THE SCIENCE OF MEDITATION AND YOGA
Meditation is like cooking — and, you know, in cooking scum comes up to the surface.
Meditation and yoga are no longer part of a hippie niche but mainstream practices used by millions in the west to relax, find peace or healing. They have been adapted from spiritual practices used in Buddhist monasteries and Hindu ashram to suit the needs of our busy lives. But what are the underlying assumptions behind these practices and what does research tell us about its effects on our minds? After exploring the effects of meditation and yoga in prisons (Yoga improves behavioural control ), I spent 3 years examining almost half a century of studies on meditation.
I struggled with what I found: the idea of meditation as a cure-for-all is a very recent invention, partly propagated by scientists who turned a blind eye to its potential harms, its association with violence, and the tremendous individual differences of its effects.
Find out more about our findings here: The Buddha Pill
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF ATHEISM
I was a born in a time when the majority of young people had lost their belief in God, for the same reason their elders had had it: without knowing why.
Fernando Pessoa (Book of Disquiet)
Believing is a basic process of making sense of the world, a way of mapping out reality so we can locate ourselves and predict where we’re going. Spiritual beliefs map reality (where we come from and where we’re going) and provide a moral compass (what are good and bad deeds), as well as offering comforting in times of need.
Does this mean that atheists are losing out on something? Potentially no, I argue, because they will endorse other beliefs (such as science or humanism).
I have summarised some of the research on the psychology of atheism and my own views in this chapter: The Psychology of Atheism .
I have also done some work on how believing in science may buffer the effects of stress and anxiety: Scientific Faith .
I hope this work will allow psychologists to think harder about why beliefs matter, and more generally raise awareness of how our beliefs may quite literally shape how we see the world.
MODERN SPIRITUALITY: IMPLICATIONS FOR PERSONALITY AND MENTAL HEALTH
There are a thousand different ways of exploring inner reality. Go where your intelligence and intuition lead you. Trust yourself.
William Bloom, The New Age
I spent part of my doctoral time in Oxford hopping about New Age centres, channelling sessions and Pagan rituals. My original aim was to investigate how modern spiritual practices changed an individual’s cognition but, as I went along, I became increasingly drawn towards different questions — are these people a bit unusual or actually insane?
Are spiritual practices changing people or simply reinforcing a personality disposition to experience non-ordinary states of consciousness?
PAIN AND RELIGION
Very pleasing to Me, dearest daughter, is the willing desire to bear every pain and fatigue, even unto death, for the salvation of souls, for the more the soul endures, the more she shows that she loves Me.
Catherine of Siena
Religious lore all over the world — from Indian fakirs laying on beds of nails to the silent martyrdom of Christian saints — suggest that faith or certain spiritual techniques can alleviate or make one less sensitive to pain. Is this more than a myth?
Some years ago, we conducted the first brain imaging study on the effects of belief on pain alleviation (An FMRI study measuring analgesia enhanced by religion) . The results showed that belief could indeed alleviate pain, mainly through a process of reappraisal (in other words, placing your pain within a meaningful context).
I carried out some further work on this topic at the pilgrimage site of Lourdes (And the pain disappeared into insignificance ).
Overall, this is a fascinating but relatively unexplored area of research.
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