April 25, 2014

Meditation Nation

How convincing is the science driving the popularity of mindfulness meditation? A Brown University researcher has some surprising answers.

Given the widespread belief that meditation practice is scientifically certified to be good for just about everything, the results of a recent major analysis of the research might come as some surprise. Conducted by the Association for Health and Research Quality (AHRQ)—a government organization that oversees standards of research—the meta-study found only moderate evidence for the alleviation of anxiety, depression, and pain, and low to insufficient evidence to suggest that meditation relieved stress, improved mood, attention, or mental-health-related quality of life, or had a substantial impact on substance use, eating habits, sleep, or weight. It looks like the scientific evidence for the benefits of meditation aren’t as solid as many might claim.

If it is indeed proven that meditation works for some purposes but not for others, in what sense does scientific proof translate into proof of its liberative efficacy? Does any of this scientific research prove that what we do as Buddhists works? And as Buddhists, why should we care about the science?

For an insider’s perspective on these questions, Tricycle turned to clinical psychologist, neuroscience researcher, and Buddhist practitioner Willoughby Britton. Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University Medical School, Britton specializes in research on meditation in education and as treatment for depression and sleep disorders. Britton has long focused on sorting out confusion about meditation within the realm of science. Responding to the first AHRQ meta-study of meditation (2007), which observed the imprecision of scientists’ understandings of words like “mindfulness” in interpreting and correlating study results, Britton won National Institutes of Health backing to create standards for consistent terminology in research. She is currently studying the underlying neurobiology of how and why particular practices seem to work better (or worse) for particular kinds of people.

Britton is also one of first researchers to explore possible adverse effects of meditation. In a groundbreaking study known as “The Varieties of Contemplative Experience” project, she is interviewing dozens of advanced meditation practitioners, teachers, and Buddhist scholars regarding what she calls “difficult or challenging mind (or body) states” that can occur as a result of intensive meditation practice. Her observations have been cautionary, highlighting the need to develop a more nuanced and informed view of (and also more respect for) the power of meditation.

—Linda Heuman

As a scientist and as a Buddhist, what do you make of the AHRQ report? The report sounds pretty fair. This review—and pretty much every one before it—has found that meditation isn’t any better than any other kind of therapy.

The important thing to understand about the report is that they were looking for active control groups, and they found that only 47 out of over 18,000 studies had them, which is pretty telling: it suggests that there are fewer than 50 high-quality studies on meditation.

What are active control groups and why are studies based on them of higher quality? There are different levels of scientific research, different levels of rigor. I think this is a place where the public could use a lot of education. Because they don’t know how to interpret science, they assume much higher levels of evidence.

The first level is a “pre-post” study, which looks something like this: We go learn to meditate for eight weeks and at the end of it we feel better. We took a stress and anxiety scale before and after, and our stress or anxiety improved. So we say, “Meditation helped me!” That is actually not a valid conclusion. The conclusion you can make in science is that something helped. We didn’t control for the idea that just deciding to do something is going to help. Just that factor—intentionally deciding to make a commitment to your health and well-being—can make a big difference.

One problem is that just filling out the questionnaire changes you. In my recent sleep study, I had people fill out a questionnaire and keep a sleep diary. That is all they did for eight weeks. They didn’t meditate. And their sleep improved a lot. So, you have to control for the effect of taking the questionnaires.

You also have to control for the passage of time. Sometimes people just feel better after two months compared with when they started. So you can’t actually conclude that meditation had anything to do with it. A lot of the studies on meditation are pre-post studies like this. They shouldn’t count at all as evidence.

The next level of rigor is “wait-list controls.” Half the participants begin meditating immediately while the other half acts as a control group, and only later participate in the actual meditation. Those in the control group might be thinking, “I’m in the study. I’m going to learn to meditate!” They’re psyched. Their depression is already getting better because they’ve decided to do something about it. These are effects of expectation; they aren’t doing meditation.

But even at this level the study is not considered in any way conclusive. If I have an inspiring teacher, for example, it can be a helpful factor that is not meditation. Even to know that somebody felt depressed and anxious at one point and then got better is helpful. There’s the normalization of my symptoms. There’s the social support. I meet other people who have my problem. I thought I was the only person in the world who had anxiety, and now there are all these other people who have anxiety and we’re all talking about it. And I really get along with them. So I’m making friends. I’m less lonely. That’s not meditation either. There are all these things that are not meditation that could be helping me feel better.

If we really want to be able to say that meditation was the active ingredient, the control group has to do everything the other group is doing except meditation, and they can’t know that they are in the control group. This level of scientific study is called “active control groups.” But that largely isn’t what is happening in meditation research, although it’s starting to.

Why do people conduct pre-post studies if they don’t count as evidence? A lot of times they are not really doing research. They are running a clinic and they want to see if the clinic is having any beneficial effects. For example, the Center for Mindfulness gives people some questionnaires when they sign up for the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program, and the participants fill them out on the last day and hand them in. It is better than nothing, but it’s not the same thing as having participants randomly assigned to either MBSR or a control group.

It is not that these sorts of studies are worthless. They are valuable at different stages of the game. When you are first starting out and wondering if something works, you measure pre-post. At early stages, that level of rigor is appropriate. But it is not appropriate for as much hype as “we should give this to children” or “we should give this to everyone.” You need a much higher level of evidence for that.

Public enthusiasm is outpacing scientific evidence. The public perception of where the research is way higher than the actual level.

Have the claims for the scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of meditation been overstated by proponents of meditation? Definitely. Because they take all those studies that I was just describing (like pre-post studies) as evidence. You really shouldn’t cite those as evidence.

