Meditating Under Special Circumstances
Patricia Carrington, Ph.D.
Author of “The Book of Meditation”
A study conducted at Princeton University by Christopher Ross and Hilary Brown investigated a group of Transcendental Meditation (TM) meditators and a group of students who regularly practiced Progressive Relaxation.1 They compared those who ‘regularly practiced’ with a group of students who rarely or never practiced these same techniques. The question they sought to answer was whether regular meditation and/or relaxation lead to changes in the content of people’s dreams. Dreams were chosen because they tend to be a very stable measure of personality; that is, they reflect basic conflicts and coping mechanisms which remain the same over long periods of time. In a study conducted by psychologist Calvin Hall, for example, one man’s dreams collected over a fifty-year period, from early adulthood to death, were studied to see how consistent his dream content was over the years. Hall found that each dream category which he studied had remained essentially unchanged for fifty years! 2 In studying the dreams of other individuals, Hall also found that whenever a significant change in dream content was apparent, this generally represented a similarly profound change in the individual’s behavior and personality. In other words, dream life does not easily change.
Ross and Brown decided that meditators’ dreams might be a good way to find out if meditation can change a person’s underlying personality. As we have seen, many kinds of changes have been reported in meditators over periods of only three months. These researchers set out to study changes over this same time a two-week daily dream diary from these subjects before they had learned their techniques of TM meditation or progressive relaxation, and another such diary after they had been practicing their respective techniques for three months. The subjects also kept daily mood checklists during the study.
The researchers then scored the dreams for forty-eight different aspects, or ‘variables’, which ranged from such simple characteristics as the number of characters in the dream or amount of verbal or physical aggression, to the presence of anxiety, self-reflection, bizarre imagery, or ‘environmental threat’ – among others.
What Ross and Brown found was that the overwhelming majority of these dream scores showed no change whatever, either in the regular meditators and regular progressive relaxers or in the group that did not practice their techniques regularly at all. This occurred even though a number of the subjects reported feeling much better on follow-up questionnaires. Those that regularly practiced scored as considerably ‘less anxious’ on a written test which measured their level of anxiety, and their daily mood checklists showed that they were ‘happy’ much more often than they used to be before practicing meditation.
What does this mean? Did nothing happen to these subjects after they commenced to meditate or relax regularly? Does the lack of change in their dreams mean that those dramatic improvements in the lives of meditators which are so often reported to use may just be ‘all in the imagination’?
Decidedly it is not. Something had happened to those subjects who had practiced their techniques regularly; they were less anxious and happier. Despite these changes, however, regular meditation and relaxation left untouched other deeper levels of their personalities. Their dreams and a test which reflects underlying personality dynamics by asking subjects to make up stories about pictures (the TAT) showed no changes at all over the three months. A test measuring changes in self-image – the way people tend to view themselves – also remained unchanged over the course of the study.3
As indicated previously, other studies have shown changes with meditation on tests measuring self-actualization, field independence and other aspects of personality. None of these studies, however, employed the ‘projective techniques’ which measure deeper layers of the personality, or dreams. The work of Ross and Brown and of Zevin (using the TAT) 4 suggests that it is these deeper levels of personality which often resist change through meditation.
My late husband and I noticed in our meditating patients the same kind of limitations seen in the Princeton study. After we began publishing articles on meditation, patients who were long-term meditators frequently came to us seeking therapists familiar with meditation. Some of these people had had years of intensive practice in one or another of the commonly used meditation techniques and some were even teachers of meditation.
We found that often these long-term meditators reported that they had become more emotionally responsive, tranquil, insightful and energetic after commencing meditation. Despite these gains, however, they came to us because of unresolved emotional conflicts revolving around such problems as personal relationships, marriage and career, and because of various disturbing symptoms. In other words, although they had changed through intensive practice of meditation in certain important respects, they had not changed in others.
Some other experimental evidence bears on this question. Its results are in agreement with Ross and Brown and our clinical observations. When Dr Leon Otis of the Stanford Research Institute administered personality tests to TM meditators and to a control group of non-meditators who were signed up to learn the technique, he discovered that TM had no discernible effects on self-image over the year’s test period for those people who continued to practice it in his experiment.5 Otis concluded that the data ‘supports the notion that TM does not alter basic personality characteristics’, a conclusion quite in line with that of the Princeton study.
Just as the latter found that certain behavior and moods did change with meditation, however, so in his study Otis also found that the TM group ranked significantly higher in enjoyment of life, restfulness of sleep, happiness, energy level, sexual adjustment and creativity than did the control group. These changes occurred despite the fact that deeper personality characteristics seemed to show no difference.
