Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Yoga. Meditation, and "Ego Inflation"

The occult community tends to be a little behind the times with respect to modern psychology. As I've covered here before, the psychoanalytic model of cognition is still something that some occult traditions work with, or at the very least a model on which some esoteric ideas are based. The trouble is that the psychoanalytic model doesn't work. Not only has it been shown to be ineffective under controlled conditions, it is mostly rendered meaningless by what we now understand about memory and so forth.

One psychoanalytic concept that has a lot of staying power in occultism is the idea of "ego inflation." After all, who hasn't seen idiots going on and on about how awesome and powerful they are, especially on the Internet? And one of the ideas is that, in theory, spiritual practices are supposed to prevent this. The problem is when people don't really understand how egotism works, or where it comes from - usually because they accept one or more of the many incorrect assumptions that are endemic to the psychoanalytic model.

Today's story is a perfect example. Two Australian studies claim to show that practicing yoga or meditation leads to "ego inflation." This is an interesting area to look into, but it seems to me that both studies have significant problems. The biggest is that it appears the researchers have assumed that high self-esteem is the same thing as an "inflated ego." On the other hand, I don't think this is true at all. While it is possible to evaluate egotism from a behavioral perspective, treating "the ego" as a "thing" that gets bigger or smaller has almost nothing to do with how cognition really works.

In the paper, published online by University of Southampton and due to be published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers note that Buddhism’s teachings that a meditation practice helps overcome the ego conflicts with US psychologist William James’s argument that practicing any skill breeds a sense of self-enhancement (the psychological term for inflated self-regard.) There was already a fair bit of evidence supporting William James’s theory, broadly speaking, but a team of researchers from University Mannheim in Germany decided to test it specifically in the context of yoga and meditation.

As a point, yoga as currently practiced in Western countries does no such thing. It's not really even Buddhist. It's (sort of) Hindu, and the spiritual goals of Hinduism are different than those of Buddhism. Furthermore, modern yoga is not even a traditional Indian spiritual practice. It is a synthesis of poses illustrated in Hindu scriptures combined with European calisthenics that was really only assembled into a system in the 1960's. Yoga from before that time was very different than what we have today. Yoga was practiced during meditation, which is maybe where the authors' confusion comes from, but meditation is a discipline in its own right that was performed in addition to holding the poses for long periods of time.

In fact, Aleister Crowley learned yoga in the early twentieth century before the 1960's synthesis came about, and his system is probably more like how yoga was traditionally done back then. One part of it is training the body to hold postures, but there's a whole other layer of meditation practice that goes with it. None of those methods are taught in most Western yoga classes.

They recruited yoga 93 students and, over a period of 15 weeks, regularly evaluated their sense of self-enhancement. They used several measures to do this. First, they assessed participants’ level of self-enhancement by asking how they compared to the average yoga student in their class. (Comparisons to the average is the standard way of measuring self-enhancement.) Second, they had participants complete an inventory that assesses narcissistic tendencies, which asked participants to rate how deeply phrases like “I will be well-known for the good deeds I will have done” applied to them. And finally, they administered a self-esteem scale asking participants whether they agreed with statements like, “At the moment, I have high self-esteem.”

When students were evaluated in the hour after their yoga class, they showed significantly higher self-enhancement, according to all three measures, than when they hadn’t done yoga in the previous 24 hours.

This is exactly what I would expect from a study of modern yoga classes - for the same reason that I constantly make fun of fundamentalist Christians who claim that yoga is "demonic." The vast majority of Western yoga classes do not include spiritual or religious practice or context. Basically, they're just stretching and exercise. To think that the stretching itself produces shifts in consciousness that are any different than those produced by regular exercise is silly. In fact, if the results from this yoga study differed from studies on other forms of exercise I would have been very surprised.

My guess is that to most modern practitioners who learn non-sectarian yoga, yoga class is the same thing as going to the gym. And people often feel better about themselves when they exercise, for a number of reasons.

A second study of 162 people who practiced meditation, recruited through Facebook groups devoted to meditation, found that the practice had similar impacts on self-enhancement as yoga. In this study, participants were asked to evaluate themselves based on statements like, “In comparison to the average participant of this study, I am free from bias.” The study found that participants had higher self-enhancement in the hour following meditation, than when they hadn’t meditated for 24 hours.

Researchers also evaluated participants’ well-being using two measures, the satisfaction with life scale and the eudemonic well-being measure, which evaluates satisfaction with autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relations with others, purpose in life, and self-acceptance. They found that well-being increased along with self-enhancement, suggesting that self-enhancement is linked with the increased sense of well-being that many get from meditation.

These findings suggest that spiritual Buddhist practices like yoga and meditation may not do what proponents typically say they do, according to the study authors. “Ego-quieting is a central element of yoga philosophy and Buddhism alike. That element, and its presumed implications, require serious rethinking,” they write. “Moreover, ego-quieting is often called upon to explain mind-body practices’ well-being benefits. In contrast, we observed that mind-body practices boost self-enhancement and this boost—in turn—elevates well-being.”

