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The Buddha Pill

Psychologist Dr. Miguel Farias examines the promises and pitfalls of meditation, asking the question, is it all in our heads?

Some studies show that meditating can have a greater impact than physical relaxation, although other research using a placebo meditation contradicts this finding.

Dr. Miguel Farias
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By the time he was an adolescent, Dr Miguel Farias’s meditation practice had firmly taken root. For a youth struggling with adolescence, meditation offered remarkable respite. “Once you get into that zone, all your problems seem to disappear”, he reminisces. “I was very young and I was using it as a form of avoidance of real problems”. “In Buddhist tradition there is this idea that you might get addicted to it; you get stuck in a kind of bubble, you lose grip on reality. It’s actually very easy to do. It is something referred to as “meditation sickness””. Fast forward a couple of decades, we are a few weeks away from the re-issue of his book The Buddha Pill– a phrase coined by Dr Farias to address the potential dangers of blind faith in the power of meditation. Drawing from a host of studies that present meditation as both proven cure and placebo, he looks closely into the true nature of meditation and questions if its influence might just be our salvation.

A New Way of Thinking

Dr. Miguel Farias was raised by parents who rode the first wave of Transcendental Meditation. Born in the giddying haze of 60’s counterculture, he recalls observing his parents sit cross-legged in silence for hours on end, suspended in rapt introspection. In an era perfumed by bohemianism and anti-establishment ideals, meditation was the soothing balm to a culture dislocated by moral fears and social ennui. Throughout his childhood, meditation heralded a new way of thinking and amassed followers seeking a profound experience of self-knowing. “Meditation showed up as this belief in the self,” recalls Dr Farias, “but it was in a very particular kind of self; one that was seeking something which had been lost, seeking some sort of self-change in a way that was no longer religious.”

Why we need Meditation now more than ever

In the past decade, modern economic, political and scientific factors have continued to galvanise our culture around the edict of optimisation. To survive, we have to find ways to cope in a culture obsessed with achievement. “From the moment we are born, change is part of our education,” observes Dr Farias, “we are taught to believe that we are autonomous beings in a competitive world, and that we have to work to change ourselves. It has just become a mantra that you have to change very quickly to keep up. ”

Are there limitations to our understanding of meditation?

Popular opinion has touted meditation as one of the most effective ways to restore positive emotions and reduce anxiety. How powerful and long-lasting these changes are, is a science that is ambiguous at best. Some studies show that meditating can have a greater impact than physical relaxation, although other research using placeboes contradict this finding.  “We need better studies, but perhaps just as important, we also need models that explain how meditation works,” remarks Dr Farias. “Our scientific understanding of meditation is precarious, and can easily lead to exaggeration and misinterpretation.” 

How to Make Meditation Work For You

Perhaps, it is more accurate to approach meditation as a point of focus for the mind, than as a resounding magical cure-all. “It takes us to the places for which we don’t always have a map,” says Dr Farias, “we don’t know how to interact with these other parts of ourselves.” For him, it is clear that moments of deliberate communion with ourselves have the potential to illuminate meaningful insights. “We have become very ignorant of the idea of getting into an outer or non-ordinary state of consciousness because it is not something that we are taught,” says Dr Farias. “ I think we are very afraid of our state consciousness because it takes us to dark places.”

This dilemma does not phase Dr Farias. For him, meditation should be composed of the very confusion that comes from focused introspection. “If people allow themselves the space to submit and meditate, it allows them to see who they truly are, and when they have this spiritual insight, this inevitably transforms them.” As we allow our state of perpetual motion to give way to silence, there is a possibility that instead of enlightenment, we may be met more with a better sense of self-awareness. And maybe, that is good enough.  

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Dr Miguel Farias

Dr Miguel Farias is an academic and lecturer at Coventry University. His major area of research is on the psychology of beliefs, leading him to co-author the book  The Buddha Pill which examines the science and myths about the effects of meditation. Alongside his work in the scientific field, Miguel is an amateur musician who writes regularly for musicians and has also written a short illustrated children’s book. Visit his website here for more information.

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