Taken together, the research studies and clinical observations suggest that while the effects of meditation can be impressive, it is doubtful whether meditation can change personality in any basic sense. To effect truly deep change meditation may need to become part of a more general change in the way one lives one’s life. However, practical meditation does reduce tension and improve functioning on a number of levels. This may lead to some startling changes in behavior and the way the meditator views oneself even if deep-seated emotional problems remain untouched. A patient with whom I worked at a guidance clinic illustrates this dual action of meditation. She was immensely helped by meditation, which seemed to supplement her psychotherapy, but at the same time remained unchanged in at least one basic aspect of her personality.
When Elvira came to the clinic she was in her mid-thirties. At that time, she was both depressed and highly anxious. She had had the sole responsibility of raising five children because her divorced husband had defaulted in child support. She was receiving welfare and three of the children were already showing severe emotional problems – her oldest son refused outright to attend school.
Almost from the first Elvira responded well to psychotherapy. Once she knew she could count on the assistance of an interested therapist she was able to use her intelligence and basic strength to begin to cope. Eventually she returned successfully to work, voluntarily removing herself from the welfare roles with a sense of pride. She was not only able to support her children and deal with them with less stress and anxiety, but her depression had lifted entirely.
One troublesome problem did remain, however. Elvira had been unable to resolve a generally destructive relationship with an emotionally disturbed lover. This unstable man was extremely possessive of her and acted more like another child in the household than an additional adult. He was intensely jealous of any attention she gave to her own children, drank heavily, and on several occasions had threatened her and her family with violence. At one point he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where he remained for several weeks.
For some time Elvira had felt she must end this relationship for her own safety and that of the children, but she was unable to think seriously about doing this without starting to weep uncontrollably. She experienced intense guilt when she thought of ‘throwing him out’.
As her therapy proceeded, she became much less willing to tolerate her lover’s bullying behavior and experienced a growing conflict between her new-found personal dignity and her continuing dependence on his presence. At this point, she became unusually tense and on several occasions alarmed herself by drinking so heavily that she blacked out and later could not remember what had happened during the time she was drinking, something that had never happened to her before. I felt it important to arrest further development of the drinking and suggested to her that she learn meditation as a possible means of reducing the tension that was building up. Elvira was enthusiastic about the idea. She also hoped it would help her with her severe insomnia. She was now getting only three to four hours of fitful sleep per night.
Meditation was almost immediately effective. She looked peaceful, almost glowing, when she came to her first therapy session after learning it and within a few days of commencing meditation she slept restfully for a whole night. Since that time, her sleep remained extremely restful even during periods when she had to face high stress.
Her sporadic drinking stopped immediately following commencement of meditation and was never again a problem.
MEDITATION AUDIO LESSON
Learn why people who meditate gain greater inner strength and independence in this audio mediation clip from Dr. Patricia Carrington.
Unexpectedly she also lost any sense of urgency about smoking marijuana, which she had formerly used daily. She also found herself forgetting to buy regular cigarettes for herself or to smoke them when they were present in her home. In addition, she had more composure and calmness at work and was experiencing a generally quieter, more understanding relationship with her children. Her most notable change, however, was a marked growth in independence. After her first three weeks of meditation, she firmly ordered her lover out of the house, despite his protests and threats, and arranged for police assistance in the event of his becoming violent. She followed through with her plan to make him leave without her accustomed guilt and self-recrimination. She felt appropriate grief after he left – this had been a long-lasting and close relationship – but despite this, she slept peacefully throughout the night, and attributed her ability to carry through with this decision directly to meditation.
Although some months later Elvira was reunited with her lover, this time their relationship was on a different footing. She was now more independent, having in the interim built up a number of outside activities, interests and relationships which she would not give up and she now insisted upon her rights and those of her children. Despite this fact, however, it was clear from her subsequent behavior that meditation was unable to change the underlying personality dynamics which had led Elvira to select such a disturbed individual to begin with. Meditation had both ‘succeeded’ and ‘failed’. It had changed Elvira importantly in some respects and left her the same in others.
1. C. A. Ross, ‘The Effect of Two Relaxation Techniques on Mood, Sleep and Dreams’ (senior thesis, Princeton University, 1974).
2. C. Hall, ‘Frequencies in Certain Categories of Manifest Content and Their Stability in a Long Dream Series’, American Psychologist, 3 (1948), p. 274.
3. S. Shackman, ‘The Effect Of Two Relaxation Techniques on Anxiety, Self-Concept and Personality Growth’ (senior thesis, Princeton University, 1974).
4. W. A. Zevin, ‘Effects of Transcendental Meditation on Loneliness Anxiety as Measured by the TAT’ (unpublished paper, Department of Psychology, Princeton University, 1974).
5. L. S. Otis, ‘The Psychobiology of Meditation: Some Psychological Changes’ (paper presented before the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, Montreal, 1973).
Dr. Patricia Carrington’s award winning meditation technique CSM (Clinically Standardized Meditation) is a clinically sensitive meditation method developed by the Medical Department of New York Telephone Company and used by numerous medical institutions, organizations, and individuals worldwide. For information click here.