Uniting East & West
Meditation and Psychology
When East Meets West: The Relationship Between Meditation and Psychology
The history of science is rich in the example of the fruitfulness of bringing two sets of techniques, two sets of ideas, developed in separate contexts for the pursuit of new truth, into touch with one another.
—J. Robert Oppenheimer,
Science and the Common Understanding
What happens when the Eastern tradition of meditation meets the Western applied science of psychology? Each, after all, is an intellectual but practical discipline that seeks to understand and heal the human mind, and add purpose and meaning to life. But so far, this meeting of East and West has often been challenging, complicated, and confusing — occasionally even antagonistic.
The relationship between meditation and psychology has been fraught with misunderstandings and ignorance of facts. It’s a clash of two paradigms that aren’t necessarily as different from each other as they are often portrayed. There are at least 10 million meditation practitioners in the U.S. alone and hundreds of millions worldwide. Meditation is one of the world’s most widely practiced, enduring, and researched psychological disciplines (Deurr, 2004), yet not everyone thinks of it as a psychological discipline. The result is an uneasy alliance between meditation and psychology, rather than an integrative philosophy that can be mutually enriching for both.
Evolution of the Relationship
Reconciliation between any two parties is always more difficult when the two have different goals. Meditation and psychology, originating in separate cultures and contexts, first came into contact after centuries of individual development. For each, there was already a lot of water under the bridge. Each had common goals, but different ones, as well. The roots of most Eastern forms of meditation are spiritual. The roots of Western psychology are not, although psychology — especially mainstream psychology — does not exclude spirituality. Psychology struggled mightily to earned the “science” label, even within its own culture.
Eastern spiritualists often seem to refer to the therapeutic effects of meditation as incidental, just unintended consequences — that is, “meditation is about spirituality, not about healing.” Westerners ask: How can this be? How can successfully treating and possibly even curing a disease or disorder simply be some big cosmic accident, especially when we can scientifically document the root cause and the mechanisms by which meditation brought about this result?
In the U.S., psychological research, especially, has attempted to draw a hard line between science and spirituality and reject what is not scientifically quantifiable. Eastern spirituality has no such rule. Some meditation practitioners don’t want to believe that the results of meditation may simply be scientific rather than mystical. And most scientific researchers and clinical practitioners will not likely ever believe that such results are caused by mystical forces, rather than scientific ones.
We are a nation of many different religions and spiritual beliefs and the U.S. Constitution is predicated on the right that government may not associate itself with any particular spiritual practice or impose spiritual or religious beliefs upon its citizens. The U.S. government is careful not to spend public dollars to promote any one religion or spiritual practice over the other. The unfortunate side effect of these laws is that they have may have hampered government-funded meditation research here in the U.S. where a particular form of meditation was associated with spirituality. We might have emerged from the meditation-psychology paradigm clash faster.
Western psychology does not focus on issues of consciousness and spirit, which means that many mainstream psychotherapy patients miss out on the benefits of spiritual wisdom. At the other end of the spectrum, however, many spiritual traditions — including some contemporary Western religious faiths — view the psyche as an unreal or even fabricated construct and believe that consciously doing psychological work on oneself is overindulgence, an excuse to reinforce the story of the false self (Caplan, 2009). In rejecting the psychological domain, they may fail to cultivate real-world coping skills.
In between these poles lie a variety of philosophies that consider both the personal and transpersonal aspects of experience, empirically confirming some aspects of our experience, while allowing others to remain mysterious but equally “real.” Contemporary Sahaja meditation can be one of those approaches.
Drawing distinctions between psychology and spirituality helps us better understand how they complement and support each another, forming a more complete approach to human understanding than either alone can provide. But that doesn’t mean that psychology and spirituality have to exist in separate universes.
Stereotypes, Criticisms and Mischaracterizations
Many Easterners claim that Westerners use psychology as a crutch, over-relying on it for the smallest of problems, and that it has become crass commercialism — the one and only motive of mental health practitioners is to make money. Westerners are pushed into counseling, medication and other expensive therapies that they don’t need. They should be solving their own problems, after all. Solutions can only come from within.