Are meditation researchers perhaps a bit biased? When we first started research on meditation, there was this principle that the scientists should be meditators because they understood it. But we are all also incredibly biased! Meditation is not just a practice we do like, “I like to run.” It is an entire worldview and religion. I worry about this kind of bias in meditation research.

There are many people doing studies who are making money off of some kind of meditation-based program, and that is technically considered a conflict of interest. They have something to gain by finding a positive effect, and therefore are not one hundred percent objective. When an experimenter is also the person who created the therapy, there is a factor called “experimenter allegiance.” This factor can count for a larger effect than the treatment itself. That is something we haven’t looked at in our field.

In the Buddhist community, there are a lot of people who are excited about the scientific findings that support the efficacy of meditation because it seems to be confirming what we already knew. But that is not the purpose of science—to confirm the dharma. And if that is what people are doing as scientists, they need to seriously step back and look at the ethics of that. To use science to prove your religion or worldview—there is something really wrong with that.

Do you see that happening in the world of science? I’ll talk about myself so I don’t point fingers. My first ten years of practice, when I was also a researcher, I was in that bright-faith phase of “Meditation can fix everything! Everybody should do it!” I wrote a mega-article, the precursor to my dissertation, on all of the neurological and biological concomitants to stress and depression. And then I cited all of the studies that suggested meditation could reverse those processes. And I submitted that mega-article to three different journals and it got rejected three times. It finally dawned on me that I was cherry-picking the data. I wasn’t actually being a scientist or doing a scientific review; I was writing a persuasive essay. I think that is much more common. 
Our natural bias to confirm our own worldview is very much at work. People are finding support for what they believe rather than what the data is actually saying. Ironically, we need a lot of mindfulness to “see clearly” the science of mindfulness.

This is why these meta-analyses are important. They reviewed over 18,000 articles. They were not cherry-picking. 

Is the data better for some applications of meditation than others? I have done very careful reviews of the efficacy of meditation in two areas in which there are high levels of popular misconception about how much data we have: sleep and education. The data for sleep, for example, is really not that strong. And the AHRQ article concurs: it judges the level of evidence for meditation’s ability to improve sleep as “insufficient.”

What I found from my study was that meditation made people’s brains more awake. From a very basic brain point of view, what happens in your brain when you fall asleep? The frontal cortex deactivates. Nobody agrees what meditation does to the brain, but across the board, one of the most common findings is that meditation increases blood flow and activity in the prefrontal cortex. So how is that going to improve sleep? It doesn’t make any sense. It is completely incompatible with sleeping if you are doing it right. And we know that people stop sleeping when they go on retreats. That is never reported in scientific publications, even though it is well known among practitioners.

This is a very interesting example of the confusion that arises in the confluence between modern secular and traditional Buddhist contexts. In the buddhadharma, meditation is never used to promote sleep. It is for waking up. Sleep is a hindrance. Often in the modern use of meditation for everything—and especially here in the case of sleep—we’re using meditation in ways basically the opposite of what Buddhists were using it for. People aren’t trying to dismantle themselves: they want a stronger sense of self; they want more self-esteem; they want more sensuality.

In a study I’m doing on the “Varieties of Contemplative Experience,” people are having all kinds of unexpected meditation effects, and it’s scaring the hell out of them. Many of the meditators in my studies in clinical settings are reporting classic meditation side effects like depersonalization. De-repression of traumatic memories is another really common one. People have all this energy running through them; they are having spasms and involuntary movements; they are seeing lights. They check themselves into psychiatric hospitals. Some of the people I’ve seen in my study come from a health and medicine framework and are not Buddhist, and yet they are reporting meditation effects that are well documented in Buddhist texts. But these are not well documented in the scientific literature because nobody is asking about them. That’s the chasm I am trying to bridge.

Not all effects are so adverse. The fact that somebody’s sense of self disappears for a second is not necessarily a problem for that person. They might think, “Oh, that was weird.” Effects can be transient and mild. But a lot of people have charged emotional material or memories coming up. No MBSR teacher is going to be surprised by that. If you sit down on a cushion and count your breath for two months, all sorts of things— wounds, memories, traumas—are going to come up. It is a very common experience. But there is only a single paper on that, written three decades ago. Catharsis of that sort (what Buddhists call “purification”) is just not part of the model. The model is: meditation is going to calm you down.

What are other aspects of the model? I think the term “insight,” instead of being insight into the three characteristics [suffering, impermanence, and non-self], is now insight into “my own personal patterns of neurosis.” So I think there is maybe a little of the idea that you are facing your demons and getting insight into your patterns, but here “insight” is being used in a very personal way. We could all use that kind of insight, but it’s not really Buddhist insight in the traditional sense.

The fact that adopting meditation may be very disruptive to your life, that you might require supplemental therapy, or that you might be a little less functional and lower performing while stuff gets kicked up and you are working through it…that is not really in the current marketing scheme.

I think there are a lot of people who think meditation will have a Buddhist effect, even if it is not done in a Buddhist context. What do you think of that? I’m seeing people who came to meditation through MBSR or who are not Buddhist but are meditating “to be happy.” They are following their breath or doing a mantra. And then they eradicate their sense of self. They freak out. That is a pretty common experience in my study.

If “getting happy” is the context in which you have adopted meditation, will meditation in fact lead to that end? It might, but the next questions are: What’s in the middle? At what price? I think the people who have stuck with meditation for a long time, and who have cultivated some kind of wisdom or enduring change, have paid for it dearly with a lot of pain. It is very hard to extract some sort of enduring positive gain from dharma practice without taking a really thorough look at your own mind. The first step is a very close look at the nature of suffering: seeing what suffering is and getting to know our own suffering. It is through that deep intimacy with our own suffering that there is liberation. It’s not like, “Let’s take that and put it under the rug and be happy and connected with everyone!” Wisdom and enduring change are born out of really looking at every little piece of your own suffering and how it is generated and held together and maintained. How can it not be painful to do that?

