“When the body can be still, the mind can be still. Spirituality is what you do with those fires that burn within you.” Sister Elaine
Seven Reasons Why Meditation Doesn’t Work, And how to fix them.
by Eric Klein
We didn’t have air conditioning, when we were living in Chicago in the 1970s. So, on hot, humid summer nights, Devi and I would ride our bikes to the shores of Lake Michigan. After securing our bikes, we‘d head for the water.
The water was nice and cool. But, to enjoy it we had to move through the twigs, paper cups, and assorted debris that had accumulated at the water’s edge.
It’s the same with meditation. The deep waters of your inner mind are pure, clear, and refreshing. But, to get there you need to move through some inner. . . um. . . debris.
This debris isn’t life threatening. Just a bit messy. It’s made up of ideas, memories, sensations, misconceptions, and reasons. Reasons why meditation doesn’t work at least for you.
Here are some of the common reasons that people give. You may find some of them familiar, if you’ve gone for a swim in the waters of meditation. Even if you’ve just dipped your toe in.
1) “Meditation is self-centered.”
As meditation has become more mainstream, pictures of people (slim, beautiful people) sitting in lotus postures show up in all kinds of advertising for spas, exotic vacations, skin cream, perfume, and jewelry.
It’s easy to get the impression that meditation is just the latest fashion accessory. Like a big spiritual mirror that you gaze into while putting on organic makeup to cover any imperfections.
But, meditation is the opposite. Meditation is about taking your self much less seriously and much more lightly. And in the process opening more fully and creatively to life.
The practice of meditation reveals that most of what’s scurrying around in the mind isn’t that significant much less real. And that all the ideas about the self are more limiting than liberating. Meditation frees you from being overly preoccupied with protecting and preserving the self.
Through practice, you discover that there really is no hard and fast line between “me” and “life”.
You discover that you are part of life, not apart from life in any way. Thus, the practice of meditation shifts you from self centered to lite centered living. Whether your attention is turned within or without it’s all life.
2) “I don’t have time to meditate.”
The scattered mind never has time for what matters most. It’s busy, busy, busy. Driven by emotion fueled thoughts. The day is filled to overflowing with activities, demands, meetings, and requirements. There’s barely time to sit down for a meal much less to spend a few moments in silence and stillness.
In the mad rush to get more done, the mind becomes more fragmented and speedy.
When things do slow down like in a traffic jam or on a grocery line it’s intolerable. The mind rails against the waste of time and against slowing down. “There’s too much to do!!” it cries.
But, everyone has exactly the same amount of time each day: 1440 minutes.
It’s the experience of time that differs. The more scattered and sped up the mind the more time seems to slip through your fingers like sand. Through meditation, the mind learns to slow down. As it does so, the feeling of pressure lifts. And with it another veil lifts as well.
The veil that concealed the richness of the moment, lifts. Through meditation you touch and are touched by the richness of the present moment. You experience fullness of time which reveals that this moment yes this very moment) is always enough.
3) “My back hurts when I meditate.”
This is likely a technical, postural issue that can be handled with some simple information about how to sit. Here are some practical guidelines.
You can sit on the floor or on a chair.
The key is to keep your spine straight but not still. Allow the chin to be parallel to the ground. When seated on the floor, elevate your body on a firm cushion or folded blanket. This reduces strain on the back. Experiment with different heights of cushion.
If you sit on a chair, make sure it is firm and not too cushiony. You don’t want to sink into it. You want to sit upright.
Once you have assumed a seated posture find your physical center of gravity.
You do this by gently rocking from side to side. As you rock from left to right, feel into the core of your body. You will notice a physical sensation I call passing through the center of gravity as your body shifts from side to side.
Slow down the shifting and feel more deeply into that center of gravity as you pass through. Then reduce the side to side movement and gradually settle your body so that it is aligned along the center of gravity. Do this all by feeling inwardly and sensing that place of balance.
As you settle the body in the center of gravity feel your spine gently lengthening. The back of your skull lifts slightly and the chin is parallel to the ground. The base of the body is grounded.
Your posture is aligned along the center of gravity and the spine is effortlessly extended. Place eyes gaze gently at the root of the nose between the eyebrows
Sitting is a skill that becomes easier with practice.
4) “I’m not religious.”
It’s easy to assume that meditation is religious. When you think about monks, yogis, nuns, and other professionally religious people, concepts like meditation come to mind. And it’s true, that meditation or similar practices have been central to those on a religious quest.
But, does that mean that meditation is religious? Not really. Religions are based on articles of faith, on beliefs.
Meditation requires no beliefs. It’s based on practice and results. In this way, meditation is more like a science experiment than a religious exercise. You don’t need to believe anything in order to conduct an experiment. You just need to follow the protocol. Do the practice. It’s a self validating process. Follow the steps and see the results.
The practitioners who developed the meditation methods used their minds and bodies as laboratories. They conducted experiments in consciousness. They recorded their results. And passed them onto their students for validation testing.
Some of these experiments have stood the test of time. People have conducted these meditation experiments for thousands of years, with reliable results. It’s these tested and validated practices that have been passed from teacher to student for thousands of years.
So, whether you’re religious or not, doesn’t matter in terms of meditation. If you are religious, meditation will enrich your understanding of your faith. If you’re not, you‘ll discover that which is deeper than believing or not believing.
5) “My mind won’t get quiet.”
If you stop the average person on the street and ask them, “Is your mind basically quiet or filled with thoughts?” most will tell you, “Basically quiet.” But, sit them down on a meditation cushion for a few minutes without anything to distract them and bam most people are shocked to discover how noisy it is in there.
It’s not that meditation made their minds noisy. Rather, the practice revealed the noise that was already there. This revelation of the running, ranting mind is a movement forward on the path. Many people drop the practice at this point thinking, “I can’t meditate.” But, they are meditating! The practice is working by revealing the actual state of the conditioned mind. Don’t stop now. The key is to keep practicing. To stay with the process which will lead to the quieting of the mind chatter.
The mind isn’t quieted by willing or by effort. You can’t quiet the mind through will power. That would be like pushing down on a spring. The harder you push the more the spring pushes back. You quiet the mind in the same way that you allow a glass of muddy water to become clear. You just let the particles settle. When you don’t stir up the water the mud settles on its own.
