Recently, I have been seeing article after article making the claim that, according to a recently published study, yoga and meditation may actually inflate the ego, which is arguably the opposite of what such practices typically aim to do. So of course I had to dig a little deeper.
In Buddhism, the term anattā (Pali) or anātman (Sanskrit) refers to the doctrine of “non-self”, which posits that there is no unchanging, permanent self, soul, or essence in living beings. For a brief, but great discussion of attā and anattā, see the excerpt below, taken from Medium:
In the 2018 study, Gebauer and colleagues investigated the effect of yoga and meditation practice on self-centrality and self-enhancement (the tendency for people to attach importance to their own actions). They found that participants reported increased self-centrality and self-enhancement (on the scales “superiority”, “communal narcissism”, and “self-esteem”) directly after a yoga or meditation session.
Following this study, countless articles were published online stating that meditation and yoga inflate the ego, rather than dampen it. But is this an accurate conclusion of the published study?
Upon my reading of the study, a few thoughts came to mind. For the record, I am not saying that I agree or disagree with the article – I am not here to argue one way or another. Nor am I that familiar with some of the measures they used in this research or the background of the researchers (which may be a very important consideration in itself). Instead, I am here to simply share some thoughts that occurred to me as I was reading the study (and the countless articles that have extracted its findings into mainstream media), and hopefully provide some sense of a balanced argument along the way.
Firstly, I am not entirely convinced that self-centrality is the same thing as ego. Example items on the self-centrality scale are: “Focusing mindfully on the exercises across the whole yoga class is – not at all central to me/ central to me” and “How central is it for you to be free from envy? – not at all central to me/ central to me“. It does not seem that answering “central to me” on these questions (and others in this questionnaire) automatically means that you have a higher ego (or higher attachment to your ego). On that note, I am not at all convinced that the ego (or attā, as discussed in Buddhist scriptures and having many meanings including ego, soul, personality, and individuality) can (or should) be measured by Western psychological questionnaires, especially self-report questionnaires that not only rely on participants understanding each word in the questions (e.g., mindful? central? envy?), but also having the ability to accurately answer questions about their internal mind/ body state.
Secondly, in this study, meditators and yoga practitioners were compared with other meditators and yoga practitioners; for half of the group, the measures were done before practice (or after at least 24 hours of no practice) and for the other half of the group, the measures were done directly after practice. This makes me wonder if it is possible to conclude that yoga and meditation practices inflate the ego, because the control group were also yoga and meditation practitioners. Additionally, the process of diminishing the ego is likely to be a long-term one, which could mean that the ego may be inflated directly after practice, but may eventually be reduced in the long-term. Long-term outcomes were not tested in the study, nor did the researchers examine differences in general levels of self-enhancement between yoga and meditation practitioners and individuals with no experience in mind/ body practices.
Finally, I would have loved to see a discussion of the potentially very different teaching styles of the various yoga instructors, although I understand why this was beyond the scope of the present article. However, it does raise a very valid concern regarding the extent to which mind/ body practices that originate in Buddhism and Eastern contemplative traditions have been taken apart and adapted to fit into a Western secular context. This is also reflected in the fact that this study recruited Western participants. If the conclusions of the published study are to be trusted, we may have to consider the problems of studying yoga and meditation in such a secular context and the importance of teaching mind/ body practices more holistically, with grounding in their Buddhist (and other) origins, so that their true potential benefits are not missed out on, or, more problematically, turned into adverse effects that are the exact opposite of what these practices aim to achieve.
Just maybe, as Buddhist teacher and writer Lewis Richmond writes in the Huffington Post: “…today’s Western practitioners leap a bit too quickly into the innerness of meditation without a thorough grounding in all the other spokes of the [Eight-Fold] Path”.
On a final note…
I think it is great that this article was published. It raises debates and sheds a new light on yoga and meditation. I think it has many important limitations (as does much scientific research) and its conclusions have been oversimplified and blown out of proportion in online and offline media (as is done with much scientific research). But these types of articles are important, if only to take all the positive hype surrounding mind/ body practices (e.g., yoga, mindfulness, and meditation) to the other extreme, before we can finally achieve a balance in what we know and understand about them.
After reading what the media had to say about this study, I was happy to find that several writers shared my own concluding statement on this issue: one study doesn’t discredit thousands of years of teachings.
What are your thoughts on this scientific paper and the articles surrounding it? Please share your thoughts in the comments below! 🙂