What would you say is the way forward for scientific research on meditation? What would you like to see happen? As my research is showing, along with this mass enthusiasm for meditation has come an epidemic of casualties. That needs to be part of the picture going forward. No more denial. Let’s just admit that this is happening and have a mature support system for it. There needs to be more dialogue and collaboration between Buddhists and dharma teachers and the medical community—clinicians, people with training in all psychiatric problems, but particularly in trauma, which is something not really addressed in traditional Buddhist frameworks.

One of the statistics that blows my mind is that the main delivery system for Buddhist meditation in the modern West isn’t Buddhism; it is science, medicine, and schools. There is a tidal wave behind this movement. MBSR practitioners already account for the majority of new meditators and soon they are going to be the vast majority. If Buddhists want to have any say, they better stop criticizing and start collaborating, working with instead of just against. Otherwise, they might get left in the dust of the “McMindfulness” movement.

Where would you say we are now in the scientific investigation of meditation? With any new discovery, there is usually some initial craze before it gets too popular, and then there is a backlash. A lot of things that were overhyped get torn down. And whatever is really legitimately true is left standing in the end. So I think we are at the peak of this first phase. There have already been a couple rounds of criticism.

What kinds of criticism? The biggest criticism is coming from the more traditional Buddhists who think these new applications of mindfulness are a denaturing of the dharma.

A related criticism is: “What is mindfulness?” People still aren’t clear about that. What are these different practices? And which practices are best or worst suited to which types of people? When is it skillful to stop meditating and do something else? I think that this is the most logical direction to follow because nothing is good for everything. Mindfulness is not going to be an exception to that. A lot of people would probably have a strong reaction to that statement, which tells you something right there. If we think anything is going to fix everything, we should probably take a moment and meditate on that.

Linda Heuman, a Tricycle contributing editor, is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island. Follow her on Twitter: @lindaheuman

With support from the John Templeton Foundation, Tricycle’s Buddhism and Modernity project is initiating a conversation between Buddhists and leading thinkers across the humanities and social sciences. Tricycle is exploring how perspectives drawn from research on the nature of religion, culture, science, and secularism can shed light on unexamined assumptions shaping the transmission of Buddhism to modernity. This project offers Western Buddhists new ways of thinking about their spiritual experiences by demonstrating how reason can be used as a tool to open up—rather than shut down—access to traditional faith.

Image: Flickr/Litchenstein

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MindfulnessTherapistOnline's picture

As a scientist as well as a mindfulness therapist and dharma teacher I tend to be disappointed my most of these studies on meditation for two reasons: 1) They do not use proper controls. Meditation vs non-meditation is not a proper design. A better one might be mindfulness meditation vs transcendental meditation, or meditation vs visualization, or meditation vs yoga, etc. 2) There is little attempt to define what is meant by meditation. Somehow it is assumed that it is all the same. For example, mindfulness meditation is so often equated as awareness of breathing or body scan. But meditation as the Buddha taught is so much more than that. I teach mindfulness meditation of feelings and emotions and rarely body sensation or breathing. The outcome of feeling-centered meditation will likely be completely different than breathing-centered meditation when it comes to examining efficacy for anxiety or depression.
More rigor is needed in experimental design before we can even begin a meaningful discussion of efficacy.

xyzzy's picture

Thank you for writing this. I was taught a form of meditation/mindfulness long ago as a dangerously asthmatic little kid, as it was critical for me to be able to stay perfectly calm while monitoring my lung capacity and getting help. I then had plenty of time to "practice" focusing on each breath, since I spent weeks at a time each winter in bed using a hospital treatment machine for pneumonia or bronchitis.

I say "thank you" for writing this article because I've become very alarmed by a new trend in the medical world of forcing disabled people with (usually undertreated) severe chronic pain to cut their medication in favor of "mindfulness therapy" regardless of what the cause of the pain is. There seems to be (as you said) a general sense of belief that it really works, but as far as my research has turned up, it's a matter of doctors believing it because other doctors they know believe it. As my doctor admits she only tenatively thinks this "might" help but says all physicians are being put under extreme pressure by the health insurance industry to go along with it, I'm going to bring the linked study & this article to her attention.

mattbard's picture

....... for those makin a fuss one way or the other.... an open mind is helpful. Many times my view has changed when I was so sure of myself. Humbling , but nice too. The dear Doc doesn't have all the answers, but, I get a sincerity that she'd like to know. Me too, and hope she stays scientific, and hope she gives credit to subjective wisdom too- a tough act there. Some of my meditation has been wonderous; the sleepless, and idenitity loss I have known. Over the years I have been intense long hours meditator, and have also had month breaks to digest and rest my psychic batteries. It remains one of my essential challenges - meditation is a fabulous gift developed by immeasurably great and compassionate souls. I am so thankful to all gone before me. Another side effect, for me, whereas I used to think the "world" was kinda crazy, these days I feel so much more concerned that it is . thank you, matt

sanghadass's picture

well said. thanx for your insight.

Danny's picture

This says a lot: "we’re using meditation in ways basically the opposite of what Buddhists were using it for."

drleroi's picture

As Jack Kornfield says, "it is hard to mediatate after a day of lying and cheating" or something like that. Meditation will point out to you all the cobbling together of the daily ego we use to justify our actions. This can be uncomfortable. I knew an expert yoga practitioner who was among the most unfeeling dishonest humans I have met. He seemed to be able to maintain his calm despite his own actions. I suspect he is headed toward a special hell realm of his own making. The basic techniques of meditation are a tool. They can be used like any tool for good or bad purposes.

