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Meditation can make you miserable, psychologist says

Technically Incorrect: Meditation and mindfulness may be milestones on the road to bliss, but you may also end up in a ditch of despair, says a brain expert.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

The Beatles knew a little something about meditation.
The Beatles knew a little something about meditation. YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

There's an alluring promise in meditation.

You'll find inner peace. You'll discover that at-oneness with the world that you never discover with another human being.

Several techie types come to my house and, without so much as a by-your-leave, they squat and stare into space. Some even take meditation so seriously that they've moved to Berkeley.

As the age of Aquarius had yielded to the age of app-everywhere-ius, there are, of course, technological aids for those inclined toward meditation and the ways of the Buddha.

However, one academic mind offers that the glorious benefits of meditation may sometimes be accompanied by more deleterious effects.

Miguel Farias, who leads the brain, belief and behavior research group at Coventry University in England, has just released a thoughtful work called: "The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Actually Change You?"

As London's meditatively right-wing Times reports, Farias has spent 20 years looking at transcendental meditation and other methods of mindfulness and found them holy, but also full of holes.

He and his co-author, Catherine Wikholm, described by the Amazon page whereupon you can buy their book as "pioneering psychologists," examined available research and did some of their own.

They found one study that showed 63 percent of people, having ommmmed and aaaaahhhhed their way through various meditative experiences, have suffered from at least one downward side effect. Confusion and depression are examples. Mania and psychosis have been observed too.

Farias' arguments offer sustenance for deep thought. He told the Times: "How can a technique that allows you to look within and change your perception or reality of yourself be without potential adverse effects?"

This technique is one that was brought to greater Western prominence by the Beatles. They sat with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and suddenly their music took on an ethereal air -- even if their interpersonal relationships didn't.

It's also a technique that enveloped and begat much of contemporary California. Having lived here for 15 years (anniversary this weekend, thank you for asking), I can say that there are definitely depressing aspects.

California enjoys so many lovely things that it's easy to blind oneself to the manic self-centeredness of many of its inhabitants, and the way that they all speak of spiritual matters with a knowing (possibly drug-addled) vocal halo.

In Farias and Wikholm's work, the authors are trying to remind those who might be blinded by transcendence that some earthy realities could come along with it.

For example, they studied prisoners who did yoga. Yes, they say, the incarcerated became more disciplined, were in a better mood and their stress levels were reduced. But did they become less aggressive? Ah, no.

Perhaps the value of Farias and Wikhom's work lies in just reminding us of the essentially grimy innards of humanity.

We can improve ourselves some of the time. We can fool ourselves some of the time, too. In the end, though, we're just trying to make ourselves feel a little better.

We're not very good at it, so we end up being miserable more often than we'd like.