Home HOME The Idea of Secular Meditation is a Dangerous Chimera, by Mingyur Rinpoche

The Idea of Secular Meditation is a Dangerous Chimera, by Mingyur Rinpoche


There is huge interest in the benefits of meditation today that is being catered to by an ever-expanding community of visionaries, proselytizers, teachers and coaches, as well as practitioners, and that response is both industrial in scale and commercial in packaging. In parallel with this, there is an ever-growing interest within certain circles in “scientifically proving” (or disproving) the effectiveness of meditation. Here’s where I see dangers abounding that can and will hurt all of us — those that practice meditation and those that could benefit from doing so.

First, there is a conceit underlying the idea that meditation has not yet been proven to be effective by long-term, objective research already. The conceit appears to be founded on this belief: that for thousands of years, hundreds of millions of humans have deluded themselves, thinking that what they dedicatedly practiced was useful and effective, because they had no “scientific” evidence that this was the case. Their delusion may have been founded upon spiritual beliefs, or perhaps, simply because their practice brought with it certain positive placebo effects which they naively took to be evidence of its effectiveness. Which is to say, Science, per se, never existed before it was created by Europeans, and thus there could never have been any rigorous testing of these techniques done in their originating cultures.

The hubris manifested in this conceit is awesome to behold, and is an excellent example of the kind of self-delusion that spiritual traditions have specifically used meditation to break free of. Which raises the question of whether or not a non-meditator can even understand the goal of meditation — the eternal issue here being that of the difference between a conceptual idea about something and a direct experience of it.


We can see the defects caused by this conceit already present in so-called secular meditation, which is how meditation is marketed, packaged, and sold today. The thinking appears to be that the explanatory spiritual doctrines that usually accompany traditional meditation practices are of no importance, and thus they can be jettisoned in favor of defining a completely secular technique for meditators to use without all the woo-woo mumbo-jumbo.

But this assumes that the goal of meditation is something physical and concrete. Yet, this has never been the goal of meditation — until recently. We see this faulty understanding of meditation specifically in research efforts to record physical effects of meditation in the brain, the absence of which is blindly seen as evidence of the ineffectiveness of meditation, and the presence of which is evidence of possible effectiveness. Notice the disparity.

Meditation initially develops one’s focus of attention and concentration. Yet scientists are still trying to work out how the brain attends to anything at all, such as selecting a particular object in the visual field, so how can science measure “development of attentional focus” if attention itself is still an unknown?

However, and importantly, meditation also allows one to directly experience the nature of mind. And here is where the chalk screeches across the blackboard. For science there is no mind, only a brain, and at best, its “contents” which might be called mind, but not in the sense meant by spiritual traditions. How then does a scientist study the effectiveness of meditation if they cannot comprehend its focus?

Luckily, most scientific studies stick to attention and concentration, i.e. “mindfulness,” and what their development provides us, but they do so while dangerously ignoring what happens when an individual’s meditation naturally glides from the initial development of attention and concentration into a direct experience of mind, or that of the lack of any inherent self-existence, qualities, or identity in anything, or the spontaneous nature of all that is believed to be intentionally caused. Such experiences occur sporadically, and without warning. They aren’t physical effects in the brain, nor doctrinal ideas learned from someone. Instead, these are direct experiences of the nature of mind, and that just doesn’t compute in a secular context for a strict disciple of the worldview of physicalism.

So, for instance, a recent essay by Ute Kreplin, a psychology lecturer at Massey University in New Zealand, which appeared in Aeon magazine,⁠1 asks “Does meditation work?” but quickly refocuses upon whether or not research into its effectiveness meets scientific standards. The misdirecting title aside, the clarified question is an appropriate one — in relation to the study of modern secularized techniques of meditation.

The focus of the question is constrained, however, by the nature of that which is the actual subject of these research efforts: secularized meditation techniques that have been warped to focus on the manifestation of what was only considered side-effects (if they were noticed at all) of traditional meditation.

Thus, what is actually being studied is characterized by the referenced author, perhaps flippantly, as the “elimination or reduction of stress, anxiety and depression, as well as bipolar disorder, eating disorders, diabetes, substance abuse, chronic pain, blood pressure, cancer, autism and schizophrenia.” While these are all worthwhile and happy effects, they are only possible side-effects of traditional meditation, not its actual goal.