It’s the same in meditation.
Meditation lets the mud, the noisy thoughts settle. The glass of muddy water becomes clear as gravity draws the mud together. The mind becomes clear as you shift from thinking about thoughts to being aware of what is arising. Just by being aware, present, and mindful of the activity of the mind it settles down.
6) “Meditation is . . . boring.”
I remember when my parents would take me, as a child, to watch the sunset. I didn’t get it. I couldn’t see the beauty. To me, the sunset was boring.
Being bored is a symptom of not paying attention. If you pay attention deeply to anything it becomes very, very interesting. Meditation, which is the practice of cultivating deep attention, dissolves boredom. As the mud of the mind settles, as you discover the richness of the present moment even something as simple as a breath becomes the doorway to gratitude, wonder, and joy.
But, on the other hand, meditation is actually quite boring. I mean, you’re sitting there breathing in and breathing out. What could be more boring? In, out, in, out. Or you’re repeating the same mantra over and over. It is kind of boring by design. As the surface mind gets bored, it settles down.
And in that settling, an awareness of all encompassing, and ever present silence emerges. A sense of undisturbed stillness. This stillness and silence infuse everything with aliveness and presence. Not boring at all”
7) “I don’t want to be weird.”
There are two reasons that practicing meditation can feel weird. One is neurological, the other more psychological.
Let’s start neurologically: doing anything unfamiliar can feel weird. Your neurological patterns get used to doing things a certain way. Putting your left leg in your pants before your right ones Brushing one side of your teeth before the other. Sitting in a certain chair and in a certain posture) to watch television. The list goes on.
So, when you change a pattern of behavior even in a positive direction it feels weird. Inside your brain, new neurons are firing.
New connections are being made. And old connections, old patterns, are being restrained. Subjectively it feels weird. The new neurological circuits aren’t totally grooved in yet. so you’re clumsy at the new pattern. And this clumsiness is where the weird feeling can turn more psychological.
Being clumsy can be embarrassing (even if you’re all by yourself). Even if you’re sitting there by yourself with your eyes closed you can still be “watching” what you’re doing and wondering, “Am I doing this right? Is this weird?”
Have you ever danced in front of the mirror? If you judge what your dancing it’s no fun. To enjoy the experience, you need to cut loose from any fixed ideas of what dancing should look like and even more so what you should look like.
It’s the same with meditation. Whether you want to or not, you have an idea about the kind of person who meditates. If you don’t think of yourself as that kind of person then when you meditate, you’ll feel weird. You’ll get in your own way.
But, if you relax, take a breath, and realize that your ideas about meditation are just that ideas. You don’t have to live up to these self imposed ideas of meditation. You can just cut loose and enjoy the process. When you do, you find a whole new and wonderful kind of weirdness.
But, one of the blessings of meditation is finding out that you indeed are weird. You’re weird in the best possible sense of the word. Because, the most ancient meaning of the word weird has to do with following your unique fate, your path through life. You’re weird if you follow your path and listen to the direction of your inner soul.
So, meditation, in this most basic, ancient sense, helps you be weird. Meditation helps you find your path. Through practice, you discover how to live your true life more fully and more joyfully.
Those are the seven reasons.
Along with ideas on how to move through them.
Because, there’s no reason to let a bit of debris stop you from enjoying a refreshing swim in the deep, clear, refreshing waters of your inner mind.
Ready for the next: step?
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The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?
Dr Miguel Farias and Dr Catherine Wikholm
My interest in meditation began at the age of six when my parents did a course on Transcendental Meditation. I didn’t realize it then, but I was effectively being introduced to the idea that meditation can produce all manner of changes in who we are and in what we can achieve. Mind-over-matter stories are both inspiring and bewildering, hard to believe yet compelling. They have stirred me deeply enough to dedicate almost two decades of my life researching what attracts some people to techniques like meditation and yoga and whether, like many claim, they can transform us in a fundamental way.
This book tells the story of the human ambition for personal change, with a primary focus on the techniques of meditation and yoga. Hundreds of millions of people around the world meditate daily. Mindfulness courses, directly inspired by Buddhist meditation, are offered in schools and universities, and mindfulness-based therapies are now available as psychological treatments in the UK’s National Health Service.
Many scientists and teachers claim that this spiritual practice is one of the most efficient and economic tools of personal change. Yoga is no less popular. According to a recent survey by the Yoga Health Foundation, more than 250 million people worldwide practise it regularly. Through yoga we learn to notice thoughts, feelings and sensations while working with physical postures. Often, yoga practice includes a period of lying or sitting meditation.
Psychologists have developed an arsenal of theories and techniques to understand and motivate personal change. But it wasn’t psychology that produced the greatest surge of interest of the twentieth century in this topic, it was meditation. By the 1970s millions of people worldwide were signing up to learn a technique that promised quick and dramatic personal change. Transcendental Meditation was introduced to the West by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and quickly spread after the Beatles declared themselves to be followers of this Indian guru. To gain respectability Maharishi sponsored dozens of scientific studies about the effects of Transcendental Meditation, in academic fields ranging from psychophysiology to sociology, showing that its regular practice changed personality traits, improved mood and wellbeing and, not least, reduced criminality rates.
The publicity images for Transcendental Meditation included young people levitating in a cross-legged position and displaying blissful smiles. I recall, as a child, staring at the photographs of the levitating meditators used in the advertising brochures and thinking ‘Can they really do that?’ My parents’ enthusiasm for meditation, though, was short-lived. When I recently asked my mum about it, she just said, ‘It was a seventies thing; most of our friends were trying it out.’
Like my parents’ interest research on meditation waned rapidly. Photos of levitating people didn’t help to persuade the scientific community that this was something worth studying. We had to wait almost thirty years before a new generation of researchers reignited interest in the field, conducting the first neuroimaging studies of Tibetan monks meditating, and the first explorations of the use of mindfulness in the treatment of depression. For yoga, too, there is increasing evidence that its practice can reduce depression?
