Message Boards Message Boards

Books and Websites

The Buddha Pill

Toggle
The Buddha Pill
Answer
5/26/15 8:28 PM
Toward the end of Silicon Valley Monk, I read about the dangerous possible side-effects of meditation. As chance would have it, a friend emailed me that same day to let me know about a new book titled The Buddha Pill. My friend pointed me to some advance publicity for the book, an article in The Daily Mail headlined "The dark side of meditation and mindfulness: Treatment can trigger mania, depression and psychosis, new book claims."

That headline gives a misleading impression of the book. It sets out to be an objective report, and it dedicates one chapter to "the dark side of meditation" only because the downsides of meditation have until now been neglected in what tend to be enthusiastic but poorly constructed studies.

The early chapters introduce meditation in prisons (focusing especially on the Prison Phoenix Trust), personality theories and the possibility of change, the TM movement, and the mindfulness (MBSR and MBCT) movement. Chapter five then addresses the low quality of almost all meditation studies. They suffer mainly from a lack of active controls, and sometimes also from researchers' desire to "sex up" the data for publication. The very few studies that do include a proper control group show that almost any new activitity will have as much effect as meditation. An eight-week exercise program, for example, will do people just as much good as an eight-week MBSR program. (The authors also report on Buddhist critics of "McMindfulness," who claim it is too shallow to have any real benefits.) Chapter six is the one that reports on the "dark side" of meditation. A significant number of people will experience anxiety, mania, twitching, convulsions, depression, and psychosis, in some cases serious enough to warrant hospitalization. Meditation advocates have tended to gloss over these by attributing them to pre-existing psychological problems. Chapter seven reports on a new study of yoga in prisons, and chapter eight presents the book's conclusions.

This is a light read, pitched at about the same level as an introductory magazine article. I think anyone with any familiarity with meditation or psychotherapy will find a lot in it that they already know. Given that it's aimed at the general public, I don't think the book will have much of an impact on researchers. But it will, perhaps, be one more voice adding to the demand for better-quality meditation studies in the future.

The book is published by Watkins, the venerable esoteric bookseller off Charing Cross Road.

RE: The Buddha Pill
Answer
5/27/15 10:32 AM as a reply to Derek.
Lots more reviews and articles around the Internet for this one. I'm sure the publisher must be pleased. 

I particularly liked the one titled "I am very pleased to see there is some discussion about this aspect" by lifestudent on Amazon UK. 

The reviewer talks about how meditation tends to amplify whatever tendencies are already there and says that physical yoga is needed to prepare the nervous system to deal with the increased voltage generated by meditation:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/product-reviews/1780287186/ref=cm_cr_dp_synop?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending#R2MCOS4GBQ5FP1

RE: The Buddha Pill
Answer
5/30/15 7:17 PM as a reply to Derek.
Here is one of the researchers quoted in The Buddha Pill, Dr. Willoughby Britton, talking about her research into the dark side of meditation:

https://vimeo.com/70483499

She will be one of the speakers at the Mindfulness and Compassion conference at San Francisco State University, June 3-7, 2015.

Here is another one, where she interviews Leigh Brasington:

https://vimeo.com/61893225

RE: The Buddha Pill
Answer
6/8/15 3:17 AM as a reply to Derek.
re: Derek Cameron (5/26/15 8:28 PM)

I. As 'Silicon Valley Monk' documents, and adding a bit of speculation on my part, the lack of training and understanding on the part of 'dharma teachers' vis-a-vis "dangerous possible side-effects of meditation" may have a lot to do with the "dangerous" aspect. That is to say, with the guidance of skilled teachers, the dangers may not be so acute. Two bits of tangential supporting evidence:

1) Somewhere -- in SVM (I've read it 2+ times, but not memorized it)? or perhaps some where in Gil Fronsdal's papers on the evolution of Theravada in the USA? – I found mention that in modern times insight-teachers tend to take no responsibility for what students do with the teachings. The exact quotation was something like that teachers give dharma talks and retreats with interviews, but thereafter little if any follow-through.

My suspicion is that in a monastic context there would (could/should) be recognition and guidance through such difficulties. Not maybe in all such contexts, but with good teachers. Burmese-Mahasi types, for example, are all (or said to be) deeply trained in Abhidhamma and Visudhimagga, where the dark sides of the gradual path are clearly documented. (It's said the 'Sayadaw' title isn't given prior to at least 20 years of such study and practice.)