And while these research efforts, that are the subject of her essay, may be the result of a desire to enhance the marketability of a product or service by giving it some scientific “cred,” the presence or absence of these side-effects should in no way be categorized in such a totalizing manner as being reflective of the effectiveness of meditation — which by default includes traditional meditation, and not just secularized meditation.

The repercussions of this confusion is plainly visible in the article in Ute Kreplin’s reference to a widely-shared quote reputedly made by the Dalai Lama: “If every eight-year-old in the world is taught meditation, the world will be without violence within one generation.”

This is used in her essay as a theme to point out the inadequacy of certain scientific research efforts on meditation and its (side-)effects — specifically “enhanced compassion.” Kreplin references a study in which individuals participated in an eight-week long program, criticizing the lack of an active control group (i.e., a group of individuals who were also instructed to do something, such as listening to lectures about compassion in this case, rather than doing nothing), countering the claims of improved compassion found by the authors of that study in relation to the participants’ questionnaire responses before their eight-week course of meditation began, as compared to similar improvements in compassion in another study that used an active control group. In her words: “here the results of our analysis suggest that meditation per se does not, alas, make the world a more compassionate place.”

“Alas!” How poetic of the author. But is that an objective take-away?

While her pointing out of the inadequacy of this particular study is of value, the shading of its questionable result as a rebuttal of the Dalai Lama’s assertion is as inappropriate as it is non sequitur. The Dalai Lama was pointing out what the effect would be if every child around the world was taught how to meditate — and did so continuously for a generation, a vague term for a span of time approximately that of the difference in age of those children and their parents. Is it scientifically rigorous to apply the results of an experiment, with a term of a few weeks, to an assertion about something that would take approximately twenty years to accomplish? Alas, no.

And of course, we don’t know if the referenced study used the meditation practice the Dalaï Lama was referring to — and there are many, each geared to a certain goal or the use of a different support. Ignoring these differences is akin to condemning the effectiveness of jogging in improving overall fitness because studies of golfers doesn’t show any correlation between playing golf and heart health. It is a non sequitur.

Furthermore, there is an unwarranted, and unproven, assumption that is rampant within such scientific studies of meditation today: it is the belief, based upon no data whatsoever, that the results of meditation are linearly accomplished, so that, for example, eight weeks is sufficient to test a practice’s results. To wit: you would have to prove first that meditation was effective at all before you could attempt to prove that it was linearly effective, which you would have to do before you could rely on protocols for research over short durations. The latter two steps have not been done, and Kreplin takes as a given that the first hasn’t as well.

Putting aside the concerns of the author of the referenced article as to the adequacy of the control structure of these studies, the looming question is whether or not you can validly perform such curt examinations of techniques that are meant to be practiced over a lifetime — or at least decades — for their effects to take hold.

Just because someone is marketing a three-week meditation course is no justification for arguing that a three week study can give any relevant data about the effectiveness of meditation, or really generate any useful data at all.

Kreplin also fails to understand that any mental effort can be used as a support for meditation, thus even the concocted 71-page manual describing the rationale and benefits of a nonexistent meditation technique, an example she uses in her article, does not a placebo make. Especially when participants, who were considered in this instance to be the control group, were instructed to sit quietly for 20 minutes twice per day in a dark room and to think of anything they wanted. Depending upon how they were attending to their thoughts — as opposed to the contents of those thoughts — this could easily have been a very effective form of meditation. In fact using thoughts as a support for meditation is a well-known type of traditional practice. She makes no mention of how these participants could be instructed to not meditate on their thoughts, perhaps because she doesn’t know better — and that, I argue, is a widespread fault of secularized meditation research.

Again, by not understanding that the focus of traditional meditation is on the mind (as the traditions define it, not as science takes that word today), researchers might think that this example represented a valid control group, and seeing no difference in the results obtained by the two groups, only one of which was deemed to be actually meditating, they might “find” that meditation was no more effective than sitting quietly in a darkened room thinking about anything you like. Such a “finding” should be considered kindergarten-level naivety.

Kreplin then goes on to detail important considerations about the techniques used to scientifically study secular meditation, as well as important considerations in regard to the investigators themselves, such as experimenter bias and confirmation bias, as well as selectively chosen results that are deemed material, rather than marginal, and the problem of demand characteristics that may be present in the protocol and which can lead participants to “behave or respond in a way that they think is in line with the expectations of the researcher.” All of these are important considerations for structuring a research protocol, but they do not overcome the deficiencies I’ve already mentioned.