Meditation and yoga are no longer taboo words in psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience departments. There now are dedicated conferences and journals on the topic and thousands of researchers worldwide using the most advanced scientific tools to study these techniques. Many of the studies are funded by national science agencies; just looking at the US federally funded projects, from 1998 to 2009, the number increased from seven to more than 1205. The idea of personal change is increasingly central to these studies. Recent articles show improvements in cognitive and affective skills after six to eight weeks of mindfulness, including an increase in empathy?
These are exciting findings. Meditation practices seem to have an impact on our thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Yet, these studies report only modest changes. But many who use and teach these techniques make astonishing claims about their powers. At the Patanjali Research Foundation in northern India, the world’s largest yoga research centre, I hear miraculous claims about yoga from the mouth of its director-guru, Swami Ramdev: ‘Yoga can heal anything, whether it’s physical or mental illness.’
Teasing fact from fiction is a major aim of this book.
The first part explores ideas about the effects of meditation and yoga, contrasting them with the current scientific evidence of personal change. The second part puts the theories to the test, we carry out new research and scrutinize both the upsides and downsides of these practices. We have dedicated a full chapter to the darker aspects of meditation, which teachers and researchers seldom or never mention.
Although this isn’t a self-help book, it attempts to answer crucial questions for anyone interested in contemplative techniques: can these practices help me to change? If yes, how much and how do they work? And, if they do change me, is it always for the better?
These questions have shaped a significant part of my own life. In my teenage years I believed that to seek personal growth and transformation was the central goal of human existence; this led me to study psychology. I wanted to learn how to promote change through psychological therapy, although it was only later, while undergoing therapy training, that I considered the subtlety and difficulties of this process. My undergraduate psychology degree turned out to not shed much light on our potential for transformation; it rarely touched on ideas about how to make us more whole, healed, enlightened, or just a better person.
But rather than giving up, I read more about the areas of psychology I wasn’t being taught like consciousness studies and started doing research on the effects of spiritual practices. When I decided it was probably a good idea to do a doctorate, I browsed through hundreds of psychology websites in search of potential supervisors; I found one at Oxford whom I thought was open minded enough to mentor my interests, and I moved to the city in 2000.
This is the pre-history of my motivation to write this book. Its history begins in the early summer of 2009, when Shirley du Boulay, a writer and former journalist with the BBC, invited a number of people to take part in the re-creation of a ceremony that blended Christian and Indian spirituality. Images, readings and songs from both traditions were woven together, following the instructions of Henry le Soux, a French Benedictine monk who went to live in India and founded a number of Christian ashrams that adopted the simplicity of Indian spirituality (think of vegetarian food and a thin orange habit)?
I met Catherine Wikholm, the co-author of this book, at this event. She had studied philosophy and theology at Oxford University before embarking on her psychology training, and was at the time doing research relating to young offenders. Catherine and I were both drawn to an elegant woman in her fifties called Sandy Chubb, who spoke in a gentle but authoritative manner. Sandy showed us a book she had recently published with cartoonish illustrations of yoga postures. I thought it was intended for children and asked her if kids enjoyed yoga. Sandy smiled and told us the book was meant for illiterate prisoners. That was the mission of the Prison Phoenix Trust, a small charity she directed: to teach yoga and meditation in prisons. Trying to escape my feeling of embarrassment, I praised the idea of bringing contemplative techniques to prisoners. ‘It must help them to cope with the lack of freedom,’ I suggested. Sandy frowned slightly.
‘That’s not the main purpose,’ she said. Although going to prison is a punishment, Sandy told us, with the help of meditation and yoga, being locked in a small cell can help prisoners realize their true life mission.
‘Which is?’ Catherine and I both asked at the same time. ‘To be saintly, enlightened beings,’ Sandy answered.
Catherine and I kept silent. We were mildly sceptical. But also intrigued. Sandy seemed to claim that meditation and yoga techniques could radically transform criminals. I went back to my office that same evening to search for studies of meditation and yoga in prisons and found only a handful. The results weren’t dramatic but pointed in the right direction, prisoners reported less aggression and higher self-esteem? Reading closely, I noticed there were serious methodological flaws: most had small sample sizes and none included a control group a standard research practice that ensures results are not owing to chance or some variable the researcher forgot to take into account.
I wanted to know more. If Sandy’s claims were true, if meditation and yoga could transform prisoners, this could have tremendous implications for how psychologists understand and promote personal change in all individuals, not just those who are incarcerated. Having no experience of prisons, I contacted Catherine to ask if she’d be interested in working with me on this topic.
‘l’d love to!’ she said, more enthusiastic than I imagine most would be at the prospect of interviewing numerous convicted criminals and in the process spending weeks behind bars. Having started working for the prison service in her early twenties, Catherine had a strong forensic interest, particularly in the treatment of young offenders. She was passionate about the rehabilitation of prisoners in general and was curious as to whether yoga and meditation might represent an alternative means of facilitating positive, meaningful change for those who were unable or unwilling to engage with traditional rehabilitative efforts, such as offending behaviour programs.
So Catherine and l arranged to meet with Sandy at the Prison Phoenix Trust. Walking through Oxford’s trendy Summertown, where the Trust is based, we wondered what the meeting would bring. On arriving at the offices, we received a warm welcome. Sandy gave us the guided tour of their floor of the building, which comprised four rooms: the office, where she and her colleagues had their desks; a dining room for communal meals; a meditation room with cushions on the floor; and, along a corridor, a room that was wall-to-wall lined with metal filing cabinets. These, Sandy explained, were full of the letters the Prison Phoenix Trust had received from prisoners, estimated at numbering more than ten thousand.
If we were intrigued before, we were now completely hooked. Our minds filled with questions, we sat down with Sandy as she began to reveal the unusual story of how a small charity had persuaded prison governors to let them teach meditation and yoga to a broad range of prisoners, including thieves, murderers and rapists.
This story made quite an impression on us. So much so, in fact, that it inspired us to dedicate much of the following two years to designing and implementing a study of the measurable effects of yoga and meditation on prisoners. The findings of our research (which we’ll reveal later on in the book) not only sparked a flurry of media interest, but inspired us to spend the two years after that writing this book.