Rocket's picture

meditation is poorly understood, few westerners get more than a liittle bit of relaxation from it.

Moving into deeper states, ie Samadhi is another ball game. Most of us moderns are too mentally agitated, unstable to train the mind to go into such states.

Meditation is not effective therapy. Therapy first, get your mind relatively stable and servicable, then get great training. Great training is RARE.

For example the way the frightening experiences ( called "nyam" by the Tibetans) people pretty much always encounter are not at all understood in this context. They are a big challenge but are also the 'dweller on the threshold", like the demons flanking the entry to a timple. ONe mush pass through them, by them, to enter the temple. Pretty much no exceptions. They are the rotting corpses that meditaiton dredges up from the mud of the psyche.

We westerners are quite lame in this respect. Except those of us who have done serious experiential psychotherapy, psychedelic drugs , etc etc. Those things furnish a rough preview, approximation of what we will encounter, prepare us to pass thru such challenges and are thus almost manditory immeditate precursors, for most of us.

sanghadass's picture

Everything is grist for the mill. What benefit we derive from our dukkha depends on how we relate to it and what we learn as a result.

The visionary experience of a mind that is moving towards deep tranquility and natural stillness is expansive, beautiful, and uplifting. Thoughts about the joy of letting go and freedom. Death may appear as a beautiful release in a mind that is free from fear. Samadhi is a kind of death. Often preceded by a perception of light - as in death. Or, the abeyance of the sense of self in the experience of a sublime emotion. Saint Theresa would have a vision of Jesus and swoon - inwardly. Swoon - in a state of rapture - at the sight of the beloved! When the sense of self is lost in natural stillness there is samadhi. Samadhi helps in freeing up the mind in daily life. It can produce a deepened sense of ease, joy, and presence. Providing openings and opportunities for insight. A wider variety of experiences arise when the mind is not in the neighborhood of samadhi. Samadhi happens when diversity falls away.

Rocket's picture

I've made similar comments to those I made here on "buddhist" discussions in many different web settings. Most commonly the reaction is energetic hateful invective.

Its so very nice to see the responses we see here.

sanghadass's picture

We are all in it together dear Mitra! Yours in the Dharma!

aj1's picture

In my view, the effects of meditation are "in the eyes of the beholder" - if you feel it works for you, keep doing it. I just read another great article made available by Tricycle on misconceptions about Buddhism and meditation as part of now wide-spread Buddhist practice. Some meditate, others do not, some recite the sutra, others do not. I am not sure we need science to tell us what is good for us to learn to shed our attachments. There is an element of duality in seeking to understand meditation through science. I am not anti-science by any means but to me, meditation is such a personal experience that is almost defies being labelled or categorized in scientific terms. Meditation does not work for all, I accept that. There are days it does not work for me. When it does not, I gently set it aside and come back to it later....certainly, people for whom it does not work overall should not feel guilty about it (or look for scientific explanations for why it might not) - like mothers who cannot nurse. I am not sure we need to polarize the debate further by clinging to this scientific research or that.

Ericinthegarden's picture

Interesting article and love the meta analysis. Has there ever been study done of vajrayana or tantric Buddhist meditation? It is a very different practice than mindfulness.

candor's picture

It appears there are so many possible factors influencing potential benefits of mindfulness meditation that it will likely take many years of many properly controlled studies to gain scientific knowledge of benefits, and what contexts -- specifically what philosophical and psychological contexts -- are best for attaining certain benefits.

For example, not only can questionnaires and "doing something about it" influence the benefits, but world views and what kind of mental activity one is aware of (psychological dispositions) can strongly influence benefits. There are likely big differences in benefits, for example, when a fundamentalist monotheistic religious person fearing a jealous, wrathful God practices "mindfulness meditation" as compared to metaphysical naturalist who accepts dukkha, impermanence, and dependent origination taught by the Buddha in a way compatible with metaphysical naturalism. This is just one broadly defined comparison. The potential comparisons in the world views and psychological dispositions of practitioners are numerous to say the least. These world views and psychological dispositions, when providing the context of mindfulness meditation, will likely make properly controlled studies of "benefits of mindfulness meditation" quite complicated.

Stitchintime's picture

This is something that I have been saying for close to twenty years to no avail. There are a number of problems here. 1.) No 2 MBSR teachers teach MBSR the same way 2.) Each person comes to MBSR from a different place with different life experiences and coping mechanisms 3.) MBSR teaches basic Shamata equilivant. The purpose of this practice is to calm the mind of distractions- the monkey mind
4.) Once the monkey mind is calmed then the process of insight needs to begin. The Sanskrit word is Vipasana which literally means looking within ( and looking outside) studying the teachings and oneself. How do these teachings apply to me? Where have I strayed in my ignorance? How can I remedy it? This piece often brings up things we don't like in ourselves, life difficulties, our selfishness etc. At this point we have to remember what we are aspiring to is to possess bodhicitti, to be the bodhisattva, the one who is awake. Awake to the sufferings of the world and dedicated to the alleviation of that suffering. This is the place where the rubber meets the road and if at that point we cannot transmute our own sufferings into something that benefits others, If we cannot translate our own sufferings into compassion and wisdom, then huge difficulties will arise.5.) Then came all the trials and roadblocks. Life often doesn't get easier, it gets harder. The closer one gets the more the temptations and obstacles arise...opportunities for spiritual practice. Like the Buddha being tempted by Mara. There are not just one but many Dark nights of the soul.They may manifest in any number of ways and psychosis are one. There may be kundalini awakenings such as discussed in the kundalini emergencies. http://www.mudrashram.com/kundaliniemergencies.html these need to be discussed, because what happens after step one may land the participant in a worse place than they started.

djlewis's picture

I think this article misses the important point that Goyal et al was a study by MDs, for MDs, using medical research standards, and that almost nothing in psychology, psychiatry or behavioral health would do much better against these levels of research rigor.

