The Buddha Pill

The Buddha Pill

Psychologists Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm investigate whether teaching meditation to children can change the world?

If every eight-year-old in the world is taught meditation, the world will be without violence within one generation.


Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm

This quote has been attributed to the Dalai Lama but it could have been written by many others who believe in the power of meditation. There is something about it which feels right and fills us with hope. Readers of Kindred Spirit and anyone interested in spirituality will almost certainly have tried out one or other form of meditation; and it’s likely that you’ll have felt some kind of positive effect, whether a lowering of stress, a sense of peace or an insight about your deeper self. If there is the possibility that teaching meditation to children may not only lower their own stress, but eradicate violence, shouldn’t we indeed be asking parents, teachers and politicians to enforce meditation as a daily practice?

We don’t think so. Having come to this conclusion and writing it down isn’t easy. Letting go of an idea that is so filled with hope and that we have intimately cherished has been a long and painful process. Here we would like to share with you a part of this unusual journey, in which we stopped believing that teaching meditation to children will make the world peaceful.

In Search of Proof
Five years ago we met the director of the Prison Phoenix Trust, a charity that organizes yoga and meditation classes across British prisons. They’re a small bunch of wonderful people guided by a simple and yet great idea: that the realization of our true spiritual nature will deeply change how we see the world and how we act. They consider that the practice of yoga and meditation are the vehicles for this realization and for 25 years have worked to introduce these techniques to prisoners and encourage the use of a prison cell as a tiny ashram. We worked together in setting up a scientific study which aimed to test how much prisoners changed after ten weeks of yoga and meditation.

It was hard yet inspiring work trying to unveil how these techniques can help people living in such stressful and often inhumane conditions (think that in the UK, unlike other European countries, prisoners are not allowed to vote). Most of the results were positive. But there were limitations that planted a seed of doubt in our hearts. Although prisoners felt better, and their mental health and attention improved, these practices didn’t seem to make a difference in how they behaved towards others.

We then started another project, a book, which examined the last 45 years of the science of meditation — from Transcendental Meditation to Mindfulness. The brilliant idea that meditation can change in a fundamental way how we feel and act towards others, including decreasing aggression and violence, kept cropping up in scientific studies. Transcendental Meditation spent millions of dollars getting thousands of meditators to gather in certain locations in the hope of decreasing criminality in major urban centres. Mindfulness studies have more recently tested in different ways whether this technique can make us less prejudiced, more compassionate, generous, and feel more positive towards others. But when you look at what was achieved in all these studies, the evidence for the transforming power of meditation is rather weak. Millions and millions of miles away from the inspiring stories of deep transformation that spiritual traditions are full of — think, for instance, of the Buddhist sage Milarepa who was a murderer before he embarked on the spiritual journey that made him a revered sage for centuries to come.

We weren’t ready to give up on the idea yet. We considered explanations for the lack of empirical evidence for the transformative power of meditation: the problem may rest with how science has approached this idea. The ways of testing it, or the people who meditated, may have biased the results. Or perhaps something as subtle as meditation can’t be studied in the same way you test the effects of a drug or therapy techniques that aim at personal change. But a different possibility popped up in the form of a dialogue — not between scientists but two Buddhist monks. Allan Wallace, a well-known US Buddhist teacher was asking Bhikkhu Bodhi, a Tibetan Buddhist scholar about the concept of sati, which is often translated as ‘bare awareness’ or ‘bare attention’. Bodhi explained that while one of the aspects of sati can indeed be translated as bare attention, this is only the initial phase. In order to achieve right mindfulness, a practitioner also needs to develop sampajanna or ‘clear comprehension’. Then the Tibetan priest gives an example of what errors may arise if you leave out this other aspect of mindfulness. He was staying at a meditation centre close to Boston and, at the end of the corridor where he did his walking meditation, there was a sign that read: ‘Allow whatever arises’. Each time he came across this sign, he felt a deep urge to replace it by one of Buddha’s sayings: ‘Here, a monk does not tolerate an arisen thought of sensual desire … ill-will … cruelty … or any other arisen unwholesome state, but abandons it, eliminates it, and completely dispels it.’