Our initial focus on the potential of meditative techniques to transform the ‘worst of the worst’ broadened out, as we became increasingly interested in exploring its full potential. Might Eastern contemplative techniques have the power to change all of us? As we engaged with more and more research literature, the inspiring stories of change we uncovered compounded our broadened view of the potential of yoga and meditation. Our own personal experiences, such as those of my ongoing research and Catherine’s clinical psychology doctoral training and subsequent acquaintance with mindfulness-based therapies and their application within the NHS in turn increased our curiosity.
What began as a perhaps unlikely marriage of my interest in spirituality and Catherine’s in forensic and clinical psychology has evolved into a wider exploration of the science and delusions of personal change. Just as we worked on our research together, so we have written this book together. To reflect the dynamic process of our writing, with the combining of our ideas and to avoid any messy jumping back and forth between us as narrators we have chosen to write this book in first-person narrative, as a singular, joint ‘I’. Although inevitably it may sometimes be apparent which one of us is narrating at a particular point, if simply by virtue of our gender difference, we have sought to write as a shared voice. The personal stories, interviews and accounts depicted in this book are all drawn from our real experiences. However, when discussing any examples relating to therapeutic work, we have anonymized all names and identifying details.
Over the course of the book, we will examine the scientific evidence that actually exists for the claims of change that meditation, mindfulness and yoga practitioners, teachers and enthusiasts propagate.
We also bring together our own experiences as psychologists, one more research-oriented and one more practice oriented, as well as the stories of some of the thought-provoking characters we’ve encountered along our journey. All that is to come. But for now let us begin by letting you in on the unique story that started it all.
AN ASHRAM IN A CELL
‘If we forget that in every criminal there is a potential saint, we are dishonouring all of the great spiritual traditions. Saul of Tarsus persecuted and killed Christians before becoming Saint Paul, author of much of the New Testament. Valmiki, the revealer of the Ramayana, was a highwayman, a robber, and a murderer. Milarepa, one of the greatest Tibetan Buddhist gurus, killed 37 people before he became a Saint. We must remember that even the worst of us can change.’ Bo Lozoff (American prison reform activist and founder of the Prison Ashram Project and the Human Kindness Foundation)
Knocking on the door of a house in a quiet street in Oxfordshire, notepad and pen in hand, I stood and waited on the front step. A minute later the door opened. A smartly dressed, elderly lady smiled at me from inside.
‘Tigger?’ I asked. ‘Yes, do come in,’ she replied.
Still full of life at ninety years old, Tigger Ramsey-Brown was a pleasure to interview. I was there to find out from her more about the story of her late younger sister, who had founded the Prison Phoenix Trust. Over cups of tea in her sunny conservatory, Tigger began vividly to recount the story of her sister and how she had started the Trust around thirty years previously.
In the beginning
Tigger pointed out that if we were going to go right to the start, this story actually begins somewhat earlier, with the marine biologist and committed Darwinist Sir Alister Hardy. At one time a Professor of Zoology at Oxford University, Hardy had happened to teach Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist. Knighted for his work in biology, Hardy had a strong interest in the evolution of humankind, developing novel theories such as the aquatic ape hypothesis (which proposes that humans went through an aquatic or semi-aquatic stage in our evolution).
But he was also particularly interested in the evolution of religion and religious experience. Hardy viewed humans as spiritual animals, theorizing that spirituality was a natural part of our human consciousness. He mooted that our awareness of something ‘other’ or ‘beyond’ had arisen through exploration of our environment and he wanted to explore this further.
However, aware that fellow scientists and academics were likely to consider his interest in researching spirituality unorthodox, he waited until he retired from Oxford University before he delved deeper and founded the then-called Religious Experience Research Unit (RERU) at Manchester College, Oxford. (It is now the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre and is based in Wales.)
The goal of Hardy’s research was to discover if people today still had the same kind of mystical experiences they seemed to have had in the past. He began his study by placing adverts in newspapers, asking people to write in with their mystical experiences, in response to what became known as ‘The Hardy Question’: ‘Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?’
‘Thousands of people replied to the adverts, writing about their dreams and spiritual experiences. These responses were compiled into a database to enable researchers to analyze the different natures and functions of people’s religious and spiritual experiences. This is where Ann came in,’ Tigger told me. And so it was that in the mid-1980s in Oxfordshire, a woman named Ann Wetherall spent her days collecting and categorizing people’s dreams, visions and other spiritual experiences.
Looking for a link
Over time, as she examined the letters, Ann began to wonder if there was a common denominator in the accounts.
She noticed that it didn’t seem to matter whether someone was religious or atheist, but, more often than not, it was people who were feeling hopeless or helpless who reported a direct experience of spirituality.
Ann hypothesized that imprisonment might be a context that particularly inspired such despondent feelings and that it therefore might also trigger spiritual experiences. She got in touch with convicted murderer turned sculptor Jimmy Boyle, one of Scotland’s most famous reformed criminals. Boyle helped her to get an advert published in prison newspapers, asking for prisoners to write in about their religious or spiritual episodes. She got quite a response prisoners in their dozens wrote in to her describing their unusual experiences. Many of them had never mentioned these to anyone before and had wondered if they were going mad.
‘Ann wanted to write back and reassure them that they weren’t, and that these were valid spiritual experiences, which could be built on but the Alister Hardy Foundation did not reply to letters,’ Tigger explained. ‘That’s why Ann broke away from the research, so that she could start corresponding with the prisoners who were writing in, and offer support.
Because of their confinement in cells and separation from the outside world, Ann thought that prisoners’ experience was perhaps rather similar to that of monks. While for prisoners this withdrawal from society was not voluntary, she believed that they too could use their cell as a space for spiritual growth.’
‘What was her interpretation of spiritual growth?’ I asked.
‘Not only becoming more in touch with a greater power, but also becoming more aware of inner feelings and thoughts, as well as more connected and sensitive to other people’s needs,’ Tigger explained.
‘And the means of bringing about this kind of change?’ I asked, already pre-empting the answer…
‘Through meditation, of course.’
