One of the most popular articles I wrote this year is The dark underbelly of meditation. The article challenges the conventional wisdom that meditation is a universal remedy for universal ills. Although meditation helps restore and maintain well-being in most people, it can also cause adverse effects, according to several research studies I cited.
I’ve been meditating for nearly a decade (and continue to do so just about every morning). I shared the research to make a broader point about the dangers of thinking in rigid categories of black-white, good-bad, right-wrong, yes-no. Most readers appreciated the central point: There’s no such thing as a universal remedy. A “good” thing isn’t “good” for all people under all circumstances.
Interestingly, I also received more hate mail for the article than anything else I’ve written in recent memory. Here’s a sample:
“You’re scaring people away from meditation. What is wrong with you?”
“This article is beyond irresponsible. I’m unsubscribing.”
“You’re a fraud. Do better.”
Ironic, isn’t it? Some of the most ardent practitioners of meditation were quick to respond with anger to an article that merely introduced nuance and ambiguity.
Setting that aside, I think their reaction is all too human. Once a belief becomes a part of our identity—once we call ourselves a meditator, a Crossfitter, a Democrat or a Republican—changing our mind requires changing our identity, which is very difficult to do.
When we’ve tightly wrapped our identity around an idea, we no longer have an opinion. We are the opinion.
Humans also have a hard time tolerating ambiguity. We find it much easier to land in simple, rigid categories and stay there. Meditation is good. Meditation is useless. College is essential. College is pointless. War is good. War is bad. Instead of seeing all the grey between these extremes, we reject any evidence that introduces doubt. From this perspective, it’s better to suppress peer-reviewed information about the potential adverse effects of meditation than to distort a neat, one-dimensional picture that paints meditation as a universal good.
We do this with people too. We divide the world into heroes and villains, oppressors and oppressed. In our misleading narratives, you can’t expect anything good from the bad, or anything bad from the good. This is the standard Hollywood template: The hero defeats the villain, and everyone lives happily ever after. And it works—because it appeals to human nature.
Our intolerance for ambiguity is partially a product of our education system. Schools are a factory of certitudes. They don’t bother us with ambiguity or let nuances get in the way. We learn, for example, that World War II was the triumph of freedom over totalitarianism. We conveniently forget that the Soviet Union was also one of the winners.
There is no “I guess” to be found in a textbook. None of the knowledge in a textbook is tentative or a work-in-progress. The world is a series of one-dimensional, right-and-wrong answers discovered by people far smarter than you. Your job is to memorize them and move on.
Certitudes then replace all thinking. They become a substitute for understanding. They bend reality to match the narrative. They create stark divisions that alienate people who have a different perspective.
Reality begins to emerge only when we set aside our tendency to think in clean categories and realize that almost all things exist on a continuum. When you’re not identified with any category, you gain the magic of perspective—and see through the smoke and mirrors created by one-dimensional stories.
There’s so much beauty in complexity.
A world of multitudes is far more interesting—and accurate—than a world of certitudes.