Two Sides to the Meditation Story

Two articles that highlight the good and dark sides of the popularity of mindfulness meditation came out recently within a few weeks of each other. One is an interview with a Harvard Neuroscientist who found that meditation causes positive physical changes in the brain, including a “thickening” of the regions of the posterior cingulate and the left hippocampus, as well as a shrinking of the amygdala, the fight-or-flight center of anxiety, fear and stress.

Here are some of the findings mentioned in the Washington Post interview with neuroscientist Sara Lazar:

“1. The primary difference, we found in the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance.

2. The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.

3. The temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.

4. An area of the brain stem called the Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.

The amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain which is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general. That area got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program.”

The other article focuses on the research of Dr. Willoughby Britton, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University Medical School. In graduate school, Britton was an unabashed supporter of meditation; in a recent interview in Tricycle she had this to say:

“I wrote a mega-article, the precursor to my dissertation, on all of the neurological and biological concomitants to stress and depression. And then I cited all of the studies that suggested meditation could reverse those processes. And I submitted that mega-article to three different journals and it got rejected three times. It finally dawned on me that I was cherry-picking the data. I wasn’t actually being a scientist or doing a scientific review; I was writing a persuasive essay.”

But her story, and research took a darker turn. In The Atlantic this June, another article about Britton focused on the problems that meditators had after long meditation retreats, major, major psychological problems that some have yet to have gotten past.

The original title for her reaserch was “The Dark Night Project,” this was eventually toned down to “Varieties of Contemplative Experience.”

In the Tricycle interview, Britton says this (emphasis mine):

“A related criticism is: “What is mindfulness?” People still aren’t clear about that. What are these different practices? And which practices are best or worst suited to which types of people? When is it skillful to stop meditating and do something else? I think that this is the most logical direction to follow because nothing is good for everything. Mindfulness is not going to be an exception to that. A lot of people would probably have a strong reaction to that statement, which tells you something right there. If we think anything is going to fix everything, we should probably take a moment and meditate on that.”

In the book The Issue at Hand: Essays on Buddhist Mindfulness Practice, veteran Zen and Theravada teacher Gil Fronsdal writes in the Appendix that mindfulness itself is just one step on a more gradual path that starts with the practices of generosity and ethics.

“Westerners who undertake Theravada practice often skip some of the early stages in the progression. Instead they initially focus on awareness practices, particularly mindfulness. Although there may be good reasons for this in the West, by starting with mindfulness we may be bypassing the cultivation of healthy psychological states of mind and heart that support its foundation.” (p 128)

My own opinion is that both Lazar and Britton (who are both meditators themselves) are right; meditation is probably healthy for the brain and psychological health; but some people are not psychologically ready for intensive retreats.

One of the issues that most greatly disturbed some of the participants in Britton’s study was a loss of a sense of self. The term “no-self,” or anatta, I can see being troubling for people who don’t already (ironically) have a strong sense of self. The terms used such as “no-self” can be confusing and lead to the problems Britton has seen, such as depersonalization and a loss of pleasure.

In Googling “anatta,” however, I was pleased to see this in the Wikipedia entry (emphasis mine):

“According to Peter Harvey, while the suttas criticize notions of an eternal, unchanging Self, they see an enlightened being as one whose changing, empirical self is highly developed. One with “great self” has a mind which is not at the mercy of outside stimuli or its own moods, but is imbued with self-control, and self-contained. The mind of such a one is without boundaries, not limited by attachment or “I-identification.””

I’m personally very excited about the positive changes meditation can bring about; I feel them myself when my practice is stronger, and less so when I slack off. But I’m also leery of anything that claims to be a panacea; “just sitting”, at times, may not be the best thing for a specific individual at a specific time. And different people have different limitations that need to be respected.

I used many more words in this to talk about Britton’s work; that’s not because I think it’s more valid that Lazar’s; it’s because in an era when mindfulness is everywhere and meditation is the most common form of practice, it’s important to know the downsides and the limits of said practice.

People change and people stay the same; we’re perfect as we are and we need improvement; we’re all the same and we’re all different. We sit, and then we don’t sit. My balance may not be your balance, and both of those change from time to time; keep this in mind and know and respect your limitations and intuition.

2 Responses to “Two Sides to the Meditation Story”
  1. nannus says:

    One question I am having about meditation: since meditation is a training of attention and you can train to reduce the wandering of the mind, does this interfere with creativity. My impression is that when I am in the “default state” of the mind and my mind is wandering without much controll, I am able to get a lot of new ideas. So if you train to reduce the wandering of the mind, with all the positive effects that might have, can that reduce your creativity. Is there any research about this question? I mean that if the wandering of the mind was such a bad thing, would it not have been selected away during evolution. Maybe it is the result of an optimization process where you have a trade off between attention and creativity. In a culture like that of Tibet, maybe you do not need a lot of creativity since it is rather static, but I am not entirely convinced that the changes of the mind you can achieve through meditation are all positive (besides those psychosis-like states that you can obviously get into by prolonged retreats).

    • Hi! I really don’t know, but I’ll give it a shot. In talking with some teachers and reading texts, I think that the wandering of the mind isn’t a “bad” thing per se, and (it gets really confusing) that the idea isn’t to necessarily stop the wandering but instead to notice it, and especially to notice it when it leads to, let’s say unhelpful or neurotic thoughts. I do know that I get confused because different teachers and teachings phrase similar ideas in different ways. Recently there was a project that the public radio station WNYC ran called Bored and Brilliant, and the focus of that was to put down smartphones and such and let the mind wander rather than find something to occupy it during downtime such as waiting in line, being stuck in traffic, etc. When that started I heard a psychologist say something to the effect that when the mind wanders it’s actually making sense of things and organizing things so that what we call wandering is actually a necessary process. I get new ideas in meditation, just like I do in the shower or other times I’m zoning out, and I’ll take them whenever they come if they’re good. A good writer to check out might be Leonard Koren; he’s written a lot about design, architecture and such, but also wrote a book called Noise Reduction, which is an explanation of his version of Zen meditation without, and I think this is what he wrote, “the metaphysical mumbojumbo.” He’s definitely a creative person and yet practices a form of meditation to cut down on the chatter, but my guess is that he would not think that it interferes with creativity. It’s most likely, as you said, a matter of balance; I’m not really interested in long retreats because I think it’s something that needs to be worked up to, and because I think there are certain prerequisites that should be met before doing something like that. I’ve also found that when I’m engaged in a creative activity, especially a visual art of some kind, the chatter in the head goes down, but the creative ideas go up as I’m focused. So maybe getting things into focus is a good thing for creativity(?). Also the physical effects on the braing seem (if they’re proven) to be positive, and I also just read another study that showed that meditation increases empathy and overall kindness. I don’t take things at face value and I try to investigate and find out what works for me – everyone is different, and like the researcher from Brown University said, anything that claims to be an answer to more or less everything is bound to be wrong for some people. So, my two cents… thanks for commenting!

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