From spiritual experience to spiritual development
Tigger explained that she and Ann had spent their childhoods in India, growing up among Buddhist monasteries. Because of this upbringing, Ann had had a lifelong involvement with meditation, and believed that prisoners could benefit from learning it. In her letters back and forth to prisoners, she began sharing with them what she knew about meditation, in order to encourage and support their spiritual development.
Over the next couple of years, Ann’s correspondence with convicts came to strengthen her belief that prisoners had real potential for Spiritual development. ‘She thought they had a terrific spirituality, a hunger that wasn’t being met,’ Tigger explained, as our conversation moved onto Ann’s decision to set up a charitable trust, the Prison Ashram Project (now the Prison Phoenix Trust).
Founded in 1988, the organization was at first very small, comprising just Ann and three other volunteers, who wrote to prisoners, encouraging them to use their spiritual experiences as a springboard for future spiritual development.
‘You are more than you think you are’ was the project’s frequent message.
As the name suggests the Prison Ashram Project had the central premise that a prison cell can be used as an ashram, a Hindi word that refers to a spiritual hermitage, a place to develop deeper spiritual understanding through quiet contemplation or ascetic devotion.
Hermitage is not only an Eastern practice in Western Christian tradition, a monastery is a place of hermitage, too, because it is partially removed from the world. Furthermore, the word ‘cell’ is used in monasteries as well as in prisons, and there are a surprising number of similarities between the living conditions of monks and prisoners. Both live ascetic lives filled with restriction and limitation. Both monks and prisoners are able to meet their basic needs (but little more), both desist from sensual pleasures and the accumulation of wealth, and both follow a strict daily schedule.
Despite these parallels, however, there is undeniably a big difference in how monks and prisoners come to live in their respective cells. For monks living communally in monasteries, as well as hermits who live alone, living ascetically is an intentional choice, aimed at enabling them to better focus on spiritual goals. But for prisoners withdrawing from the world is not their choice; rather, it is imposed upon them as punishment. Which leads to the question: can involuntary confinement really open a door to inner freedom and personal change? Ann Wetherall believed so.
Being confined to a cell for much of the day, even against free will, could be a catalyst for spiritual development. The conditions were conducive; all that anyone needed was a radical shift in thinking. Rather than punishment, incarceration could be reconceived of as an opportunity for positive transformative experience. Prisoners had lost their physical liberty, but they could nevertheless gain spiritual freedom. Ann thought that meditation was the ideal tool with which prisoners could build spiritual growth, requiring only body, mind and breath.
So far, so good. But as Tigger talked something seemed to me to be a distinct obstacle to peaceful meditation behind bars: the undeniable fact that prisons are busy, noisy places. Granted, there might be some similarities between prisons, monasteries and spiritual retreats, I thought, but surely finding peace and quiet in a prison would be a bit of a mission impossible. Wouldn’t that render any attempt to meditate a bit futile?
‘No.’ Tigger smiled. ‘Ann believed this actually increased the importance and worth of meditation practice; the practice would enable prisoners to find a sense of peace despite their surroundings.’
As it turned out Ann was not the first to think of encouraging prisoners’ spiritual development through in-cell meditation. A couple of years after setting up the Prison Ashram Project, she heard about Bo Lozoff, a spiritual leader and prison reform activist doing similar work in the USA.
Curiously, his organization was also called the Prison Ashram Project. Bo first had the idea that a prison cell could be a kind of ashram when his brother-in-law was sentenced to prison for drug smuggling. At the time Bo and his wife Sita were living at an ashram in North Carolina. There, their daily routine involved waking early, wearing all white, working all day without getting paid, abstaining from sex and eating communally. Visiting his brother-in-law in prison, Bo realized there were remarkable parallels between their day-to-day lives.
Around the same time he came across a book by renowned spiritual teacher Ram Dass, entitled Be Here Now. The combination of these two events inspired Bo and Sita to set up their own Prison Ashram Project in 1973, in cooperation with Ram Dass.
Just like Ann, they had begun corresponding with prisoners, offering encouragement and instruction in meditation and also in yoga. They also sent prisoners copies of Ram Dass’s book, along with the book that Bo himself went on to write: We’re All Doing Time A Guide for Getting Free. The central concept of this book is that it’s not only prisoners who are imprisoned, but that we are all ‘doing time’ because we allow ourselves to be so restricted by hang-ups, blocks and tensions. The message is that through meditation and yoga we can all learn to become free.
The birth of the Prison Phoenix Trust
Not long after meeting Bo, Ann changed her charity’s name to the Prison Phoenix Trust (PPT), in part because she was concerned that the word ‘ashram’ might prove an obstacle for the prison service. She was keen to step things up a notch from written correspondence and start setting up meditation and yoga workshops in prisons themselves. However, even with the new name, prison governors and officers were wary of the charity’s efforts. The Trust tried to get into prisons through the Chaplaincy; however, here too there was a surprising amount of resistance.
It’s worth remembering that in the late 1980s, prison chaplains were almost all Anglican. At that time the Anglican Church was still suspicious of practices such as meditation, which when compared with contemplation or silent prayer seemed ‘unChristian’. Many ministers thought that meditation centred on a spirituality that might be Hindu, Buddhist or even evil (stemming from the notion that to silence the mind also means making it available for the devil).
A 2011 article in the Daily Telegraph highlighted an extreme example of Christian opposition to yoga and meditation, reporting how a Catholic priest named Father Gabriele Amroth, appointed the Vatican’s chief exorcist in 1986, had publicly denounced yoga at a film festival where he had been invited to introduce The Rite (a film about exorcism, starring Anthony Hopkins): ‘Practising yoga is Satanic, it leads to evil just like reading Harry Potter,’ the priest is reported as stating, to an audience of bemused film fans?
Of course, not all devout Christians share such concerns that Christianity and Eastern spiritual practices are incompatible. Offering me another biscuit Tigger revealed the next chapter of her sister’s tale, wherein Ann would join forces with ‘a very forceful and very amazing character’.
