Here’s a Rant That Nobody Asked For about Meditation and Magical Thinking

Meditation practice is a matter of psychology, not magic. Confusion on this point can have insidious (and dumb) consequences.

Here's a rant that nobody asked for

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“Om Ah Hung is the fundamental three-word mantra of Sanskrit consonants, forming the fundamental sound of the numerous lives in the Universe. It shakes away the blockages in the body’s channels, cleansing it of ailments.”

Discussing the Dharma Door of Chanting The Buddha’s Name, Nan Huai Jin

“Fundamentally, when you meditate, you bring your guard down and the light energy gets in…”

9 Scientifically Proven Reasons to Meditate, Thrive Global.com

Following my recent blog in which I argue against what I see as bad meditation practice, I’ve had a lot of pushback from people who argue that all meditation is good, and we shouldn’t question people’s methods or reasons for practicing. If they’re meditating because the science says it will help them relax a little, then great – and if they want to meditate because they think the light energy will get in and shake loose their ailments from the body’s energy channels, fine and well. If energy channels and light energy are what gets them into meditation, what does it matter? Benefits are benefits.

This is going to surprise everybody but I actually think that it does matter, and here’s why.

The main argument being articulated here is that people often need mystical-sounding language to find the motivation to start meditating. That’s fine, but people can have bad reasons to do good things, and I would simply argue that, where good reasons to meditate exist, we should favour them over worse reasons. 

If the global culture is going to continue on the trajectory that it’s been on for the past few hundred years of becoming more scientific and more secular (and there is every reason to suppose that it will), it is the good reasons that will stick around. Perhaps having a more scientifically-minded meditation community will be prohibitively intelligible for people who want to shake the ailments loose from their energy channels, but I know for a fact that a great many people are already being put off by new agey language that often surrounds meditation practice anyway, and what kind of meditation culture do we want to cultivate? If we move towards one that’s unable to differentiate between new research on the neuroscience of attention, and the idea that touching a photograph of the Dalai Lama will bring good luck, it will be terribly off-putting for increasing proportions of future meditators.

Now I don’t object to all poetic language of course – it can often be helpfully inspiring. If the only motivation on offer was a pile of dense meta-analyses, you’d probably have very few meditators. But it’s important, if fluffy-sounding language is being used, to at least be clear of the fact that it’s only being used as a metaphor – and it often isn’t.

What’s more, this argument that magical thinking is beneficial because it can be motivational is propped up precariously by the presumption that an understanding of how meditation ‘works’ based on your favourite brand of mystical bullshit does not affect how beneficial somebody’s meditation practice is. The psychic who takes up meditation because his horoscope told him to will be experiencing the same effects as the scientist who takes it up because research shows that it reduces blood pressure (classic Sagittarius).

This may be true sometimes, but one’s understanding of why one is meditating and how it’s supposed to take effect usually has a direct impact on how one meditates; that is, the techniques one uses, and the state of mind one brings to the meditation cushion. When there are so many more ways to get meditation wrong than there are to get it right, these differences can be consequential.

For example, if somebody really thinks it is fundamentally about “letting down your guard” so that “light energy” can get into your body, they may end up simply doing their own weird blend of a visualisation practice and trying to “let down their guard” (however they interpret that). Will it be relaxing? Probably. Will it have all the benefits of a standard mindfulness meditation practice? Almost certainly not. There are a bunch of studies comparing mindfulness programmes to pure relaxation and/or visualisation techniques, and the statistics are firmly in favour of mindfulness when in comes to its impact. (for example this meta-analysis1).

The results of magical thinking can be even more egregious than this. Certain strands of the Pure Land sect of Buddhism maintain that it is a waste of time to do any meditation at all; that one need only chant the name of the correct Buddha, and one will be reincarnated in the eponymous Pure Land, to live in bliss and get some good meditation practice started now that those material bodies and their asses aren’t around for there to be a pain in. These schools of thought have historically been very widely subscribed. 