A renunciate / monastic has, at best, no distractions from the dedication to Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha -- the latter encompassing students (and lay) as well as fellow/sister monastics. The lay teacher has other things to get back to after teaching a retreat – family, profession, social life, etc. It's a structural problem. Neglecting integration with renunciates teachers (not meaning those of this or that sect, but rather those whose sole purpose in life is Dhamma), lay movements led by secular gurus are, given human nature, pretty much destined to crystalize into significantly watered-down versions of the original traditions. At least in the West.

2) Just having listened (again) to Ayya Khema's talk convincingly comparing Teresa of Avila's '4 stages/degrees of prayer' to the 4 fine-material jhana-s, she discusses how Teresa had no teaching support in Christian tradition (even though she was a Camelite nun in personal contact with the best-of-kind of the day) to help her decipher the, at times disorienting, experiences she was having. There's wasn't much talk of'dangerous' psychological side-effects, as Teresa found the joy and satisfaction overshadowed the aspects which might unsettle many. There was, of course, the real danger of being pursued by the Spanish Inquisition, of which she was hyper-aware in her writing. In fact, she was persecuted, but she also had powerful supportive friends, including high-level ecclesiatics and royalty. (http://dharmaseed.org/talks/audio_player/334/7613.html)

In summary, perhaps it's the free-wheeling (to be obnoxious, I might say 'amaturish') context of much of modernist Buddhism, with relatively weak roots in traditional lineages, that occasions these dangers? Ever noticed how so many of the prominent Western 'gurus' base their authority, in part, on having studied with Asian masters, or even having been ordained, "for a couple of years", and/or cherry-picked around "studying" with, most relatively briefly, long lists of teachers?

II. And, btw, I've looked closely at a lot of the 'research', and agree with the skeptics. Even that impressive study supposedly taking off
from Alexander Wynne's concepts of Hindhu/Brahmanic vs Buddhist forms of meditation (discussed in a thread a while ago) – so much of the, though surely well-intended, many nested layers of statistical analysis can't really hide the conformational bias at work.

RE: The Buddha Pill
Answer
6/8/15 11:09 AM as a reply to CJMacie.
What you say makes a lot of sense. Intensive meditation retreats for laypeople date back only as far as 1914. Before that, meditation was always practiced by "professionals" in a monastic context. Young meditators would have their progress supervised much more closely for a much longer period of time before they attempted intensive practice. Even then, they had less of an artificial hothouse environment for practice. They had to go out once a day for almsround, and they didn't practice cossetted by modern comforts and conveniences. It's also possible that, as Jung claimed, Westerners in an industrial economy have far more repressed material to deal with than Easterners raised in an agricultural one.

RE: The Buddha Pill
Answer
6/8/15 11:41 AM as a reply to Derek.
In summary, perhaps it's the free-wheeling (to be obnoxious, I might say 'amaturish') context of much of modernist Buddhism, with relatively weak roots in traditional lineages, that occasions these dangers? Ever noticed how so many of the prominent Western 'gurus' base their authority, in part, on having studied with Asian masters, or even having been ordained, "for a couple of years", and/or cherry-picked around "studying" with, most relatively briefly, long lists of teachers?

I'm quite ignorant about the history of Buddhism as well as scholastic commentary.  That being said, I'd like to suggest that there isn't something special about Asia as a region or the monastery as a specific setting for practice.  Instead, perhaps it is simply important to do one technique for a long time while talking to one main person who gives advice about that technique.  

For me, this calls up the question of results vs time.  For instance, I may very well finish the 4 'technical' paths, guided by Ron Crouch, in under 2 years.  I practiced one technique and was advised by oen person.  Is this less legitimate because of the short time?  Would it the effects on my mind be more authentic if I had done it in a different setting or if it had taken longer?  I tend to assume that the effects are what they are, regardless of what lead up to them.  I'm genuinely curious about how others may answer this question within the context of this thread.

RE: The Buddha Pill
Answer
6/8/15 12:25 PM as a reply to Noah.
Hi, Noah,

For sure, what you say fits with the consensus -- you'll get the most effective results from sticking with one technique. 