A CATHOLIC ZEN MASTER
‘Spirituality is what you do with those fires that burn within you.’ Sister Elaine
Thousands of miles away from Oxford and Ann’s fledgling charity lived a Catholic nun. As well as being a nun, Sister Elaine was a Zen master. She grew up in Canada, where in her youth she became a professional classical musician for the Calgary Symphony Orchestra. At the age of thirty, however, she realized her true calling and joined the convent of Our Lady’s Missionaries in Toronto. In 1961, after several years at the convent, she was sent to Japan for her first assignment as a Catholic missionary. Her mission was to set up a Conservatory and Cultural Centre in Osaka, where she would teach English and music to Japanese people, as well as to baptise as many of them as possible.
In order to get to know the Japanese people better, she began to practise Zen Buddhism. She started zazen (sitting meditation) and koan study, under the guidance of Yamada Koun Roshi, a well-known Zen master from the Japanese Sanbo Kyodan order. Perhaps surprisingly, it did not matter to him that Sister Elaine was a Catholic nun with no intention of becoming a Buddhist. Yamada Koun Roshi did not draw a division between different people or religions, and similarly neither does Sister Elaine, who maintains, ‘There is no separation. We make separation?
Devoted to her new discipline, Sister Elaine went on to spend some time living with Buddhist nuns in Kyoto, where the daily regime involved ten hours a day of sitting in silence.
To call the koan study lengthy would be an understatement; it took her nearly two decades of studying with her Zen teacher before she was made a roshi. This title, which translates literally as ‘old teacher’, marks the top echelon of Zen teachers. There are an estimated only 100 roshis worldwide. Very few of them are Westerners, but in 1980 Sister Elaine finally became one of them, an accredited Zen teacher of the Sanbo Kyodan order. Her achievement made her the first Canadian, and certainly the first Catholic nun, to be recognized as one of the world’s highest-ranking teachers of Zen.
In 1976, after 15 years in Japan, Our Lady’s Missionaries back in Toronto transferred Sister Elaine to the Philippines. This was during the worst years of the Marcos regime, and Sister Elaine was to be involved with animal husbandry. However, she did more than merely raise livestock. Once in the Philippines she set up a zendo (Zen meditation centre), for the Catholic Church in Manila. Word spread about her work and a leading dissident, Horacio ‘Boy’ Morales, who had headed the New People’s Army against the Marcos dictatorship, came to hear of her. Held as a political prisoner at the Bago Bantay detention centre, Morales asked Sister Elaine to come to prison to teach meditation to him and a group of fellow prisoners, each of whom had, like him, been tortured. His hope was that the practice could help them to cope with the stress of imprisonment and find inner peace.
Despite the hostility of the authorities and worrying reports of other prison visitors ‘vanishing’, Sister Elaine spent four-and-a-half years teaching meditation to those prisoners every week. During that time she witnessed a remarkable change: the prisoners transformed from being angry, tense men, trembling from torture, to being calm. This convinced her both of the therapeutic power of silent meditation and of the potential for prisoners to develop spiritually while incarcerated.
Sister Elaine’s life makes for quite an unusual story, and her work in the Philippines caught the attention of the media and subsequently of Ann Wetherall. Leaning forward in her seat, Ann’s sister, Tigger, told me of the unexpected events that would subsequently unfold.
In 1992, four years after founding the Prison Phoenix Trust, Ann discovered she had terminal cancer. Coming to terms with this news, Ann felt fearful for the prisoners she was involved with; what would happen to her charity after she was gone? She had heard of Sister Elaine and wrote to her, asking if she would consider taking over as director after she died. Sister Elaine flew over from the Philippines to spend a week with Arm to try to come to a decision. Shortly after returning home, she phoned Ann to accept her offer, telling her ‘don’t die until I get there’.
Sadly, Ann passed away while Sister Elaine was on her way back to England. Over the six years Sister Elaine was director, the idea that yoga and meditation are beneficial for prisoners became increasingly accepted among prison governors and officers. They might not have been as interested in the potential spiritual development of prisoners, but many acknowledged the range of other, more down-to-earth benefits: prisoners doing yoga and meditation were reportedly calmer, slept better and felt less stressed and so were easier to work with.
While, like Ann, Sister Elaine believed that meditation was the key to stilling the mind, incorporating yoga into the classes was important: when the body can be still, the mind can be still.
Aged 75, Sister Elaine left the Trust not to retire, but to return to her native Canada to found a similar organization called Freeing the Human Spirit, based in Toronto.
In the years since Sister Elaine’s departure, the Prison Phoenix Trust (PPT) has continued to develop its work, with classes now running in the majority of UK prisons. Reflecting on the Trust’s progress, Sandy Chubb, the PPT’s subsequent director, remarked to me with a smile, ‘Yes, gone are the days when yoga teachers were branded yoghurt pots.’
Hearing the stories about Ann and Sister Elaine, so vividly recounted to me by Tigger and others, including the Trust’s current director Sam Settle, it made sense to me that yoga and meditation could lead to personal change in prisoners. Certainly the PPT had a whole lot of anecdotal evidence attesting to its benefits. Over the course of 25 years, PPT letter-writers have received more than 10,000 replies from prisoners reporting the positive effects of these techniques. The benefits range from increased self-esteem, better sleep and reduced dependence on drugs, medication or cigarettes, to improved emotional management and reduced stress.
Anecdote or evidence
I was invited to come and have a look through the filing cabinets that contained these letters, the amount of correspondence astounded me. Yet despite all those positive responses, as a psychologist I couldn’t help but be a little sceptical, testimonials are all very well, but what was the empirical evidence that yoga and meditation can help incarcerated criminals change for the better? Searching scientific databases I discovered there was very little rigorous research out there into the measurable psychological effects of these practices on prison populations.
The majority of studies that did exist focused specifically on meditation with some interesting results. Research into the effects of Transcendental Meditation on criminals had been taking place since the 1970s. For example, a study by US researchers Abrams and Siegel found that those prisoners who received a 14-week course of TM training showed a significant reduction in anxiety, neuroticism, hostility and insomnia compared with the control group. This would seemingly constitute early evidence for the rehabilitative effects of TM. However, the study was criticized on the grounds that it had inadequate controls, limiting the conclusions we can draw from the findings and calling into question the authors’ somewhat liberal interpretation of their statistical results.
More recent studies using other meditation techniques also yielded some promising evidence. In these studies, researchers concluded that meditation led to such positive results as improved psychosocial functioning”, a reduction in substance abuse, and decreased recidivism rates?