Some meditation teachers have dismissed Western psychology and psychotherapy as superficial, claiming that these practices overlook the deeper levels and potentials of the mind. Some meditators still view Western psychology and psychotherapy as limited adjuncts to meditation practice. Likewise, some mental health practitioners regard meditation as “just another therapeutic technique” or “just another relaxation technique” to be applied and investigated and measured in conventional ways (Walsh, Shapiro, 2006). Sometimes, conventional scientific measures can, in fact, adequately measure certain effects of meditation. But sometimes, investigative measures and the applications of the practice may not support the classic goals of a meditation practice.
Meditation research findings are often interpreted exclusively within Western psychological frameworks, ignoring meditation’s complementary psychological and philosophical perspectives. Some Western researchers have described this as a necessary “decontextualization,” but it is actually a major recontextualization of meditation practices within an exclusively Western psychological and philosophical framework. The result is that much of the nuance, richness and uniqueness of meditation and its intrinsic psychologies and philosophies are either overlooked or misunderstood by Western researchers and clinical practitioners.
Some have dismissed the major implications that meditation holds for understanding the very psychological issues they’re most interested in, for example: cognitive, emotional and attentional processes, mental training and development, psychological capacities and potentials (such as self-actualization and self-realization), physical health, pathology, and other therapeutic and social practices (e.g., personality traits and relationships). The Science and Health section of Sahaja Online strives to provide compelling evidence of meditation’s abilities in these areas.
Many Western researchers and clinical practitioners argue that the impact of spirituality on one’s health and well-being is not scientifically quantifiable or measurable. In the case of Sahaja and other energy-based forms of meditation, they may also argue that chakras or energy centers are not visible, tangible structures and that the inner energy that flows through them is not scientifically measurable; thus, the chakra system (known as the subtle inner energy system in Sahaja) cannot be called “science.” Science, after all, must be measurable, documentable, reproducible.
But, while there may not currently be a mechanism or gizmo through which our inner energy flow can be measured (as electricity and other energy sources can be scientifically, quantifiably measured), it’s worth pointing out that you don’t need to “measure” your home’s electricity to know it’s working. Your lights, TV and refrigerator, etc., either have enough energy flowing to them, or they don’t. That electricity, like the inner energy inside you, is invisible, too. But you can see the effects of electricity flowing throughout your home just as you can feel the effects of the inner energy flowing throughout your energy centers (chakras) during Sahaja meditation and experience its specific healing effects afterward.
Many psychological studies rely on self-report. But in meditation studies, subjects never seem to be asked to describe what they feel in terms of energy flow or whether they feel blockages in energy centers. Granted, self-report is notoriously iffy as a means of measuring results. It is not objective, thus, not, in itself, scientific. How we report our state of being may be colored by many filters, the placebo effect, for one: we may want to feel better, believe we’re supposed to feel better, thus report that we do indeed feel better. But there’s arguably no difference between the validity of asking research subjects if, after taking a certain drug, they “feel better” or “feel depressed” than in asking meditation research subjects if they’re experiencing the state of thoughtless awareness yet, or whether they can feel a specific blockage in the 5th chakra. One, it seems, is as subjective as the other. Experienced Sahaja practitioners can, in fact, feel the flow of energy, as well as pinpoint blockages in specific energy centers.
Meditation has also been criticized when its therapeutic effects dissipated because practice was discontinued. But this is also true of most all (if not all) therapies and self-regulation strategies, including, for example, psychotherapy or medications. Every mental health practitioner knows that patient adherence and compliance are notorious problems. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that meditation actually has a comparatively high “adherence” or regular, continuous practice rate. One meta-analytic review of 13 studies reported a mean completion rate of 85% (Baer, 2003). Follow-up studies found that 75% of former study participants were still practicing meditation 6 – 48 months later, and 56% were still practicing after three years (Kabat-Zinn, Massion, Hebert, & Rosenbaum, 1997; Miller et al., 1995).
But some Eastern spiritualists do not seem to appreciate Western attempts to discover which scientific mechanisms meditation may trigger, and there is already plenty of sound, hard evidence to establish that it does indeed trigger many different mechanisms within our bodily systems — respiratory, cardiac, neuroendocrine, to name a few. Western researchers don’t understand that lack of intellectual curiosity, if nothing else. They say: Isn’t self-discovery part of what meditation is supposed to be all about, after all?