The mind is simply too complex and mufti-faceted, and we know too little about mental "disorders" by comparison with physical ones. Of course, those facts call into question the very use of the "medical model" for problems of the mind, which is implicit in this meta-study.

mattbard's picture

..good entry level discussion aimed at foundational beliefs and misconceptions... a good place to begin. Meditation inquiry can show the reality of ego ; that can be unpleasant and disorienting....adding the other parts of mix, such as the 4 immeasurables; compassion , open heart, etc., helps smooth the road. The old masters were kind as well as wise. Matt

nichole.moorman's picture

Thank you for this article. As a mental health professional, who uses mindfulness in the context of cognitive therapeutic modalities, a meditation practitioner, and aspiring mindfulness teacher I found the article to be spot on. I have encountered both clients and clinicians expecting and teaching respectively that beginning mindfulness practice, and even more concerning the concept without the practice in place, can and should bring peace and calm. While this take can initially offer hope, it is not accurate and is contradictory to the process of self discovery, aka insight.

djlewis's picture

Regarding sleep and meditation...

First -- I am unaware of any traditional Buddhist teaching, formal or informal, that says meditation will improve my sleep or that sleeping better is a goal of dharma practice. If you are aware of such teachings, Dr. B, please cite them. If not, why are you even studying sleep with respect to meditation, except in the following frame?

Second -- in my personal experience and that of many friends who meditate, meditation substitutes for sleep. In other words, if I am meditating (and doing it well, of course) I simply need less sleep than otherwise to function. This effect is particularly notable at retreats, both meditation retreats and teaching retreats, the latter because I meditate more and deeper even during a teaching retreat. For me, this effect can reduce my sleep needs by as much as two hours a night. I particularly notice the effect after the retreat, as I return to daily life -- my sleep needs increase again.

So, Dr. B, are you aware of this effect? It seems pretty important to anyone interested in sleep and meditation. In fact, your results showing that meditation interferes with deep sleep may simply be an artifact of needing less sleep when meditating more.

Or, of course, maybe I am wrong, or it's idiosyncratic. Some good science might help here, but it needs to be framed in this way, not on the basis of an internet search that says meditation helps people sleep.

Richard Fidler's picture

I am curious if research upon meditation is based upon a scientific framework. From the article, it sounds as if it is not--witness the inability to define the term "mindfulness" in terms investigators can agree on. Studies should access our understandings of neuroscience and behavior generally, and not simply compare the performance of meditators and non-meditators on certain outcomes: responses to surveys and physiological reactions. Surely there are models that describe brain functioning in areas such as visual and auditory processing, memory, attention, various kinds of learning, and so on. Are the studies on meditation grounded in any of these models?

Imagine the power of a study about evolution that looks at the role of separation of gene pools by sheer chance (genetic drift). We think we understand how evolution works in this regard so we provide observations to back up our ideas. That is what is missing in so many meditation studies: a model that can provide a guide to investigations. I think we have a long way to go before meditation research can draw conclusions that we all can rely on.

Tdawson48's picture

Excellent and interesting article. I disagree with the comment that the views of science and Buddhism are fundamentally incompatible. I think they are necessarily distinct in perspective and aims, but fundamentally compatible and potentially mutually enhancing.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Incompatibility is an illusion. Science and Buddhism are 2 sides of the same coin, the coin being life itself.

Tdawson48's picture

Or warp and woof of the fabric of life. We need to mindfully acknowledge both sides of the coin -- or both types of strands.

Dominic Gomez's picture

both sides of the coin/both types of strands=enlightenment

Jakela's picture

Thank you Dr. Chicken Little. The fact that Dr. Britton has very little counter-studies to her assertions only bolsters my feelings that she knows not of what she speaks.
Besides, even if meditation has only a placebo effect, it is a positive one and in the end who really cares as long as it works for the individual.
Bottom line; The buddha said "See for yourself." And he didn't mean you needed to read what some random PhD has to say.

conroy.r's picture

What an unkind comment! I suggest that you have a look at Dr Britton's publications. Far from being a 'random PhD' (whatever the heck that is) she has a solid track record of research that, I think, is both scientific and grounded in Buddhism.

Perhaps, too, you underestimate the degree to which mindfulness is being commoditised as a cure for everything, even chocolate cravings! (See Lacaille J, Ly J, Zacchia N, Bourkas S, Glaser E, Knäuper B. The effects of three mindfulness skills on chocolate cravings. Appetite. Elsevier Ltd; 2014 May 1;76(C):101–12. )

It is important to ensure that claims used to sell mindfulness are based on valid data, and, I think, it is important to engage with this runaway sales movement to ensure that mindfulness doesn't end up being utterly disconnected from the wider life context – in much the way that training shoes have gone from being the work wear of athletes to the street signage of drug dealers.

Rocket's picture

Conroy, Id like to point out that (this will anger a lot of folks) most of what is happening in "Buddhism" among westerners in the west is a far cry from depth authentic meditative experience. Its mostly some low level relaxation. If that. Some people become "caualties", not meditatiors who actually got somewhere. Like Samadhi. That happens due to training and guidance from so called instructors who have not been into depth experiecn themselves. They are all over the place. Teaching reduced westernized phony balony meditation.

