Numerous studies have shown the positive side of meditation, but a new book brings a more balanced, nuanced view of this ancient religious practice.
Numerous studies have shown the positive side of meditation, but a new book brings a more balanced, nuanced view of this ancient religious practice.

“ Meditation is very much like cooking lentils. The scum rises to the surface when you are doing this.”

It’s an intriguing observation made by psychologist Dr. Miguel Farias during an interview on CBC radio regarding the book, The Buddha Pill: Can meditation change you?, which he co-wrote with Dr. Catherine Wikholm. This analogy, which Farias heard from a meditation guru in India spoke to him about the more challenging effects of the practice.

Numerous studies have shown the positive side of meditation – how it can calm us and reconnect us to some aspect of our inner selves, resulting in positive health effects. There are even some studies that claim it can change our brains and our whole nature. Farias and Wikholm spent time gathering and analyzing a wide array of recent studies and the claims made, based on these studies. They were particularly interested in the challenges – rather than the benefits – meditation can present. Their research took them from prison cells to ashrams, from Christian mystics to ordinary individuals – all with stories to share.

This book is not designed to throw cold-water on what is becoming a very popular health practice, but rather to bring a more balanced and informed view, including a discussion of the negative effects of meditation that have not been covered much in the media. Generally, we have been led to believe that meditation is a health practice free of side effects with guaranteed peace and happiness being the result.

In the CBC interview Farias shared what initially precipitated his interest. He became aware of a woman named Louise, a yoga teacher who regularly meditated. On one retreat she found herself in a very negative, dark space that left her so anxious she eventually needed long-term psychiatric treatment.

Louise’s experience is not an isolated incident according to Farias’ research, and is not confined to those who are new to meditating. It can affect those who, like Louise, have practiced for many years.

Anyone exploring the mental nature of health and the role that a more spiritual approach can play in our well-being will want to understand where these varying practices lead and whether they provide pathways to permanent progress and health. When meditation or prayer reveals the dark, scummy side of the human mind it can be frightening, and we need to have a way of dealing with it.

Many of us tend to see those dark aspects of human nature as innate and equal to the good in consciousness – a parallel to the common Taoist philosophy of the Yin and Yang. Within that frame of reference one’s only course is in learning to accept and to live with or manage the dark side.

Regardless of whether we meditate or not, nearly everyone struggles with negative thoughts, memories and emotions on an every-day basis. They can also be imposed by discussions around us or by the news, and they are waiting to rise to the surface at unexpected moments – like the scum in the lentil pot. So, what are we to do if we are faced with these dark aspects of human thinking? Is our only option really to just accept them as part of our nature and “manage” them?

Understanding people’s tendency to focus overmuch on the negative side of human nature, spiritual thinker and Christian healer Mary Baker Eddy encouraged a different response. She wrote:

“I will gain a balance on the side of good, my true being. This alone gives me the forces of God wherewith to overcome all error.”

That balance can be found in the prayer that re-connects us with God, when the nature of the Divine and its image (us) is understood as good. As long as we think the dark images of thought are innate to us, it is impossible to move away from them. But deep contemplation that helps us understand that what is innate to us is that which comes from a good God, re-balances our thinking, leaving room for the good and beautiful in human nature to blossom more.

I recently had an insight into this during a gardening project. We have a small pond in our garden. Over the years it has been there, there has been a build-up of old leaves and fallen debris at the bottom that affected the functioning of the pond. After we had cleaned it, the water was muddy for a few hours while the filter did its work, then it was clean again.

This analogy may be simple, but it reminded me that the dark debris of life is not attached to us, any more than the debris was a part of the pond. It can be removed. Prayer, when it connects us to the divine, can and does remove the accumulated emotional baggage. We don’t have to live with it, nor should it be allowed to harm us.

It takes effort to turn our gaze away from the fascinating dark corners of the human psyche. But understanding that there is so much more that is spiritually good and true within us, gives us a way to overcome the dark and experience the light.

This article was published in the Vancouver Sun on June 29 2015  HERE