Meditation is NOT like taking a pill

by simon on April 4, 2015

In a recent interview in Tricycle, Dr. Willoughby Britton discussed the hype around meditation and mindfulness and emphasised that much of the research on which claims for the benefits of them are based are not as robust as they are often made out to be. She is also concerned about the claims for meditation as a panacea to a whole host of emotional and psychological troubles.

With these doubts now becoming audible in the world, what’s a meditator, and particularly a teacher of meditation to think?

For those of you who don’t know me, I’ve been practicing Buddhist meditations since either 1972 or 1973 (Obviously meditation does NOT guarantee precision of long term memory in aging practitioners). I’m very much aware that: first, meditation has (this is a self observation so definitely biased) been central and essential to my becoming who I am from who I was; and second, that it has not been SUFFICIENT to that development, however it might be characterised. Anxieties and depressions have been part of my life across those forty+ years and, to repeat, while meditation has been of huge assistance in living with them it has not been sufficient in itself to effect their amelioration.

Thus the title of the blog and, perhaps the start of a reflection on how we might consider the place of meditation as life practice. In a subsequent post I’ll talk about practices which are related to meditation which may, for most of us and for most of our lives, be far more appropriate to our needs, desires and orientations than full-on meditation.

So: meditation is not like taking a pill or having acupuncture. Simplifying for brevity, taking a pill is “fire-and-forget”: we and our health care professional have a target which the treatment will affect with or without our further effort. Meditation is far closer to learning to ride a bicycle or to play a musical instrument: we must be intimately involved with the activity: we must learn it, explore the new territory it opens up and integrate this new world into our being. Practicing any of these changes our view of ourself, of our place in the world and, a more dynamic metaphor, of our available choices for behaving with others.

One practices and explores the experiences of meditation, and that interaction with the experience, wisely guided, allows us to reevaluate and re-conceive our relation to our minds, our emotions and our very sense of self. Unlike cycling and playing music, it is a practice aspects of which we inevitably carry into our non-meditating lives. Much of the benefit of meditating comes from (consciously and unconsciously) considering particular life circumstances and our contributions to them in light of our experiences while meditating.

This is not a trivial effort and, as Dr. Willoughby points out, is not without its pains and, indeed, dangers. Like riding a bicycle, meditating takes us into new states which require balance, clarity of perception and good sense to navigate. As with cycling, we can encounter situations which surprise us and which, in some cases, can cause us to fall, with a range of consequences. This is where the availability of an experienced teacher can be useful, reassuring and, if necessary, healing. Perhaps the only way in which meditation is like taking a pill is that it may have unexpected and unwanted effects and we may require help in identifying them and dealing with them.

Coming back to Dr. Willoughby’s observations in the interview, looking at meditation as immediate cures for our anxieties, pains and sadnesses is probably over-optimistic. Meditation will help us, over time, re-orient ourselves to the nature of our pains and joys but it will not, in the short term, remove the pains or make permanent the joys. In that light, most research I’m aware of has looked at the short term changes in meditators in not particularly rigorously controlled studies. If the results are ambiguous, that should not surprise us. Nor should it discourage us. The new focus by our culture on competence in dealing with the vagaries of our mental and emotional experiences is beginning to show benefits in surprisingly practical, high-stress environments like businesses, couples and families.

To what extent were these studies encouraging participants to take a “pill-like” view of meditation? To what extent were they encouraging participants to regard the practices as skills to be cultivated, practiced and intentionally applied in real-life circumstances? To what extent were the studies looking at full-on meditation or at practices with more modest immediate aims?

The next blog will explore a range of practices that, in my view, can usefully be grouped under the heading of mind-skills training, to provide effective options if meditation proper is not for you. Also, perhaps, in the interim as your meditation practice is ripening.

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