The disturbing, frightening, intense "crazy making" experiences people encounter during meditation are a normal cleansing and are being dismissed , apparently, by this researcher as more or less trouble. This interpretation closes the door on the actaul fruits of meditative experience. Holy cow.

Meditation dredges up the rotting corpses from the mud of the psyche. Negotitate that phase and the next step is Samadhi.

We in the west are geared to expect all sweetness and light. Right away. The actaul "reward" is a fullfillment we are unable to imagine before the direct experience. You do have to clear out those rotting corpses first. Its harrowing. Similar to the difficult times during a challenging psychedelic experience. That is one of the ways psychedelics have helped some of us progress into deeper, aithentic, meditatiive experience.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Meditation dredges up corpses from the mud of the 7th level of consciousness: http://www.sgi.org/buddhism/buddhist-concepts/the-nine-consciousnesses.html

sanghadass's picture
Rocket's picture

My reference may be a little different. Effective samatha practice usually brings intense, frightening, very very real, "bad day on a dose of acid" type emotional experience to us as a cleansing process. These things are latent in our emotional composition. Getting thru that process to the other side leaves us at, or closer to, the threshold of samadhi, if not up to our eyeballs in it.

I allude to the rotting corpses in our mind, the emotional body, that control us, require us to expend energy walling them off from consciousness/ awareness since such things are taboo in western culture, except within the psychotheapy, self exploration , Jungian setting and then with skilled and stable support and specific iintent to expose them for personal growth reasons. They are our mental afflictions. They rob us of our creativity, our authenticity, our access to intuition, even paranormal abilities.

Psychedelic drugs ... on a good day ... can provide a "temporary rough or coarse approximation" of a samadhi like state thru a similar sequence of "uncovering, purge, aquire new expanded mental emotional freedom and open space. And of course we can thank Carl Jung for spelling this or a similar process out in some detail.

I gather the link provided is a reminder from religous agencies, from a bigger picture perspective, that we are all literally on our way to being corpses in the physical sense and getting real about that is worth while. I'm referring to the period we still inhabit the present body.

sanghadass's picture

We are not talking about - or referring to - the same things in our exchanges. There are some words that we have both used but we have not used them with the same meanings. Thats ok. Best wishes, sangha dassa.

Rocket's picture

After listening to #5 most of it then #1 the instruction you offer is pretty much identical so far to what I got so much benefit.

1- Good sleep, really total good sleep is necessary
2- #1 importance is relaxation to the max first and foremost
3- did not hear you refer to the bone rattling frightening difficult emotions that are part of the process called nyam by Tibetans. LSD can furnish a "preview" and also can help clean up emotional afflictions that are absolute obstacles, if its a good day and you are motivated properly

Rocket's picture

Yes I believe you are more educated, in a serious scholar way, about these things. It does seem apparent.

I have some experience with certain things but not good knowledge of the centuries of religous background, and in depth understanding.

If you care to you could post links to sites on the web where I can gain better depth of knowledge.

Many thanks.

Rocket's picture

Yes I believe you are more educated, in a serious scholar way, about these things. It does seem apparent.

I have some experience with certain things but not good knowledge of the centuries of religous background, and in depth understanding.

If you care to you could post links to sites on the web where I can gain better depth of knowledge.

Many thanks.

sanghadass's picture
Rocket's picture

I have the impression, this has been true for me as a westerner, It has only been by spending lots of effort working to quiet dominating mental afflictions first that I got into some samadhi state the first weekend I got good training in meditation, samatha practice. I was totally convinced ... two years of diligent daily samatha practice later I felt fulfillment I was unable to begin to imagine previously.

Is this true for most westerners, ie we rarely go deep in meditation without "cleaning house" mentally and emotionally first?

The book does not seem to open on my Mac computer. Must not be a Mac app.

Listening to the utube the description is very similar to the trainig I got from Alan Wallace .... he was trained by HHdalai lama and other Tibetans.

sanghadass's picture

Dear Rocket, You mentioned above: "I have some experience with certain things but not good knowledge of the centuries of religous background, and in depth understanding. If you care to you could post links to sites on the web where I can gain better depth of knowledge." I think the link below should be helpful in this regard.


Yours, sangha dassa

sanghadass's picture

Dear Rocket, it does not matter. Its ok if you have had a lot of stuff come up and u have had this 'cleaning house' experience. The Buddha mentioned a few alternatives of how it can unfold. It can be long and difficult. It can be short and difficult. It can be long and not so difficult. It can be short and not so difficult. What is a cause for joy is that you have something to celebrate. Thank you for sharing this. Through your joy in discovery we are all lifted. This lifting through joy is so so beautiful. When joy manifests in natural stillness ....

The Dharma is beautiful in the beginning, middle, and end!

The advice I recieved from a wonderful teacher was: if anything comes up that seems challenging - or unsettling - in your meditation 'Just Say Boo'! He told a story about an experience he had during walking meditation. He saw a demonic face appear in the concrete where he was walking - back and forth. He realized it was just perception. He decided to play with the perception. He removed a couple of teeth and stuck a cigarette in its mouth! What had appeared as a disturbing image turned into something silly and amusing. If there is a lot of so-called bad stuff that arises it does not matter. What matters is always how we relate to it. Awakening is not any kind of experience. We love and let go! There is nothing in the way.