For some people, science takes all the magic out of things. For others, science puts the magic back in things. Science and spirituality do not have to be mutually exclusive. Different strokes for different folks. Can it be as simple as that?
While there may be some element of truth in attitudes and stereotypes, they’re never always accurate and, in fact, are mostly inaccurate.
For the record, the practice of Sahaja meditation does not involve anti-psychology views, or eschew psychotherapy or the psychotropic medications that may accompany it. In general, Sahaja practitioners believe that it is not their place to judge, condemn, or attempt to control another person’s choices for healing and health. That sort of attitude is, in fact, not the Sahaja way.
Other Key Meditation Research Limitations
Early attempts by Western researchers to define meditation and prove its benefits haven’t always helped. Most assumed that meditation was, or must always be, a spiritual practice or a religion. Not true.
Some forms of meditation are not deeply spiritual in nature; others are. Some are spiritual but not religious. Still others can be practiced at the “secular” level, a basic level that focuses primarily on the experience and outcomes achieved by the practitioner, while also offering the opportunity to explore spirituality at more advanced levels for those who choose to. This is true of Sahaja meditation.
Sahaja is not just for mystics and monks. It’s for “regular” people, too. In the West, the practice of Sahaja distills the ancient meditation secrets of the Eastern mystics to a simple technique that combines the power of the inner Kundalini energy with American views of self-improvement, spirituality, self-realization, and ideally, enlightenment — it is truly the best of both worlds.
One does not have to be religious or spiritual or acquire a deep understanding or knowledge of its spiritual aspects to receive the psychological and health benefits. And being spiritual is not the same as being religious. For a deeper look at the distinctions between spirituality and religion, see Spirituality vs. Religion.
In the past, there has been a tendency to generalize all forms of meditation as being functionally the same practice and yielding the same benefits. They’re not and they don’t. Techniques vary widely. And while most all forms of meditation provide relaxation and stress relief in varying degrees, beyond that, their efficacy as a therapy for mental and physical health problems can vary tremendously, just as it can vary with frequency of practice.
Historically, many meditation studies have conceptual or methodological flaws such as bias, nonrandomness, no controls, or too few subjects. Assessment problems include a widespread reliance on self-report to measure results (versus quantifiable lab results in, e.g., blood serum) and short-term follow-ups. Some do not explicitly state the type or details of meditation used, and to date, there have been few comparisons between different types of meditation, or, for that matter, comparisons between meditation and other therapies. Most studies have investigated novice meditators and the effects of relatively small amounts of practice, even though the most compelling effects have, not surprisingly, been reported in experienced practitioners.
The prevailing models of meditation research and theory development tend to be limiting, distorting, and ethnocentric, as some researchers have noted (e.g., Kabat-Zinn, 2003). Eleanor Rosch (1999, p. 224) put it this way: “Yes, research on the meditation traditions can provide data to crunch with the old mind-set. But they have much more to offer, a new way of looking.”
The good news is that it’s getting better. More and more, meditation researchers are becoming aware of the vast differences between the types and degree of benefits offered by the various meditation techniques, and that when investigating effects, they must compare apples to apples.
How Meditation and Psychology Work
Much of the meditation research so far has focused on the first-order question: Does meditation work? But more recent research assumes that the answer is yes and focuses on: How does meditation work? More such research can only further our understanding of meditation’s benefits, strengthen the evidence that meditation should be taken seriously as a therapy for many mental and physical health problems, and guide researchers in structuring targeted meditation techniques. Interestingly, this correlates with the pharmaceutical company research philosophy for decades now: When we can figure out how something occurs, we can figure out how to make a targeted drug to cure it.
Explanations for how meditation works have thus far been split into one of three categories: metaphorical, mechanistic, and process…
Metaphors, Language and Cultural Differences
Cultural differences influence the language we use. Traditional Eastern meditation and healing terms are often metaphorical, whereas Western psychology tend to be more literal, demanding care and precision in language. Classic Eastern therapeutic metaphors include: purifying the mind of toxic qualities, freeing the mind of illusions and conditioning, awakening it from its usual trance, calming disturbances, rebalancing “mental” elements, unfolding innate potentials, enlightening individuals, and uncovering true identity (Walsh, 1999). The implication is that meditation sets in motion processes that are organic, developmental, therapeutic, and self-actualizing.
