What do you call it when you try to meditate but can't stop thinking about meditation?


I've meditated on and off, mostly off—okay, almost entirely off--since my early 20s, when I learned Kundalini yoga (which has a meditation component). I’ve also dabbled in mindfulness, Zen and Transcendental Meditation. I’m a jittery guy, so I meditate primarily to calm myself, but never for long. If meditating doesn’t work, I stop because I’m wasting my time. If it does work, I stop because I don’t need it any more.

Also, while meditation makes me feel virtuous, like eating kale or driving my Prius, it also makes me impatient. I keep thinking of things I’d rather be doing, like watching Orange Is the New Black, playing hockey or taking a nap.

Or writing something snarky about meditation. Because lately, when I meditate, I keep brooding over things that bother me about meditation. I try to let these things go, like little clouds drifting across the sky of my mind, but I can’t. They bug me. So I decided to write about them. I find critical writing therapeutic.

The Hype Problem

According to one estimate, as many as 10 percent of Americas have tried meditation. Meditation “has gone viral,” The Los Angeles Times reports. Harvard Business Review notes that “mindfulness is close to taking on cult status in the business world.”

That’s not surprising, given how the media have been flogging meditation’s benefits. See these recent reports in 60 Minutes, TIME, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Huffington Post, The New Yorker and Scientific American. Skeptical pushback, such as this piece in The Guardian, is relatively rare.

Forbes gushes that studies are “coming out just about every week to illustrate some new benefit of meditation. Or, rather, some ancient benefit that is just now being confirmed with fMRI or EEG.” Meditation can supposedly treat anything that ails you, including anxiety, depression, addiction, insomnia, stress, heart disease, eating disorders, chronic pain, cancer, AIDS--even senescence!

The Allegiance Effect Problem

Meditation research is plagued by some of the same problems as psychotherapy research. Just as psychotherapy investigators tend to find evidence supporting the variant they favor, so do meditation investigators. In other words, they are subject to confirmation bias, or what psychotherapy researcher Lester Luborsky has called the “allegiance effect.”

Researchers reporting benefits from Transcendental Meditation tend to be TM practitioners. Psychologist Richard Davidson, who co-wrote an article about meditation’s benefits for Scientific American last fall, is a meditator.

An excellent 2014 review by the Johns Hopkins University Evidence-Based Practice Center examined 17,801 papers on meditation and found 41 relatively high-quality studies involving 2,993 subjects. Of these 41 studies, only 10 had a “low risk of bias,” according to the Johns Hopkins team. In other words, even the highest-quality studies were, for the most part, carried out and interpreted in a manner that favored positive outcomes.

The Dodo Bird Problem

The Johns Hopkins review concludes that meditation programs “reduce multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress.” Sounds pretty good, right? But read the review carefully. The alleged benefits are low to moderate, and there is no evidence that meditation programs “were superior to any specific therapies they were compared with,” including exercise, muscle relaxation and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

This finding suggests that meditation, like psychotherapy, conforms to the “Dodo bird verdict.” Psychologist Saul Rosenzwieg coined this phrase in the 1930s to describe the fact that all psychotherapies appeared to be roughly as effective—or ineffective—as each other. The term derives from an episode in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when the Dodo Bird tells characters who have just run a race, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes!”

The Placebo Effect Problem

Just as there are countless psychotherapies, so there are myriad meditations, and each meditator--each meditation session--is unique. So what exactly about meditation “works”--that is, makes people feel better?

What all meditators share—whether they are counting breaths or chanting a mantra--is the expectation that meditation will make them feel better. The Johns Hopkins team notes that “many programs involve lengthy and sustained efforts on the part of participants and trainers, possibly yielding beneficial effects from the added attention, group participation, and support participants receive, as well as the suggestion that symptoms will likely improve with these increased efforts.”

Meditation is the equivalent of telling yourself, over and over, “Be happy,” or, “Chill.” In other words, meditation, like psychotherapy, harnesses the placebo effect. In fact, you meditators out there can have this mantra, free of charge: “Chill.”

The Brain Scan Problem

If people doubt your mind cure, show them brain scans to make it seem more “scientific.” Decades ago, researchers trying to defend psychotherapy against the encroachment of psychopharmacology used this brain-scan tactic. Today, meditation researchers (and advocates) such as Richard Davidson and Sara Lazar are reporting changes in meditators’ brains.

These findings are hardly surprising. All experiences cause neural changes, and the changes are surely more pronounced if you repeat an activity over and over again—whether checking Facebook or chanting “Om.” Meditation may indeed cause changes in your brain, but that finding in itself doesn’t makes meditation’s alleged medical benefits more credible.

