FEATURE - March 2019
What if Hitler Had Meditated?
Excerpt from The Buddha Pill
by Dr. Catherine Wikholm and Dr. Miguel Farias
“If every eight-year-old in the world is taught meditation, the world will be without violence within one generation.” The Dalai Lama
When best-selling spiritual author Marian Williams tweeted the above quote, it quickly went viral. It probably helped that her friend Oprah Winfrey re-tweeted it to her 24 million followers with the comment, ‘This I believe is true. Have seen it in action."
The notion that religious or spiritual practice is something of a cure-all isn’t unique to Eastern practices, though. Fundamentally, all religions moot that spirituality can make you a better person. The evidence for this is ambiguous. It is true that religions emphasize the caring part of our human nature—from the ‘thou shall not kill’ of the Hebrew scriptures, through the Hindu praise in the Bhagavad-Gita of the person who hurts nobody and is compassionate towards all beings, and the Quran’s rule to be kind to orphans, the needy and travelers, to the Buddha’s precept to ‘avoid killing, or harming any living thing’, and the Christian golden rule of treating others as you would want them to treat you. While there is psychological evidence that practicing religious people are more charitable, our ability to differentiate between good and bad deeds is already in place before we acquire religious ideas.
Studies have shown that from as young as six months old, we prefer those we see helping another, and we’d rather be with someone neutral (who acts neither positively nor negatively) than with an uncooperative individual. And from eight months old, we can appreciate when a helpful individual act against another that has behaved badly. This ingenious research was conducted with computer images and puppets, so the babies could effectively recognize positive and negative moral behavior in strangers.
The idea that we seem to be biologically predisposed towards morality does not answer the question a 16-year-old once asked me at a public lecture in India: ‘If we are born good and kind, how come there is so much violence and evil in the world?’
Religions have dealt with such ‘problem of evil’ questions for a long time and have come up with various answers—the existence of free will, disobedience to God, the work of the devil, and the concepts of illusion, karma or greed. Psychologists rarely come up with such enticing explanations about the origins of violence and immorality. We simply know that while we are born with the ability to tell a helpful from an unhelpful gesture, a caring from a callous person, we are also rooted in our needs – our desire to want things, to achieve – and in trying to reach our goals we are able to hurt, and even kill.
While some of us have more of a propensity towards doing this than others—for example, those who have psychopathic traits—hurting someone else in order to meet our own needs is something we are all potentially capable of; and to at least some small degree, probably do.
While there is evidence that religion can make people act better towards others, there is also plenty of evidence to the contrary: religion can make you more prejudiced towards the non-religious or gay. But we can detach meditation from groups and religions. You can use meditation to de-stress or explore the self just as easily whether you ascribe to a set of religious beliefs or a religious group or not.
The beauty of meditation is just that – its separateness from the necessity of divine rules of morality and punishment. But, if we take this view, we return to the question that we asked in Chapter 5: meditation without religion might improve its attraction, but is its lack of attachment to spiritual moral guidelines also a weakness?
I asked an old friend who runs a sociological research center specializing in equality and racism issues what he thought of the Dalai Lama’s idea that meditation could eventually eradicate violence. He gave me a puzzled look before answering.
‘There are various factors that explain violence, right? Some psychological, others societal. Put them all together in a statistical regression model: start with level of income, education, access to health, then consider psychological factors such as the presence of childhood abuse; see how much of these explain the likelihood of my neighbor being in a fight at the pub or hitting his partner. Then, add meditation to your statistical model – would it add anything in predicting violence compared to the other factors?’
‘Well …’ I started, but he interrupted me.
‘Would it have made a difference if Hitler had meditated?’ he asked grinning.
I saw what he meant. You can’t remove an individual from the larger context and one’s psychological makeup. It would not have made much of a difference if Hitler had meditated – like Aaron Alexis did – unless he removed himself from the society that raised him to power and he radically changed his ambitions and ideas. On the other hand, practices such as meditation and yoga are rooted in inner peacefulness, and the spiritual traditions upon which they’re built believe that radical personal changes are possible, regardless of the environment we live in. All in all, I felt I had a puzzle with quite a lot of missing or ill-fitting pieces. I couldn’t quite see the larger picture. Very soon, though, I was challenged to look in a completely different way at the question of the extent to which contemplative techniques are associated with violence.
Dr. Miguel Farias is an author, lecturer, and industry leader. He writes about the psychology of belief and spiritual practices, including meditation. He was a lecturer at the University of Oxford and is now the founding director of the Brain, Belief and Behaviour Lab group at Coventry University. Farias is also the lead editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Meditation.
Dr. Catherine Wikholm is an author, clinical psychologist, and a chartered psychologist. She was previously employed by HM Prison Service, where she worked with young offenders. Catherine has worked within the specialism of children and families, both in the National Health Service (NHS), as part of a London child and adolescent mental health service, and in private practice. Her current NHS role is as a Highly Specialist Clinical Psychologist in a London perinatal mental health service.
Miguel and Catherine worked together on a ground-breaking research study investigating the psychological effects of yoga and meditation in prisoners.