Researchers and therapists, on the other hand, drill deep down into, for example, conditioning and develop many different theories (e.g., such as classical, behavioral, etc.) to explain the various ways that conditioning takes hold of us and help structure a way to reverse the negative behaviors they cause. They might explore human identity through complex theories of “object relations,” self-concept, self-construction, self-categorization theory and so on. But the goals of meditation and psychology would be functionally be the same here.
Mechanistic explanations are common among Western researchers. While those “mechanisms” are actually somewhat metaphorical (even if not deliberately), the tone may suggest that the mind-brain is a machine. Western emotional/psychological mechanistic explanations of meditation include relaxation, exposure therapy (exposing anxious people to feared objects or contexts without danger), desensitization (becoming less sensitive to traumatic stimuli), deautomatization (of automatic thought processes), catharsis (relief from strong or repressed emotions), and counterconditioning (retraining conditioned behaviors) (Murphy & Donovan, 1997). Cognitive mechanisms include, for example, insight, self-monitoring, self-control, self-acceptance, and self-understanding (e.g., Baer, 2003). Physiological mechanisms include reduced arousal, modified autonomic nervous system activity, stress immunization, and (brain) hemispheric synchronization and laterality shifts (e.g., Cahn & Polich, 2006; Davidson et al., 2003).
See the difference between this language and “rebalancing mental elements” or “unfolding innate potentials?”
Mechanistic explanations imply that higher-order changes and processes can be understood in terms of lower-order ones; i.e., they attempt to explain phenomena in terms of the lower levels of a system, which can sometimes lead to inaccurate reductionism. Meditative effects are reduced to nothing but than the mechanisms themselves, which leads to inaccuracies; for example, describing meditation as self-hypnosis or as just a relaxation response (Benson, 1984).
Pathological reductionisms have included referring to meditation as dissociation. Psychoanalytic interpretations of meditation have included referring to meditation defensive regression.
You can see the potential dangers of trying to force all aspects of meditation into conventional Western research categories. Meditation will only continue to be misunderstood and misinterpreted.
Processes are somewhat less susceptible to inappropriate reductionisms. The process of refining awareness, for example, is central to therapeutic progress in both meditative practices and psychotherapies. Heightened awareness is one of the early benefits of Sahaja, the primary focus in Buddhist mindfulness and Taoist “internal observation” (Wong, 1997), the Sufi’s “watchfulness of the moment” and the Christian contemplative’s “guarding the intellect” (Walsh, 1999).
Meditation catalyzes certain developmental processes by restarting and/or accelerating them, an example of how mediation facilitates classic higher order processes. Often, meditation may, in fact, carry the metacognitive processes of heightened awareness and disidentification farther than psychotherapy, and in an automatic way that can be difficult to accomplish with deliberate thought.
Refinement of awareness is a necessary precondition for a further important meditative process: disidentification. Disidentification is the process by which awareness objectively, precisely observes, and therefore ceases to identify with, mental content such as thoughts, feelings, and images. During Sahaja meditation’s state of thoughtless awareness, our attention is focused inward on the flow of experience rather than on the contents of experience, allowing us to segregate awareness itself from the contents of awareness. Ultimately, this process of focusing inward with a nonreactive, nonjudgmental attitude can trigger dramatic shifts in our perspectives. This shifting of perspectives is, effectively, a therapeutic split of self from ego. The self becomes merely an observing self that can experience its true nature, empty of the contents of awareness such as the ideas, thoughts and feelings that comprise our sense of self.
This disidentification process is similar to concepts pioneered throughout history by Western psychologists: Piaget’s “decentration,” Safran’s “decentering,” Bohart’s “detachment,” Deikman’s “observing self,” Tart’s “dehypnosis,” Teasdale’s “metacognitive awareness,” Wilber’s “differentiation and transcendence,” and Kegan’s “de-embedding” (Wilber, 2000). Developmental psychologist Robert Kegan (1982, pp. 33–34) suggested that the process of disidentification “is the most powerful way I know to conceptualize the growth of the mind . . . and is as faithful to the self-psychology of the West as to the ‘wisdom literature’ of the East.”