However, while all that sounds really promising, most of this research also had serious shortcomings. For example, sample sizes were usually very small, there was not a control group, or the research drew evidence only from questionnaire measures.
I realized that if we were to draw any realistic conclusions about whether or not yoga and meditation are effective in bringing about measureable psychological changes in incarcerated criminals, we needed better research evidence. And so the seeds were sown for our Oxford Study, the journey and findings of which we reveal in Chapter 8. While this was in the planning, I wanted to gain a deeper understanding about the PPT’s rationale for encouraging prisoners to practise yoga and meditation, and their conceptualizations of personal change.
While the PPT does believe that yoga and meditation can lead to beneficial psychological effects in prisoners, what they’re really interested in is the possibility of a radical ‘self-change’. This involves a significant shift in perspective. Sandy Chubb told me that in her experience (of teaching yoga in prisons), prisoners are lovely to work with. This didn’t surprise me all that much we all tend to be co-operative when we’re getting to do something we want to do.
What did surprise me was the comment that followed: Sandy told me that ‘prisoners are all perfect’.
Perfect is certainly not the adjective most of us would choose to describe murderers, rapists and paedophiles; for many it’s perhaps even the antonym of the word they would use. I needed Sandy to clarify. ‘What’s perfect about them?’ I asked.
The answer appears to lie in Sandy’s spiritual worldview. Like many others who believe in a universal spirituality, Sandy recognizes the divine nature of each of us including criminals and is convinced of the interconnectedness of all things. She smiles serenely when she tells me what to her is a simple, obvious truth: ‘We are a whole creation that works dynamically.’
The concept of unity or non-duality is a central premise in some Eastern spiritual belief systems, and one that effectively eliminates the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality that most of us have in relation to convicted criminals. Early into my interview with Sam Settle, the current director of the PPT and a former Buddhist monk, I encountered the same belief: ‘lf prisoners realized that we are all connected,’ Sam told me, ‘then they would not commit crimes.’
So while reducing re-offending is not an asserted aim of the PPT, it is considered likely to occur as a side-effect of spiritual growth. The hypothesis is that it is criminals’ mistaken idea of separateness that allows them to act in a harmful way towards others. From Sandy and Sam’s perspective, there is no ‘other’, and there are no ‘bad’ people; we are all part of the same perfect whole and meditation and yoga can help people to realize this.
Later in the book I will discuss how many people share this perspective, people who believe that not just individual but worldwide change is possible, if only there are enough people meditating.
While we could dismiss some of these ideas about the transformative potential of meditation and yoga for prisoners as utopian, Romantic, or LaLa-Land spirituality, we can also consider them in a purely secular sense, in terms of psychological and behavioural changes.
But, even if we cast aside, for now, the spiritual dimension, the notion that yoga and meditation can produce meaningful change in prisoners might still be considered somewhat ‘out there’. The very idea of the possibility of personal change is itself a loaded topic, especially in the context of prisons. Young repeat offenders are often labelled hopeless cases, written off by the time they have barely left their teens, undermining the ethos of rehabilitation that should be central to the prison system. However, for many offenders there are myriad factors that may obstruct attempts to rehabilitate not only in terms of overcoming backgrounds of adversity, but also in terms of their perceived (lack of) prospects for the future.
The institution of home
For many who have lived in prisons from an early age, the prospect of going outside is daunting.
I once worked with a prisoner, ‘John’, who was serving his tenth prison sentence at the age of only 21 years old. He attended every session of the offending behaviour program I was facilitating, only to in the final session suddenly become aggressive and disruptive to the point where he had to be removed from the group. Talking to him afterwards, trying to understand why he had sabotaged something that could have helped him towards securing an earlier release date, he admitted he was scared of being released. ‘There is nothing for me outside,’ he said, visibly upset.
When John was a young child, one of his parents murdered the other; he went on to spend the rest of his childhood in numerous short-term foster care placements. Angry and distrusting of people, he would repeatedly run away from them. He committed his first offence aged ten and received his first custodial sentence aged 15. The frequency of his impulsive crimes meant that he had spent the majority of the past six years behind bars. There were no family or friends waiting for him on the outside. The uncertainty of how to build a meaningful life, alone, in the ‘real world’ was overwhelming. Prison was all he felt he knew.
All staff members working in prisons from officers, to psychologists, to governors are acutely aware that changing prisoners can be extraordinarily difficult but it’s not impossible. In my own work with young male offenders, I lost count of the number of times I heard ‘he’ll never change’ from prison officers, who generally would have little idea of that individual’s backstory and the factors that contributed to his offending behaviour. Often the prisoners in question were boys still in their teens, some of them coming from such difficult backgrounds that it would have been a miracle if they hadn’t ended up in prison.
The desire to reform is often unsupported, sometimes owing to budget restrictions, but other times owing to a lack of belief. Changing is hard. And it’s even harder without a helping hand.
The support of others, whether friend, therapist or institution can be fundamental in whether or not we succeed in bringing about a desired change. Feeling that others believe in us can significantly boost our sense of self-efficacy. Feeling that others don’t believe in us at all undermines our self-belief so that we may start to feel a dramatic waning of our own confidence and motivation to try to change.
It was a Thursday afternoon and I was on my lunch break, in between research interviews at a West Midlands prison. I was accompanied by an officer in his late fifties, who had been assigned to facilitate the interviews; escorting prisoners from the wings to the interview room. As our break drew to a close, the officer suddenly deviated from his impromptu monologue on the joys of pigeon fancying, my knowledge of which had substantially increased over the hour, to ask whether I really thought that yoga and meditation would do anything at all for prisoners.
‘Well,’ I replied, ‘we think it might. There’s evidence that it works outside of prisons to reduce stress and increase positive emotions. So it may help prisoners to manage their emotions better and improve their self control, which might also reduce their aggression.’
‘Ha!’ said the officer. ‘I doubt it.’
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘I don’t think any of these can change,’ he told me. ‘I’m a firm believer that leopards never change their spots.’