The Buddha talked about terror arising in him before his awakening. When this happened he would walk back and forth and it would subside. Remember the legend of the Buddha under the Bodhi tree! A demon army shot a rain of arrows at him and they transformed into falling flowers as they approached. Your peace is the same thing! Stuff came up and now all you have are flowers to show for it! Give those flowers to everyone you meet! Enjoy them as much as you can! You deserve it! Peace and love, sangha dassa. xxoo

melcher's picture

Meditation As Suffering is a curious alternative to Life As Suffering. It's important to realize that "getting through" in Buddhism is not bout confrontation but about letting go.

Rocket's picture

Meditation as suffering? It is a way to aqure freedom from suffering.

It is true, a period of fringhtening ... bone rattling, emotions coming at you from your own mind is an invariabe phase we all go thru. I'm sure there are infrequrent exceptions to this. That phase is a signpost you are getting somewhere. Experiential psychotherapy or even responsible purposful use of psychedelics in advance can help a lot. A whole lot.

Over decades I have seen and spoken with many sincere people who went for meditation training and went pretty much nowhere at all, aside from some nice modest relaxation. They came away feeling scammed. I understand well this from my own experience too. I've met precious few great teachers of meditation in the west.

We are saturated at a cultural level with emotional obstacles, "wrong thinking" .... high levels of mental emotional instability and agitation, materialism et al, that meditation techiques alone are not efficent at clearing.

Buddhas teachings were given centuries ago, a different epoch and cultural context. To say the least. 2014 industrialized exclusively materialistic values from the moment of birth, no, zero, zilch cultural value placed on, even brief exersize, "stop," just one moment of simply "be" and know your mind in a total way. We have even greater obstacles.

We do have to get through them and folks with far more knowledge than I bring them up as critical moments. Place emphasis on clearing becaue those things are obstacles to becoming free thru meditation practice.

sanghadass's picture

I did not say meditation is suffering. I have no issue with what you r saying of how it has been for you. I can only report how it has been different in this instance. No ancient superimposition at work here - just the Buddha's teachings. If u feel they r no longer relevant to modern humans thats ok. You asked me about traditional teachings and I produced two links that seemed appropriate. You said that the one you accessed resonated with what you had learned from 'Allan Wallace'. From what you have said about depth psychology and tripping I gather that this has been part of your journey. It may still be and I honor that! You are saying that without the journey involving certain kinds of experiences - as described - we are condemned to a superficial understanding of the Dharma. People without your experiences and views about practice are missing something important. If I report 'parts' of my journey that do not seem to match your own why should that matter? Does that make me a 'pop' practitioner? Is this necessarily so? xxoo

Rocket's picture

Didn't think you said medit. is suffering, I thought mr melchers comment inferred that. Perhaps I need to be more careful how I make references.

Didn't say or remotely think Buddhas teaching lack relelvence today. Only that almost all of us moderns need western style preliminary practices to quiet high intensity obstacles, get them out of the way so we can engage the medit. techniques with some efficiency, or we mostly go nowhere. Due to mental instability, agitation, monkey mind on steroids.

"You are saying that without the journey involving certain kinds of experiences - as described - we are condemned to a superficial understanding of the Dharma" Careful Sangha Dassa, I'm saying my observation is most folks are going nowhere, even after time in SE asia, with Goenka, all the rest. Because we are starting at a place of much greater mental obstacles. My view is some kind of advance work to get our minds quieter and more functional, to utilize the techniques .... as you (assuming its you on the you tube vidieo) clearly show discuss so nicely. Very resonant with the only competent caucasion meditation teacher I've met. Congratulations to you. We big time need folks like you . Big time.

I get you have gotten real depth experience few of us do get. Bingo. Mazeltoff .... and I've been on so many Buddhist bulletin boards and seen so much verification of my views. There is a lot of folks going nowere at all.

Congratulations to you.

sanghadass's picture

It is not me on the youtube. He is a friend of long standing. Its ok that we disagree on some things. The reason I am disagreeing is because what you are saying does not fit my journey. So, we can conclude that I am missing something that you have seen or, there may be another explanation. I am being truthful with you when I say what you are describing is not a universal phenomena. It applies to some and not others. You have a choice of hearing this or ignoring it. I don't think anyone is justifying anything. You mentioned how "one encounters plenty of obstacles , mental rationalizations are common especially on web sites and bulletin boards" in response to the other mitra's post. I have met a few 'Osho' followers who have a similar understanding to the one you have shared above. It may correspond to your journey but it is also a 'teaching' that has been in circulation for some time. I guess it is a farely well known 'model' that may be found in psycho-therapy circles. 'Stanislav Grof' did research in the use of L.S.D. as a therapeutic tool. I have also done a lot of tripping in my earlier life. So I have some familiarity with the things you have discussed. I am also familiar with the ayahuasca model of healing - in theory and practice. All I am saying is 'some' of our journeys are not like you describe. There is no one size fits all! Is that ok?

Rocket's picture

Yes, its beyond OK, its reality. I didn't mean to say my observations pertain to everyone. have seen it a lot here in Calif. , west coast, in weak diluted westernized adaptations of the SE Asian Theravada tradion offered by western folks with sketchy training and experiience.

My heart and deepest instincts have always been with Tibetan Buddhism, hands down. My closest contact with Theravada was while I was working routinely for several years with S Grof conconducting workshops intended to help folks clear mental and emotional obstacles. Stan decided to team up with Jack Kornfield so I went along for the ride. That is where I made observations about the unfortunate condition of Theravada ... USA ... post hippie style. It may be more a fad than serious endeavor.

