“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 broad-spectrum of effects resulting from this practice.
Numerous studies have shown the positive side of meditation – how it can calm thought, reconnect us to some aspect of our inner selves, and in some cases, bring about positive health effects. Generally, we have come to believe that meditation is a health practice free of side effects, with guaranteed peace and happiness being the result.
However, Farias’ research shows that this is not always the case. His findings should alert us to what happens when we take what was originally a religious practice and secularize it without really understanding its roots and history. Meditation, or mindfulness, is mentioned in many faiths, but it has very different meanings.
Christian prayer can be meditative. The difference is that this type of prayer focuses on communing with God. Meditation or mindfulness that is promoted and practiced in secular settings tends toward focus on the self, some aspect of the body, or what is going on in the human brain.
To delve further into the effects of meditation, 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 Buddhist monks 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.
In the CBC interview, Farias shared what initially precipitated his interest. He became aware of a woman named Louise, who was a regularly meditating yoga teacher. On one meditation 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 health improvements, or perhaps come with possible unintended side effects. When meditation reveals the dark, scummy side of the human mind, it can be frightening, and we need to have a way to deal with it. Some forms of meditation do teach the student to accept the dark side of what is revealed, to learn to live with it as simply innate and equal to the bright side (parallel to the Taoist philosophy of the Yin and Yang) and to manage it.
Many individuals struggle with negative thoughts, memories and emotions on a periodic or every-day basis. These dark thoughts 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 to just accept them as part of our nature and “manage” them?
At one point in my life I suffered from depression. While seeking freedom from the darkest of human thinking, I was inspired by the account of Christ Jesus’ experience in the wilderness (see The Bible, Luke 4).This story spoke to me about how we can face dark aspects of human thinking. I noticed that, when the writer referred to these temptations as “the devil,” he was actually separating these challenging human thoughts from Jesus. In other words, he recognized that the thoughts were not a part of Jesus’ identity. And, I could see that Jesus did not seem to waste time wondering where these thoughts came from. He did not try to analyse, ponder or understand them. Instead, he boldly affirmed what he already knew of God and his relationship to a loving God, and this gave him reassurance and strength to simply cast them out. Following that, he went on to do his incredible healing work, including instantaneously curing both mental and physical illness.
This lesson from Jesus shifted me from reflecting on myself and on the source of my dark thoughts, to what I knew about God as Love. I began to understand that He did not send me dark thoughts, but rather light and joy. There is no dark side to God's nature. I focused on those thoughts. Over time it brought permanent freedom from depression.
Jesus’ experience in the wilderness echoes the words of the Psalmist, who, when also having a bad day, said, “Be still and know that I am God." This idea takes us beyond simply being still: it lifts us away from the self and its transient feelings, and turns us to the Divine for a clearer understanding of our spiritual nature, which doesn’t include both good and bad.
I recently had a further insight into this during a gardening project. We have a small pond in our garden. Over the years there has been a build-up of old leaves and fallen debris at the bottom that has affected the functioning of the pond. After we had cleaned it, the water, though muddy for a few hours, became clear as the filter did its work.
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 connects me to the Divine. It can and does remove accumulated emotional baggage, and it leads to permanent healing.
Anna Bowness-Park is a Christian Science practitioner, who writes frequently on the relationship between consciousness and health, and how prayer can play a role. You can follow her blog at http://anna-bownesspark.ca
You can read more from our interfaith blog, The Spiritual View, HERE