How much can meditation actually change a person? And, more importantly, is this change always for the better? These are two of the questions that Coventry University researcher Dr. Miguel Farias set out to explore in his new book, The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?, co-authored by Catherine Wikholm. The groundbreaking book sheds light on the ancient practice, revealing the little-known origins of meditation and the potential negatives that go widely unreported.
When thinking of meditation, most people would assume that the effects could only be positive, and previous research on the topic has been predominantly favourable. There has even been a recent study that suggests that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which includes meditation as a key aspect, could be a non-chemical alternative to anti-depressants in preventing relapses into depression. In certain circles, meditation has been marketed as somewhat of a panacea – a ‘cure-all’ treatment for a range of mental health issues including stress, depression and anxiety.
However, throughout his years of research, Dr Farias has discovered numerous accounts of less positive experiences. There have been instances where individuals have suffered extreme adverse side effects after practicing meditation. In fact, the effects reported are some of the exact ones that meditation is sometimes prescribed to help with. These include anxiety, depression, panic, confusion, restlessness – and in some cases, psychosis and manic episodes.
The book features numerous case studies of individuals who have been affected negatively following meditation. These range from accounts of group meditation sessions in which one or two participants have became “emotionally disturbed” to reports of a woman who spent fifteen years being treated for psychotic depression, thought to be “triggered” by a three-day meditation retreat.
So, why do some people experience such adverse effects from an activity that is supposed to relax them? Farias and Wikholm discuss how these instances become less shocking once you know of the original purpose of meditation.
Rather than a relaxation method, as many people regard the practice today, meditation was originally designed with the purpose of shattering the perception of oneself. The process that an individual goes through while entering the contemplative state necessary can often be beyond their control, and it is because of this that problems can arise.
The Buddha Pill uses an apt quote from Hindu monk Swami Ambikananda that draws a parallel between meditation and cooking: “The way I like to explain it is: when you cook the scum rises to the surface.” Similarly, when sitting alone, concentrating solely on your thoughts with no distractions, it is impossible to predict what can rise to the surface.
This book is one of the first to explore what Farias calls “the dark side of meditation”, and it is the pre-existing ignorance to the issue that he says he found most interesting when writing. Individuals with years of experience in meditation have seemingly had no idea of the original purpose of the practice, and therefore the potential harm that it can cause.
However, The Buddha Pill does also highlight the benefits of meditation. It includes Farias’ fascinating research into the effects of yoga and meditation on prisoners. This study, conducted in 2013, found that prisoners who took part in a ten-week course had:
- Reduced stress
- Reduced psychological distress
- Improved mood
- Improved concentration
- Improved decision-making
- Improved ability to override impulse
So, does Dr Farias recommend meditation? “It depends what you are doing it for,” he explains, “meditation is certainly not for everyone.” He believes that it is undeniable that meditation does change you, and sometimes these changes can include all of the positives so commonly associated with the practice.
Farias hopes that The Buddha Pill will lead to serious discussions around meditation, and the dangers of promoting it as a suit-all, fix-all cure. He has more research planned in the future himself, including studies into intensive meditation, and also plans to re-visit the prison environment.
The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? has been published by Watkins Publishing Limited, and is available from Amazon.