Do you ever wonder if meditation might be harmful? It is rare these days to read about negative effects of meditation, but my attention was caught this week by an article based on research from the University of Mannheim. As I prepare to run a meditation-yoga-silence retreat this weekend, I read that “People’s egos get bigger after yoga and meditation”. The findings suggest that people who developed a meditation practice had a greater sense of well-being and self-enhancement, so their egos were inflated rather than quietened.
I did not include “a greater sense of self-importance” on my advertising materials. Should I have done?
Meditation and self-importance
There are helpful and less helpful aspects to everything we do, so I did stop to think about these findings. Might meditation foster arrogance? I believe most of us vacillate between having a low and inflated sense of self-importance. Maybe the sense of mastering a practice had tipped some of the people participating in the study over to the side of self-importance, as the article suggests. But meditation is an evolving practice, it is not a finished product. It can lead to the experience of being part of something much bigger than yourself, a sense of a non-dual reality, but that can take time and is not a guaranteed outcome.
I think one of the issues is that Eastern meditation is borne out of spiritual practices, and when we graft parts of it into our Western culture much is lost in translation. All too often, we strip it bare of its lineage and traditions and cherry-pick the bits we like. What we are left with still works, but it is not part of a wider system.
Science of Meditation
The Dalai Lama is a great proponents of scientific research, so that the benefits of meditation can be better understood in the West. His invitation to scientists to study the effect of kindness and compassion led to a number of findings about altered brain waves and a new understanding that our brains change as a result of neuroplasticity. Research also shows that meditation reduces blood pressure, slows the pulse, changes the brain and develops our capacity to cope with myriad illnesses and other challenges that life throws at us.
Meditation is simple, but it is not easy. Particularly not for us in the West. The practice of sitting and being with our experience, brings us face to face with feelings and emotions that we are probably trying to avoid. Modern life provides us with endless distractions, which can keep us from properly experiencing our own life. There is a compelling argument that in the West, a meditation practice should be accompanied by some form of therapy or other inner work, to enable us to just sit. That is self-understanding, not self-improvement, and part of our responsibility as adults to know and take responsibility for ourselves.
We have enough evidence to know that meditation brings with it a range of health benefits. I find one of the main benefits is quietening my “monkey-mind”, which swings relentlessly from one thought to the next. We read constantly about the increasing levels of anxiety in our society and the response from GPs is too often medication, or we self-medicate through drugs or alcohol. Drugs may ease the condition by dulling the senses, but it is disempowering and there are side-effects. By comparison, the enhanced sense of well-being referred to in the Mannheim study sounds like a good option.
The reason I practice and teach meditation is because of the increased sense of well-being that it brings, and capacity to deal with life. If my monkey-mind leaves me alone for long enough it brings a deeper sense of connection. That is something worth experiencing and sharing. If, along the way, we get hooked on a sense of self-importance, that is just a blip which a sustained meditation practice and inner-work will help us to recognise and acknowledge.
Now what’s the harm in that? Please share your thoughts on this, if you want to.