Lost in Translation
If the Buddhist monk is correct, the failure of meditation to truly change an individual lies with our modern version of it — a truncated and un-holistic form of meditation; a wild animal that once captured and put in a zoo loses its vibrancy (like a rhino in captivity tends to lose its horn). We’ve treated this practice very much like the pharmaceutical industry has treated plants to promote healing: you take the tiny part that is the active ingredient and leave out the rest. In the case of meditation, we left out the core ethical and spiritual teachings. What are we left with then? It’s unclear but it shouldn’t surprise us if it can’t turn a person’s heart, let alone eradicate violence from our society within one generation.

As we read and interviewed more meditation experts we realized that something was getting quite lost in translating this technique into our modern way of living. The awareness that meditation in itself is not enough pervades Eastern spiritual traditions. Patanjali, the founding figure of yoga philosophy in India, explains that the foundation of a healthy and selfless spiritual development is self-restraint (yama), which he defines as ‘nonviolation, truthfulness, non-stealing, containment, and nongrasping’. And to be sure that these are definite and non-debatable foundations he adds, ‘These restraints are not limited by birth, time or circumstance; they constitute the great vow everywhere.’ It is upon this strong foundation that the other limbs of yoga (as Patanjali calls them) can emerge and fruitify – the asanas, pranayama, meditation and the blissful experiences of unity with the ground of being – eventually transforming the individual.

By contrast, the ‘allow whatever arises’ attitude to meditation feels careless and even dangerous, as it opens itself to anything; it treats all thoughts and feelings as the same. It lacks sharpness and avoids self-criticism. This kind of meditation has been severely criticized long ago as a ‘meditation sickness’ that can lead those who practice it into a ‘hell of mindless beings’. But there are other dangers when you strip out meditation from its spiritual foundation: you end up with a technique only; but a technique has no meaning in itself and can be used for various purposes.

Misuse of Meditation
We then stumbled upon the unthinkable: meditation has been used not to stop but to promote violence. A recent book by historian and Zen priest Brian Victoria has uncovered how meditation techniques and ideas about a selfless individual were used to train Japanese soldiers during the Second World War. They followed a literal interpretation of the words of Takuan, a famous Zen master from the 1600s, ‘The uplifted sword has no will of its own, it is all emptiness. It is like a flash of lightning. The man who is about to be struck down is also of emptiness, and so is the one who wields the sword. None of them are possessed of a mind that has any substantiality. As each of them is of emptiness and has no mind, the striking man is not a man, the sword in his hands is not a sword, and the “I” who is about to be struck down is like the splitting of the spring breeze in a flash of lightning.’

A number of leading Zen Buddhist leaders have admitted that the military use of meditation techniques and ideas had indeed taken place – and that many Buddhist monks had encouraged it. But this is not something confined to the past. Any military organization can use meditation to train its soldiers to make them more efficient. In the US, a new programme called Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training is being used to teach soldiers mindfulness skills before they move into combat zones. Not to be mindful of how their actions can physically destroy other human beings, but to be more efficient as agents of violence and to cope better with the ensuing stress.

We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. But where is the baby in modern meditation techniques? ‘It feels like a dead limb to me,’ confided Swami Ambikanda Sarawasti, a Hindu meditation and yoga teacher we interviewed for our book. Rather than meditation saving the world, perhaps what we need is to save meditation: to view it more holistically. Not to treat it as a quick fix tool to ‘solve’ a particular problem, such as our poor concentration at work, or the widespread mental health difficulties of adolescents, and instead, open ourselves up to its deeper, transformative possibilities.

Mindfulness and Children
But this you won’t find with the so-called scientific forms of meditation, such as mindfulness interventions. The Wellcome Trust has recently given millions of pounds to study its effects in schoolchildren. The major hypothesis is that a couple of minutes of mindfulness will improve the ‘mental fitness’ of our nation’s youth, very much like physical exercises makes their bodies fitter. Mental fitness? Mind toning? We cannot endorse the concept of the human mind as a kind of muscle. Our mental life cannot be reduced to a muscly thing. In the same way, boxing up meditation and trying to make it work like an assembly line to treat depression and anxiety, or using it to engineer more compassionate feelings, won’t take us very far. Any approach that does not acknowledge human uniqueness may produce mindless creatures, but not authentic or enlightened beings.

So we rest in this most uncomfortable of places. Not believing that meditation can change the world, not wanting children to be learning it at school, because of the realization that this streamlined, ‘allow whatever arises’ meditation, is just an empty vessel – its heart and the transformative power to challenge and eventually change the self and the world are not there.

To know more, you can read The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? By Dr Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm, published by Watkins or visit the Miguel and Catherine websites.



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