The reason I object to bad epistemology where meditation practice is concerned, then, is the same reason I would object to it in the case of medicine. If somebody feels better for believing that their disease can be exorcised away by their priest, it may seem harmless, but those beliefs shut them off to exploring real treatments, and this can be the difference between life and death. Misrepresenting how meditation works shuts people off to exploring and understanding effective meditation practice in the same way. If meditation has any beneficial effects at all, then this matters.

If you really want to insist that the method one uses to meditate is irrelevant, and that all are equally worthwhile, it commits you to defending the proposition that anything I can sit on a cushion and arbitrarily decide to call meditation is worth just as much as well – which is tantamount to saying that it is worth nothing.

Models for understanding practice that track the actual psychology will tend to promote more effective practice than ones based on chanting the right magic syllables – and to the extent that they do, they will be more beneficial.

References

1. Pascoe, M. C., Thompson, D. R., Jenkins, Z. M., & Ski, C. F. (2017). Mindfulness mediates the physiological markers of stress: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of psychiatric research, 95, 156-178.

Author: RationalShinkai

Ollie lives in England. He likes meditation, peanut butter, and Oxford commas.

2 thoughts on “Here’s a Rant That Nobody Asked For about Meditation and Magical Thinking”

  1. It’s nice how a white screen, and words to put onto it can make one prone to oversimplification. I’ve come to your blog from a post on reddit on ways to get better at meditation. I enjoyed that article, and I took away from it a sense that you’re someone who is open to understanding themselves and the world in a new and sometimes unsettling light, in order to grow and to learn new things about this mysterious thing we call human life.

    I don’t know you at all, but I still think that that may be one of your key attributes, which I suppose is part of the reason why you called the present article a rant, but I feel it necessary to point out that things are generally a bit more gradient-like than you make them out to be.

    For instance. There is a great deal of value to be found in virtues like surrender and devotion. Surrendering all critical faculties to the practice of something you intuit is going to get you somewhere deeper or better, can make for enormous jumps in intuitive understanding, depth of samadhi, and realisation of oneness. Conversely, holding on to one’s critical faculties can impede such rapid progress by an insistence on the idea that it must be you who’s doing something to get you to a better, or more profound realisation.

    This emphasis on the actor is rather common in many forms of Buddhist meditation, but, as you rightly mention, not in others. I’m not familiar with the Pure Land school, myself, but I do know that certain tantric practices of Tibetan monks are less intelligible, and lean more on devotion and surrender than do the commonly practiced mindfulness and jhanic type practices in the West. And yet, Tibetan monastics are routinely held up by scientists as “superstar meditators,” and masters of compassion.

    The exorcism example you mention is poignant, but also misses a key point about healing, and that is that in many cases it’s the body that heals itself, if only it is given the space to do so, ie if “the mind” gets out of the way. It’s sometimes called the placebo effect, and often derided as a fluke to work one’s way around, where in fact it is a powerful attribute of the human body.

    I would argue that we – read science – might invest time and effort to understanding exactly how devotional mantra chanting, exorcism, and other unintelligible practices appear to nonetheless be effective for those who subscribe to them. Instead of being the subject of ridicule, they seem to point to poorly understood, and therefore largely untapped, dimensions of this mysterious life of ours that could aid us in making new leaps as a species.

    And I would like to reiterate that rational thinking is not the only, or even necessarily the best way of understanding the mysteries of life, or to move beyond suffering. A few years ago, I would have agreed with the gist of your article, but perhaps my mind has turned to mush by all of the meditating. I’m not even sure that my reply so far has made much sense. They’re just words on a white screen after all.

    Thanks for reading 🙂

  2. Those who can, do it.
    Those who can not do it
    Talk about it…..
    Knowing how to do it,
    Telling others
    How it should be done
    Is easy.
    Doing it is the hard part.

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