Does meditation truly have the power to heal mind, body, and soul, or is it all in our head? Psychologist and author of ‘The Buddha Pill’ Dr. Farias weighs in on the debate.
In the new age of growth and enlightenment, psychologist Dr. Miguel Farias dares to ask the question; ‘can meditation actually change you?’. Raised by parents who were enchanted by the first wave of Transcendental Meditation that grew out of the ‘60’s counterculture, he spent his childhood watching them sit, cross-legged yearning towards a higher plane of consciousness. Since those early years, he has gone on to explore the rich and spellbinding web of human beliefs, studying their psychological impact.
In collaboration with Dr. Wikholm, the pair challenge the opinion that mindfulness is a panacea cure for the stress of modern day living. Shedding light on the ambiguity surrounding the ancient practice, they take their inquiry into ashrams and prison cells, examining the promises and pitfalls of meditation as a path to personal change. In the lead up to the re-issue of the book, we spoke to Dr. Farias about the power of belief, human potential and the potential dangers of swallowing the “Buddha Pill”.
Dr Miguel Farias
Some studies show that meditating can have a greater impact than physical relaxation, although other research using a placebo meditation contradicts this finding.
TBE: Can you explain the reason for your choice in title ‘The Buddha Pill’ ?
Farias: We called it ‘The Buddha Pill’ because in many ways meditation has become a modern ‘Buddhist pill’ for well-being.
TBE: What are the advantages and limits of meditation as a practice?
F: There is no simple answer to this, I’m afraid. Meta-analyses show there is moderate evidence that meditation affects us in various ways, such as increasing positive emotions and reducing anxiety. However, it is less clear how powerful and long-lasting these changes are. Some studies show that meditating can have a greater impact than physical relaxation, although other research using a placebo meditation contradicts this finding. We need better studies but, perhaps as important, we also need models that explain how meditation works. For example, with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), we still can’t be sure about what is actually the ‘active’ ingredient. Is it the meditation itself that causes positive effects, or is it the fact that the participant learns to step back and become aware of his or her thoughts and feelings in a supportive group environment? There simply is no cohesive, overarching attempt to describe the various psychobiological processes that meditation sets in motion. Unless we can clearly map the effects of meditation – both the positive and the negative – and identify the processes underpinning the practice, our scientific understanding of meditation is precarious, and can easily lead to exaggeration and misinterpretation.
TBE: Is there a specific type of meditation technique that has been proven to be more effective?
F: There is only one good systematic comparison of mindfulness meditation and Transcendental Meditation, which shows that these techniques may be more effective for different things but the problem is that the literature is limited and biased. For example, Transcendental Meditation may be associated with personality changes and mindfulness is better for recurrent depression.
Dr Miguel Farias
Personal change is part our education from the moment we are born.
TBE : What do you think has contributed to the idea that change is vital for self-improvement?
F: Personal change is part our education from the moment we are born. We are taught to believe that we are autonomous beings in a competitive world and that we have to work to change ourselves. There are many economic, political and scientific factors that have led us to the position where we are in now, and technological things are changing so quickly. It has just become a mantra that you have to change very quickly to keep up.
TBE: Does that account for the rise in meditation as a trend?
F: In a way, we have been trying to find ways of coping. We are human, and one of the things we do without thinking is create ideas. These ideas form different beliefs of how we interpret reality. From the ’60s onwards, meditation showed up as this belief in the self. But it was in a very particular kind of self; one that was seeking something which had been lost, seeking some sort of self-change in a way that was no longer religious. Most of the evidence shows that for most people, mediation is very similar to relaxation. It will allow you to get into a particular zone where your body and mind are more relaxed, and, that has clear physiological and physical benefits. But, some people claim meditation has been life transforming.
TBE : What is the difference between meditation and relaxation?
F: The major difference between relaxation and meditation, is that meditation was associated with a religious framework, relaxation was not. Relaxation, was from the start, an attempt to move these techniques away from the spiritual traditions. So in many, many ways relaxation is a kind of mediation but secularised.
Dr Miguel Farias
I think we are very afraid of our state consciousness because it takes us to dark places. It takes us to the places for which we don’t always have a map, we don’t know how to interact with these other parts of ourselves.
TBE: Can you explain the notion of ‘meditation sickness’?
F: In Buddhist tradition there is this idea that you might get addicted to it and, that you get stuck in a kind of bubble, losing grip on reality. It’s actually very easy to do. I studied myself years ago. I was very young and I was using it as a form of avoidance of real problems. Meditating can be very pleasurable and once you get into that zone it is your problems all seem to disappear.
TBE : You mention that we are often afraid of confronting our own thoughts, this is what makes meditation hard for some people?
F: As civilization is now, it’s not enough to just be aware of our thoughts. Although there the constant stress to “find yourself”, there is another emphasis on what is acceptable and what is allowed. I think we are very afraid of our state consciousness because it takes us to dark places. It takes us to the places for which we don’t always have a map, we don’t know how to interact with these other parts of ourselves. We have become very ignorant of the idea of getting into an outer or non-ordinary state of consciousness because it is not something that we are taught.
Dr Miguel Farias
If people allow themselves the space to submit and meditate, it allows them to see who they truly are, and when they have this spiritual insight, this inevitably transforms them.
TBE : You spoke on meditation in prisons and the transformative effect of the practice on prisoners.
F: It comes straight from the Prison Phoenix Trust, who organise yoga meditation classes in UK prisons. For some prisoners, it’s a positive practice because it’s a sort of mental discipline for them. It gives them both the behavioural repertoire but also, the cognitive strength to create a different life for themselves. It’s truly wonderful when it works. Again, I think it can help many people, it can only genuinely transform few people but it’s wonderful when that happens.
TBE : How does it change them?
F: They have this sort of clear spiritual framework and they are very upfront about it. If people allow themselves the space to submit and meditate, it allows them to see who they truly are, and when they have this spiritual insight, this inevitably transforms them. They cannot go on being there old criminal selves once they’ve had this spiritual insight. I studied spiritual conversion but the thing is this is really rare. I mean the transformation of an individual does not come about easily.
TBE : Do you truly believe that we are able to effect fundamental change in ourselves?
F: I certainly believe in that, yes absolutely! We change as we grow, as we age and our motivations change. I mean look at what happens when people have children, their priorities change completely. If we talk about change in a more dramatic way, like becoming completely selfless, that does happen. There are religious communities all over the world practicing daily. If you visit some of the communities and you talk to people, you realise how difficult it is, and I think that it is heroic that they keep on at it. The religious traditions, I mean generally, have a common denominator – you just have to keep on going, time and time, and time again, and you keep studying and you keep learning.
Dr. Miguel Farias began his academic career at the University of Lisbon, where he studied psychology and psychotherapy. Following his DPhil, Miguel was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Ian Ramsey Centre and the Oxford Centre for Science of the Mind, where he worked with philosophers and neuroscientist on a brain imaging study of the analgesic effects of religious beliefs. He moved back to the Department of Experimental Psychology as a Lecturer and carried out new research on conspiracy beliefs, pilgrimage, and the stress-buffering effects of believing in science.
Around 2010, in collaboration with the Prison Phoenix Trust, he embarked on the first randomized-controlled trial of the effects of yoga and meditation in prisons. This eventually led him to write, together with clinical psychologist Catherine Wikholm, a book that examines the science and myths about the effects of meditation, including its potential for healing and harm. In 2014, he joined Coventry University to lead the Brain, Belief and Behaviour research group, where he is carrying out new research on the modification of beliefs.
Pick up a copy of ‘The Buddha Pill’ here