The process of disidentification during meditation also allows us to detach from negative thoughts and emotions in a healthy way. For example, in meditation, the thought “I’m scared…” may arise, but even though we are aware of the thought, we don’t identify with it; i.e., view it as a valid statement about ourselves. We simply observe it in a nonreactive way, recognize it as merely a thought, and are unaffected by it. This dramatic heightening and continuity of awareness allows meditators to disidentify not just from distressing thoughts and feelings, but from all thoughts and feelings. It allows us to observe all experiences with imperturbable calm and equanimity, a state of consciousness referred to in Zen literature as “mind–body drop,” “calm stillness” in Taoism), and “divine apatheia” in Christian contemplation (Goleman, 1988).
You can see that, in many cases, the results of meditation and psychology may be the same, even if there are differences in how they work or in the language used to describe those processes.
One of meditation’s first great benefits is showing us that our usual state of mind may be far more underdeveloped, uncontrolled, and dysfunctional than we had ever imagined. In 1935, Freud (1935/1962, p. 252) shocked the Western world with his claim that “man is not even master in his own house, his own mind.” But meditators have been saying this for centuries, suggesting that the untrained mind is so unruly that “the wind is no wilder” (Prabhavananda & Isherwood, 1972, p. 85) and that this lack of control causes great psychological suffering and underlies pathology.
The first response of some meditators is shock at how distracted, out of control, and fantasy- or illusion-filled their normal state of consciousness was. Sahaja meditation can help heal much of this “normal” dysfunction. Perhaps the most radical of meditation’s implications involves psychological potentials and what Abraham Maslow (1971) famously called “the farther reaches of human nature.” Some meditation techniques can enhance many different psychological capacities, perhaps even beyond levels currently recognized by Western psychology. (For an in-depth look at self-actualization, see Self-/Actualization section.)
Both meditation and psychotherapy can enhance capacities such as attention, lucidity, freedom from distracting or negative thoughts and feelings, emotional intelligence, motivation, moral maturity.
Lucidity, thought & cognition.
Meditation is widely known to train attention, heighten and purify awareness, and offer unbroken lucidity. In Western terms, this is the transition from a peak to a plateau experience, and from an altered state to an altered trait (Maslow, 1971; Wilber, 2000). (See Self-/Actualization section.)
Cognitive therapies are devoted to the therapeutic power of recognizing and changing thoughts. Meditative traditions agree and tend to combine contemplative introspection with thought control. Cognitive therapy recognizes the possibility of brief “thought stopping.” However, meditative traditions suggest the possibility of learning to slow, and even to stop, the usually incessant flow of thoughts for prolonged periods, not by suppression but by deep calm. This makes it easier to disidentify from their self-hypnotic power. Calm, lucid awareness reveals depths of the psyche usually obscured by thought.
(See: Emotional Intelligence section.)
Equanimity can facilitate emotional transformation. We are able to experience provocative stimuli nondefensively, nonreactively, and with minimal psychological disturbance.
Equanimity overlaps but may extend beyond Western concepts of “affect tolerance” and “emotional resilience” to include not only tolerance but even serenity in the face of provocative stimuli.
Western psychologists have now moved beyond the once-dominant philosophical stance of psychological egoism to acknowledge altruism as a significant human motive, but many find that they don’t have effective tools to cultivate it. By contrast, meditative traditions have always aimed for motivational shifts such ad obscuring selfish desires.
Both meditative Western psychology traditions promote moral development and maturity as an essential result of practice. Psychotherapists help increase patient self-awareness and can help them develop along a moral trajectory — maturing from, for example, selfishness to empathy, compassion and care-giving. Meditation can enhance ethical motivation and behavior by, for example, sensitizing awareness to the costs of unethical acts (such as guilt in oneself and pain produced in others), reducing problematic motives and emotions (such as greed and anger), strengthening morality-supporting emotions (such as love and compassion), cultivating altruism, and identifying with others via transpersonal experience (Walsh, 1999).