Alan who has strong antipathy toward any drug for any reason grudgingly acknowledges psychedelics on a good day can furnish a temporary coarse approximation of a meditative state. He did not elaborate. My experiences with holotropic work and with psychedelics were helpful preparation I suspect "opened a door" to a rapid move into a samadhi state.

sanghadass's picture

I am jealous of you. You have had some amazing company on the way. The Buddha talked about world-weariness and disenchantment. This arose in my journey. I also found some teachings that really spoke to me. I left the situation I was in and found a place where I could explore the teachings I had found without distraction. Fortunately, a lot of things came together - supportive causes and conditions - internally and externally. There was a significant shift that happened very quickly. A beautiful opening - many blessings. Joy!

Give the California Sangha your unconditional positive regard. You are their big brother now! Appreciate their efforts. We are all doing the best we can with what we got. We all meet the Dharma wherever we find ourselves. It does not matter who we are. We are all welcome here.

We all have to start somewhere - anywhere is fine. We are all flawed beings. We will always be imperfect, fallible, and human. We don't need to seek perfection or be perfect. We are completely lovable as we are. Its not so important as to what is arising and passing in the body/mind process. Its really a matter of what we are doing with all this experiential compost. Are we loving and letting go. This is not new age warm and fuzzy stuff. This is the Buddha Dharma!

"Just as a mother protects with her life - her child - her only child
So with a boundless heart one should cherish all living beings
Radiating kindness over the entire world
Spreading upwards to the sky and downwards to the depths
Outwards and unbounded... " - Metta Sutta

We need to be big softy's and try not to make to much sense - unless it's necessary! We just start where we are and we help each other coz we r sangha. It is good if anybody finds the cushion. We travel at our own natural speed. Slowly - or quickly - blessings arise. Celebrate every one. Find the Dharma in everyone. Ignore the rest. There is nothing else to do but love unconditionally! Wherever I go and whatever I do, the door of my heart is open to me - there are no others as all is not-self! We r all in this together. Better to light a candle than complain about the dark! Your brother in the Dharma xxoo

nelierea's picture

Great interview. As someone trained as a cognitive psychologist, I've been fascinated by the scientific research on meditation but also dismayed by how many times someone will cite a pre-post study with apparently no awareness of the problems with validity. I hope there will be more active control group designs in the future. I also applaud the point that we need to be asking questions which allow for difficulties and unpleasant experiences not assuming that all effects are positive. The desire to "brightside" the effects of meditation is not only unscientific, it really isn't in line with the dharma either!

viviancreekmore@gmail.com's picture

I am a novice, but here are my various thoughts:

I am artempting to practice Buddhist meditation and have not found it to be relaxing - I often feel too excited to sleep after meditating unless I was very sleepy to begin with. I do notice in on-line discussions and in the few programs I have been to in-person that many/most people are looking for some kind of deep relaxation or even a "high."

I have had the experience of intense muscle tension - or increasing awareness of such - so that I cried out and had to stretch even though I was lying down and not in any position to cause muscle cramps.

I have not been translating everything that I hear or read into psychological terms - so, I did not really think about whether people were experiencing de-personalization or just some sort of peak religious experience. Neither of these experiences is very likely to happen to me. Someone had great answer to a question about having "dramatic" experiences: Dramatic people have dramatic experiences. I am not dramatic, not suggestible and am very unlikely to have experiences of de-personalization.

Finally, years ago I worked on a trauma and neruo-surgical intensive care unit as a Clinical Social Worker. All patients were having their vital signs monitored. I used hynosis methods and various types of relaxation exercises to help patients deal with their extremely distressing circumstances. I could stand at the bedside and watch every patient's blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate on the monitors. Every single person that I ever worked with had a decrease in blood pressure, heart and respiratory rate - sometimes enough to set off the alarms on their equipment although not dangerously so. There were medical personnel within a few feet.

People often had decreses in heart rate just after being asked to close their eyes! Numerous factors could be at play: closing ones eyes, focusing on positive images/memories, having a sympathetic person at the bedside who was not going to do a medical procedure, etc.

Of course, this is not the same as Buddist meditation. But, how I wish I had kept records!

Sanki's picture

Hi Vivian,
I think you may want to talk to a teacher. I practice in the Zen tradition. When I began a regular meditation practice I began by counting my breath. Posture was very important, and relaxation. Most buddhist schools I am familiar with begin this way, traditionally it is called 'shamatha' or tranquility meditation. From this beginning one moves into 'vipassana' or insight. This can mean different things, in Zen, once we have learned to calm/quiet down, we practice shikantaza or 'just sitting.' The breath focus fades and there is an opening up or surrender in which, sometimes, the self is forgotten. I think a good teacher could help you learn to meditate without the anxiety. If I can presume, I suggest you look up a Zen Center near you--I would suggest a Soto Zen Center, for reasons to lengthy to go into here. You might want to find one affiliated with the American Soto Zen Association. Another tradition I am familiar with is the Karma Kagyu. Practitioners in that tradition work very hard on the practice of shamatha when they start out. I hope you will continue to be interested in meditation and that you may find a teacher who can help you learn not only meditation but the buddha way of living.

mattbard's picture

... clinging to your ..... whatever.. , It takes awhile to recognize -at least it did for me... but the grasping thing really got in my way. By no means am I a recognized teacher. relax. good luck..... mb

Dizzyworm's picture

Good discussion. Reminds me that people are not standardized emotional/sentient beings to begin with. We all know from personal observation that some people are more resilient than others. Finally is the yard stick MRI results or personal experience. The MRI could be just another false Guru. Ultimately each person must self report if they are experiencing greater peace and equanimity. A good description of the Dhamma is that which is both peaceful and useful. ** Metta to All **

edrowe0's picture

Agree with katyyelland. Mindfulness is not one of a toolbox of new age tricks that increases health, wealth and happiness, despite what the marketeers and Google might say