There is an alternative explanation, though. It’s possible the study participants were doing meditation and yoga wrong. All of the participants were based in Germany, and various academics have theorized that western practitioners of Buddhism fail to practice with an eye towards the selflessness that should characterize the goals of these efforts. Though yoga and meditation were originally intended as ways to calm the ego, many non-Buddhist practitioners do these activities with an eye to self-improvement or calming personal anxieties.

This study is a little less bad than the yoga one, but it still suffers from a couple of issues. Many people recruited from a Facebook group dedicated to meditation probably practice something like modern "mindfulness meditation," which is explicitly not Buddhist. It's non-sectarian, and is performed to reduce stress and improve focus. The problem here is that the study's authors don't make any distinctions. Mindfulness meditation does not necessarily have a "selflessness" component or even a component that is designed to cultivate compassion. Those are other methods that the Buddhist religion incorporates with meditation.

So I think it's a little silly to say that people are doing yoga and meditation wrong if they're not approaching them like Buddhist practitioners. Yoga isn't even Buddhist! And it is possible that Buddhism brings in other practices like selflessness and compassion to counteract the "self-enhancement" effects of meditation. They've been teaching meditation for millennia and certainly have encountered it. In fact, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa wrote an entire book about counteracting "spiritual materialism" - a phenomenon that sounds much like what these researchers observed.

At the same time, though, this entire framing fall into a trap that is common in esotericism. There is no such "thing" as an "ego." The whole idea is psychoanalytic twaddle that doesn't stand up to scientific investigation. What we really mean when we talk about "ego inflation" is behavior that we describe as "egotistical." That is, acting as if your own goals and priorities are the only ones that matter and having little concern for the effects of your actions on others. In extreme cases, it devolves into full-on narcissism. It's difficult and unpleasant to deal with, and it is true that it should have no place in legitimate spiritual practice.

But to be clear, this behavior usually has nothing to do with high self-esteem or self-regard. The most egotistical people usually have low self-esteem an low self-regard, and try to cover it up with bluster and bravado. Threats to this façade are met with hostility and sometimes outright aggression. This may not be true of people with narcissistic personality disorder, but it is generally believed that there are no effective treatments for those sorts of personality disorders. It follows that practices like meditation would not be that effective either.

And anyway, that's not what either of these studies are looking at. They rely exclusively on self-report, which is notoriously unreliable. A better measure would be to follow the participants and see how the practice influences their behavior - or if it does. This article from the New York Times cites a study that showed no productivity gains among employees who meditate. But what it actually found was that meditation increased employees feelings of well-being, but this did not translate to any differences in productivity.

Of course, this translates to the headline that bosses shouldn't want their employees to meditate... but why not? It didn't cause lower productivity. Employees did the same work, they just felt better about their lives overall. I would posit that even if you don't see short-term productivity gains, you should see less employee turnover and fewer issues caused by cumulative workplace stress. The headline basically assumes that neither of these are remotely relevant to business - which might be true if you are looking at the business like a finance douchebag bean-counter, but less so if you are an entrepreneurial business owner with some actual concern for his or her employee's lives. Also, the tasks evaluated sound like busy-work as opposed to complex cognitive and creative tasks that seem to benefit from downtime.

Anyway, here's a much more accurate model of how your mind works. You have a field of awareness, and a point of awareness. There's no Freudian ego-id-superego bullshit about it. Ego is not a thing, it describes a sort of cognitive boundary that surrounds your field of awareness. Your point of awareness normally remains within this boundary's confines. We identify with what is inside the boundary and do not identify with anything outside it.

Meditation makes the boundary more permeable and flexible. Expanding the boundary increases that with which we identify. So if you call that "ego inflation," I fail to see how it's bad. In the Thelemic system, you are in fact supposed to "unite ecstatically with other forms of consciousness" and engage in "the development of the self through joy." Granted, that's a different set of priorities than what you will find in Buddhism, but as I see it the Thelemic perspective is a lot more fun.

Egotism is caused by the crystallization of this boundary, and by grasping more firmly at everything inside it. This in turn leads to more forceful disavowals of all that lies beyond this metaphorical "wall." If you don't believe me, take a look at all of the problems tribalism has inflicted upon the human race. This is where it comes from. But this process has absolutely nothing to do with feelings of self-esteem, self-regard, or personal well-being. Usually, it is rooted in fear and insecurity, the exact opposite of those states.

So what I really would like to see, and what I really think would be meaningful, is some sort of test that measures the tribal identification of meditators and looks at their behavior towards others. If they do become insufferably egotistical, I'll freely admit that I'm wrong about this. But I will say that in my own spiritual development this model has proved far more useful than anything Freud or even Jung wrote about. The "boundary" model has some commonalities with the Jungian individuation model, which I think does survive the modern findings about memory that basically demolish the entire Freudian model. But it is also informed by my own experiences on the path, along with the findings of modern neuroscience.

So as I see it, the takeaway should be this - do your practices, and don't worry that they may be causing problems if they make you feel better about yourself. They're supposed to do that. If they weren't good for you, you shouldn't be doing them, right? Over time, you should see a decrease in traditionally "egotistical" behavior. But it probably will take longer for that to happen than the short duration of either the yoga or meditation studies cited above.

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