Research findings suggest that some advanced meditators develop unusual or even unique capacities, implying that the extent to which certain psychological capacities can be developed through meditation has been underestimated (Walsh, 2006), lending support to Abraham Maslow’s provocative claim that “what we call ‘normal’ in psychology is really a psychopathology of the average, so undramatic and so widely spread that we don’t even notice it ordinarily.”
Eastern meditation and Western psychology are often pitted against each other. When differences are appreciated rather than scorned, Eastern meditative and Western systems can often be complementary and synergistic. For example, meditative traditions tend to lack many key areas of Western psychological expertise — either because they don’t want them, or because they don’t have the requisite skills or, perhaps, financial resources; for example, laboratory science, child development, psychopathology (cause and effect, disease process of mental health disorders), and psychodynamics (exploring conscious and unconscious motivations related to childhood experience). Meditation, however, may offer complementary theoretical understandings and encourage expanded frameworks for our understandings of consciousness and human development.
Growing numbers of therapists and meditation teachers have concluded that meditation and psychotherapy can be mutually facilitative and mutually enriching. Meditators are often said to progress more quickly in therapy, whereas psychotherapy — particularly by meditatively experienced therapists — may speed meditation progress (Germer et al., 2005).
Jack Kornfield, who is both a psychologist and a Buddhist Lovingkindness meditation teacher explained it this way: “For most people, meditation practice doesn’t ‘do it all’. . . There are many areas of growth (grief and other unfinished business, career and work issues, certain fears and phobias, early wounds, and more) where good Western therapy is, on the whole, much quicker and more successful than meditation. Does this mean we should trade meditation for psychotherapy? Not at all (1993, pp. 67, 68).”
Our psychological blocks can actually impede our capacity to be open to spiritual understanding and experience. Unresolved feelings from our past profoundly color our relationship with spiritual concepts, practices and experiences. Trauma, feelings of abandonment, isolation and a sense of betrayal in childhood, for example, can result in a failure to trust the divine or surrender to the unknown for adults who learned from a very young age that the world was not a safe place and that whatever “God” existed was not a god who would protect them from child abuse (Caplan, 2009).
On the other hand, it’s possible for someone to become so self-absorbed by his/her own psychological processing that it turns to narcissistic self-involvement, a dead-end street that will not bring about social ethical responsibility or the powerful capacity for compassion and wisdom that can be discovered through spiritual practice. For example, throughout history, we’ve seen revered spiritual leaders fall to scandal, leaving behind disappointed and disillusioned followers. We eventually discover that these spiritual teachers were victimized by their own psychological blindness. They assume that their great spiritual insight has resolved their psychological wounds when it hasn’t. Because they didn’t confront and heal the troubling aspects of their psyches, they remained blind to the wholeness of all that they are (Caplan, 2009).
Two Questions to Answer
There are two pressing questions that future research will hopefully answer: What is the comparative effectiveness of specific forms of meditation and psychotherapies (and pharmacotherapies) for healing specific pathologies and for facilitating different kinds of growth? And how can these approaches be best combined (Walsh, Shapiro, 2006)? We have some answers, but in order to fully answer these questions, many researchers believe that the relationship between Eastern meditation and Western psychology must advance through three stages: (Walsh et al, 2006):
- Mutual enrichment through pluralism and accommodation; that is, moving from assimilation (forcing novel ideas into preformed conceptual categories) to accommodation (expanding and enriching conceptual categories).
- An integrative stage in which the process of mutual enrichment, both theoretical and therapeutic, becomes increasingly systematic.
- An integral stage, in which the processes of mutual enrichment and integration lead to a comprehensive, coherent, and holistic conceptual framework that’s adequate for both meditative and psychological traditions.
These days, we live in a global community. Investigating meditative traditions with greater cultural and conceptual sensitivity allows for the possibility of a mutual enrichment of both the Eastern meditative traditions and Western psychology, enabling them to become partners in one of the greatest of human quests—the exploration, understanding, healing, and enhancement of the human mind. With greater knowledge comes greater open-mindedness and mutual exploration.
Perhaps the way to have viewed the relationship between meditation and psychology all along is that the two were destined to meet and hopefully, will eventually, if not fall in love, at least learn to cooperatively cultivate a fertile middle ground and go on to challenge, complement and enrich each other in ways that we’re only beginning to understand.
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