The Niceness Problem

Journalist Robert Wright, an old friend who has recently gotten into meditation, wrote in The Atlantic in 2013 that more experienced meditators “seem much less emotion-driven, much less wrapped up in themselves, and much less judgmental than, say, I am.” He suggests that if more of us meditated, we might get along better.

I suspect that meditation is as morally neutral as reading or jogging. If you meditate to become nicer—perhaps by thinking “Be nice” rather than “Be happy”--meditation might make you nicer. But meditation can make some people meaner, or rather, help them behave meanly without feeling bad about it.

Throughout history, warriors have meditated or prayed before battle so they can fight more effectively. Today, many U.S. soldiers are taught mindfulness meditation, which presumably will help them feel better about carrying out violent U.S. policies.

Also, how nice—or ethical—are meditation teachers taking money from the military? The teachers probably tell themselves that mindful soldiers are less likely to carry out atrocities, but that just shows the teachers are as subject to self-deception and moral rationalization as non-meditators.

The Bad Guru Problem

Some meditation teachers claim or strongly imply that they have achieved a state of profound, permanent bliss called enlightenment—also known as satori, samadhi, nirvana, liberation, awakening, cosmic consciousness. These teachers claim that they can help students become enlightened, too.

Anyone familiar with the alternative spirituality scene knows that some prominent teachers, or gurus, have behaved more like sociopaths than saints. They include Chogyam Trungpa, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Shoko Asahara, Da Free John and many more. Google them for details.

For my 2003 book Rational Mysticism, I interviewed men who claimed—or implied—that they had meditated their way to enlightenment. They struck me as being narcissistic rather than wise and saintly. See, for example, my profile of guru Andrew Cohen.

The Matthieu Ricard Problem

Matthieu Ricard trained as a biologist in France before becoming a Buddhist monk. He has been described as “the happiest man in the world,” after Richard Davidson reported that Ricard displayed high levels of neural activity associated with well-being. (Ricard, Davidson and Antoine Lutz co-authored the above-cited Scientific American article.)

Ricard is probably a great guy, but I’ve been down on him since reading science writer Stephen Hall’s 2010 book Wisdom. Hall admiringly describes Ricard coming from Nepal, where he “spent tens of thousands of hours training himself to be compassionate,” to New York, where he taught meditation to “financiers.”

First: Isn’t there something weirdly contradictory about meditating on compassion to achieve personal peace of mind? If you are truly compassionate, shouldn’t you spend more time actually helping others? Second: Financiers? Come on.

The Truth Problem

Some meditators insist that their primary goal is neither niceness nor happiness but knowledge. Meditation supposedly helps you understand the nature of the self, mind, reality. Spiritual author Ken Wilber compares meditation to a microscope or telescope that helps you “see your Buddha nature.”

The problem is that different meditators “discover” different truths. Some find confirmation of their belief in God, the soul, reincarnation, extrasensory perception and other supernatural phenomena. Others find confirmation of their materialism and atheism. The problem is similar to that posed by mystical experiences. You discover heaven, I discover hell.

The Having No Goal Problem

Some meditators insist that if you meditate to feel better, become enlightened or achieve deep insights into reality, you’re doing it wrong. When you meditate, you should have no goal at all.

Is it possible to meditate without having any expectation? Does anyone meditate without thinking, on some level, “This is going to make me feel better”? Or, “This is going to make me experience my consciousness as just a drop in an infinite, eternal sea”?

I doubt it. And having no goal is a goal. If your purpose in life is to experience life’s fundamental lack of purpose, that’s still a purpose. When meditators tell me that they meditate without a goal, it confirms my view of meditation as a form of self-brainwashing.

So do I think meditation is a waste of time? Not at all. My attitude toward meditation is similar to Marianne Moore’s toward poetry: “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all/this fiddle. Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one/discovers in/it after all, a place for the genuine.”

Avoid meditation programs peddled by greedy, horny, narcissistic gurus. Otherwise, by all means meditate. It probably won’t make you feel worse (the Johns Hopkins review turned up no significant risks), and it might make you feel better, nicer, wiser.

Now that I’ve gotten this meta-meditation off my chest, I plan to try meditation again, with perfect contempt for it.

Further Reading:

Why I Don't Dig Buddhism.

Research on TM and Other Forms of Meditation Stinks.

Do All Cults, Like All Psychotherapies, Exploit the Placebo Effect?

Cybertherapy, placebos and the dodo effect: Why psychotherapies never get better.

Why B. F. Skinner, Like Freud, Still Isn't Dead.

What Should We Do With Our Visions of Heaven and Hell?

Rational Mysticism: Spirituality Meets Science in the Search for Enlightenment.