However, she then turns her attention to the problem of “negative side effects” of meditation, and this is a mischaracterization of well-known and understood direct results of traditional meditation, which only become negative when they occur in a secular setting with uninformed, or inexperienced teachers. By failing to comprehend, or actively ignoring, the actual goal of traditional meditation, while reformulating ancient techniques into a secularized form stripped of their accompanying doctrinal context, paying customers face the dangers of intense disorientation that could result in mental disease — if they are left to fend for themselves, which is common in secular contexts.

And I must point out what should be obvious: the selection criteria within traditions is focused upon making sure that people being taught meditation are qualified to handle the expected results of the meditation, under the guidance of an experienced meditator and within an explanatory framework; whereas the only criteria for accessing secular meditation is the ability to pay.

Such disorientation, such as the so-called “dark night” mentioned in Kreplin’s essay, is not a side-effect of traditional meditation, but is, rather, a documented sign of progress which is competently handled by experienced guides in those traditions. But this becomes a real danger in secularized meditation taught by unknowing teachers who think the only results of meditating are those (side-)effects, such as stress reduction, that are the main selling points of meditation today.

Yet even though Kreplin acknowledges their expected nature, when she says: “In Buddhist circles, these so-called ‘dark nights’ are part of meditation. In an ideal situation, ‘dark nights’ are worked through with an experienced teacher under the framework of Buddhist teachings, but what about those who don’t have such a teacher or who meditate in a secular context?” she still fails to understand that the issue is that secularized meditation is not the same thing as traditional meditation — for exactly the points she makes: the absence of both an experienced teacher (from a tradition), and a framework of teachings (Buddhist in her example).

Frankly, having sat through the Graduate Record Exam for entry into a PhD program at the age of 50, I can attest to the stress, worry, self-doubt, and troubled sleep that led up to the exam; but I wouldn’t suggest that a university education was dangerous because of the side-effects of competing for entry. My point being that even though the effects I suffered through were real, they were to be expected, especially at my age at the time, competing against twenty-year olds, and therefore should not be considered a basis for criticizing a university education. It’s the same for the expected effects of meditation — in their traditional setting.

But Kreplin doesn’t see it, lumping all meditation practices and settings together and then becoming alarmed at what happens with a particular kind of meditation in a particular context — that of secularized practice:

“The absence of reported adverse effects in the current literature might be accidental, but it is more likely that those suffering from them believe that such effects are a part of meditation, or they don’t connect them to the practice in the first place. Considering its positive image and the absence of negative reports on meditation, it is easy to think that the problem lies within. In the best-case scenario, one might simply stop meditating, but many webpages and articles often frame these negative or ambivalent feelings as a part of meditation that will go away with practice. Yet continuing to practice can result in a full-blown psychotic episode (at worst), or have more subtle adverse effects.”

This particular issue is not going to be settled anytime soon, as is evident in Kreplin’s closing remarks, which once again place the issue on “the limitations of meditation and its adverse effects.” And while she calls for a more balanced view of meditation, her focus is only in regard to the need to chill down the claims of effectiveness of secularized meditation that are its main selling points. She does not mean that science should accept the non-material nature of the goal of traditional meditation, a failing that dooms us to the “warped” understanding that she blames on the techniques of meditation themselves, rather than on the interpreters, marketers, and beneficiaries of the modern secular impersonator that goes by the same name in the marketplace.

So, to summarize, the dangers of modern research into the effectiveness of secularized meditation are these: a) most such efforts are directed towards the potential side-effects, both good and bad, of secularized — and preliminary level — meditation only, yet the results of such limited studies are promiscuously applied to all meditation, including traditional meditation practices; b) researchers are handicapped by a worldview which specifically excludes the actual focus of traditional meditation practices — which is the mind — and thus cannot recognize certain experiences for what they are; c) meditation is always presumed to deliver results in a smooth linear fashion, which experienced meditators know is a completely false idea, and this presumption is used to validate the short-term duration of most experiments today; and finally, researchers who are not advanced meditators themselves do not have the contextual experience necessary to be able to construct a fault-free research protocol because they don’t understand what is and isn’t meditation.

Source: Daily Medium Digest


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