It wasn’t just yoga and meditation the officer was dismissing as futile. He went on to say that he thought nothing could be done to change prisoners for the better; each and every one of them was a hopeless cause. ‘No matter what,’ he told me, ‘they will always revert back to what they are. It’s like a man who used to be a philanderer; he could get married to a woman and be faithful for, let’s say, ten years, but in the end, he’ll always cheat again.’
My attempts to debate failed miserably. When I maintained that I did think we could rehabilitate prisoners, he delivered his closing argument: ‘Well I’m older than you and I’ve met quite a lot of different people, so I think I know.’
Fortunately, this old-style officer is not representative of the majority of prison staff I have encountered. Over the last twenty years, a number of accredited offending behaviour programs (psychological group interventions that aim to reduce re-offending) have been developed that have been shown to be effective in bringing about improvements in prisoner behaviour, such as reducing aggression?
Despite this positive progress, with the reduction-rate for recidivism being generally around 10 per cent for program-completers, there is still clearly room for new and additional approaches particularly as many prisoners are reluctant or unable to engage with psychological treatment at all.
Arriving at a recent meeting at HMP Shrewsbury, l was escorted by a female officer who gave me a quick overview of the prison. She told me that the population was mostly sex offenders and that it was the most overcrowded prison in the country, adding, ‘We’re full of bed blockers.’
‘Bed blockers?’ I asked.
She explained that these are prisoners who had been through the sex offenders treatment program, but for one reason or another hadn’t been moved on to a different prison. The result was that they were taking up spaces that other, as yet untreated, offenders could use.
However, the main problem at Shrewsbury was not the ‘bed blockers’, who had accepted their offences and received treatment, but the many sex offenders who were in denial, and so could not be treated. Owing to the nature of their offences, such prisoners may be limited in what activities they can undertake during their sentences. Typically, for their own protection, sex offenders are segregated from ‘mainstream’ prisoners and even with good behaviour are not deemed suitable for outside work.
HMP Shrewsbury was one of the prisons that participated in our own research study. This prison had by far the biggest number of prisoners keen to do yoga and meditation, many more than we could actually manage to interview during the time we had allocated there.
As I interviewed prisoner after prisoner, all expressing a desire to do the yoga classes, it seemed to me that it could be possible that these techniques if effective could represent an alternative way to encourage positive personal change in prisoners whom the system might otherwise not be able to reach. Why? Because practising meditation and yoga doesn’t involve asking probing questions about offences of which prisoners may be deeply ashamed, feel in denial of, or simply not yet ready to address.
Sandy confirmed the particular utility of yoga and meditation for this demographic: ‘Not only is silence therapeutic and inclusive, it’s also safe for people with addiction and sex-offending histories.’ On the surface yoga is a physical activity, with desirable physiological benefits; it’s unthreatening, non-blaming and doesn’t require the admission of guilt. In this way it is possible that prisoners who would otherwise avoid explicit attempts to ‘change’ their behaviour, may nevertheless engage with a technique that could anyway bring about deep, personal transformation.
FROM MONSTER TO BUDDHA
The concept of a prison cell as an ashram is an idea that captures the imagination, and the paradox of finding spiritual freedom through the loss of physical freedom is intriguing. Might there actually be truth in this unusual idea, can daily yogic sun salutations and deep breathing really make convicted rapists and murderers less violent and impulsive?
While it’s unlikely that yoga and meditation could replace traditional rehabilitative approaches, it seems possible that they may have a unique ability to reach prisoners on a different level: to make them feel more at peace, and more valued and connected. Bo Lozoff summarizes the aim of organizations that teach contemplative techniques to prisoners worldwide when he says that we should ‘allow for transformation, not merely rehabilitation’.
In other words the change that charities such as his and the PPT seek to encourage goes far beyond the cessation of offending behaviour; we are talking about a radical change in worldview. The PPT’s current director Sam Settle describes this transformation as ‘the forgetting of one’s self as one lives the forgetting of me’. In essence moving from focusing on oneself as a separate individual to seeing oneself as part of a larger whole.
Whether or not we share these ideas about the possibility of the transformation of convicted criminals from sinner to saint, from ‘monster’ to Buddha on a theoretical and anecdotal level, there does seem to be reason to think that yoga and meditation can bring about positive personal change in prisoners.
In Chaoter 8 we reveal how we put that theory to the test, but first let’s take a look at what science can tell us about the potential of Eastern techniques for bringing about meaningful change not just for prisoners, but for any of us.
SET LIKE PLASTER
‘Change is an odd process, almost contradictory: you want it, but don’t want it,’ said my clinical supervisor, playing with his curled beard and looking at me. What was he talking about? I had started my training in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) eight weeks earlier and was discussing my first client, ‘Mary’, a woman in her thirties, whose husband had died while on a family holiday. He had killed himself jumping off a cliff, right in front of his wife and their young child. Six months after the incident, Mary found herself depressed and sleepless.
‘I felt shock and disbelief,’ she told me, remembering. ‘I felt like I had been disembowelled and bricks sewn inside. I had to register his death the next day and felt terrible anger at having to describe myself as a widow, 24 hours after I had been a wife. Bureaucracy shouldn’t require that, you know?’ I nodded but felt tense, eager to show empathy. For the past eight weeks, l’d spent most . . .
The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?
by Dr Miguel Farias and Dr Catherine Wikholm
get it at Amazon.com
Dr Miguel Farias writes about the psychology of belief and spiritual practices, including meditation. He was a lecturer at the University of Oxford and is now the leader of the Brain, Belief and Behaviour group at Coventry University.
Dr Catherine Wikholm is a Clinical Psychologist registered with the Health Care and Professions Council (HCPC) and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society (BPS). She completed her undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Theology at Oxford University, before embarking on her psychology training and gaining a Postgraduate Diploma in Psychology, Masters in Forensic Psychology and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Catherine was previously employed by HM Prison Service where she worked with young offenders. She went on to work alongside Dr Miguel Farias at the Department of Experimental Psychology, Oxford University, on a randomised controlled trial that looked at the psychological effects of yoga and meditation in prisoners. The findings of this research study sparked the idea for ‘The Buddha Pill’, which she co-wrote while completing her doctorate. Catherine currently works in a NHS child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) in London, UK.