That book I was reading draws attention to a slightly different issue, namely, the fact that the possible harmful side-effects of meditation aren't mentioned by many teachers and groups. 

Chris and I then went on to talk about how this problem may be exacerbated by the way meditation has been surgically removed from its traditional context. People didn't join monasteries to "practice meditation." They were taking on a whole lifestyle. In the early years, not only their practice but their entire behavior would be closely supervised. Does the novice do their bit to keep the monastery clean and tidy? Do they show up on time for early-morning chanting? Do they avert their eyes when a young hottie offers them alsmfood? In this way, the experienced monk could assess the mind-state of the new monk.

Chris was also questioning how deep modern teachers' expertise goes, when you read that they have "studied with" a list of two dozen well-known names. Just how thorough could that study have been?

I'm not qualified to comment on your practice, but in principle, I'd say that studying with one person in depth for two years sounds like an excellent way to proceed.

RE: The Buddha Pill
Answer
6/8/15 12:59 PM as a reply to Derek.
Chris and I then went on to talk about how this problem may be exacerbated by the way meditation has been surgically removed from its traditional context. People didn't join monasteries to "practice meditation." They were taking on a whole lifestyle. In the early years, not only their practice but their entire behavior would be closely supervised. Does the novice do their bit to keep the monastery clean and tidy? Do they show up on time for early-morning chanting? Do they avert their eyes when a young hottie offers them alsmfood? In this way, the experienced monk could assess the mind-state of the new monk.
Interesting.  Along the lines of these excellent behavioral examples, I would be interesting in pursueing a naturalistic approach to explain what it is about monastic/traditional training that prevents people from going bananas.  Meaning, if we could get to some core themes or principles that underlie the choices teacher's in monasteries make, perhaps we could discuss how these principles can be brought into the householder setting.

Or maybe the householder setting simply requires a different type of mental and behavioral preparation before and during intensive meditation periods.  In my own life, I found psychotherapy, particularly the emdr and internal family systems modalities to be profoundly helpful in not taking dark night phenomena too seriously.

RE: The Buddha Pill
Answer
6/8/15 8:41 PM as a reply to Derek.
The National Post (Canadian news)  has an article excerpted from "The Buddha Pill":
http://news.nationalpost.com/life/meditation-is-often-thought-of-as-a-pillar-of-wellness-but-for-some-it-has-a-much-darker-side

RE: The Buddha Pill
Answer
6/9/15 3:42 PM as a reply to CJMacie.
Hi Chris,

I think the problem is not specific to meditation practice but rather is kind of all pervasive in Western, and specifically American, society. Jaron Lanier in his book Who Owns the Future? calls it the outsourcing of risk and the insourcing of reward. For example, Uber has a staff of a couple hundred people who are worth an enormous amount of money. But the drivers take all the risk since they are considered independent contractors.   Many drivers probably like it that way, but I'm sure some wouldn't mind being cut in on Uber's valuation. Similarly with the 2008 financial crisis, the securitization of subprime mortgages let the banks reap the rewards of setting up the contracts with the buyers, but ultimately society through the government, got stuck with the risk that the mortgagees were more likely to default.

Many meditation students have a very loose connection with their teacher (or none, if they practice just from MCTB or this Web site). This is actually the Western vipassana model. But it is not the model that is used in Zen, even Western Zen. Zen teachers take responsibility for their students, and try to see to their psychological well-being. My friends who are Zen teachers are pretty concerned about Internet Dharma, one of them calls it "Disembodied Dharma", in contrast with Zen which is really embodied Dharma, all about paying attention to the body. The real problem is when the stuff going on in the mind during the Dark Night and Reobservation nanas leaks out into external behavior rather than being viewed as just another set of arising and passing phenomena. There are some people who can keep it in by maintaining that attitude and others that can't.

I think what would have helped in 2011 is if the retreat center had had a specific plan for dealing with a yogi who was acting erratically that wasn't simply in effect "call the police". This would likely have meant having a psychologist on call trained in clinical practice with experience treating people who have had difficulty at retreats (upwards of 20% if you beleive the link that CPM posted). This doesn't mean that there would never be cases which would need to go to a psychiatric facility, but I think it would likely have helped in my case and probably in many others. That of course would have meant an additional expense and would have gone against the ideological bias that if anything ever goes wrong in a retreat, it is a result of a preexisting tendency on the studen'ts part.