The God ingredient

Meditation can reduce heart rate, lower blood pressure and improve mental health, thus relieving the harmful effects of stress. But does it matter whether the meditation is spiritual in nature or not? A study by Amy Wachholtz and Kenneth Pargament at Bowling Green State University suggests it does. They trained 25 student participants in spiritual meditation and 21 participants in secular meditation. The two groups received identical training except that the spiritual group were instructed to concentrate on a phrase such as “God is joy”, or “God is love” whereas the secular group were instructed to concentrate on a phrase such as “I am content” or “I am joyful”. Before the training, participants in the two groups did not differ on demographics or spirituality. A control group of 22 participants were taught to relax and to avoid stressful thoughts. All participants were then asked to practise their technique for 20 minutes a day for two weeks.

After two weeks, the spiritual meditation group reported lower anxiety, more positive mood, and greater spirituality than the secular meditation and control groups. Moreover, the spiritual group participants were able to withstand holding their hand in icy water (a measure of pain tolerance) for twice as long as the other participants. “The current study suggested that spiritual therapeutic techniques may be more effective than secular techniques”, the authors said.

“…the spiritual group participants were able to withstand holding their hand in icy water for twice as long as the other participants”

Elizabeth Valentine at Royal Holloway, University of London told New Scientist magazine the finding could be explained by a placebo effect. “Participants in the spiritual group might simply have expected benefits because they were practicing ‘real’ meditation”, she said. But lead author Amy Wachholtz rejected this argument. She told the Digest: “It is unlikely that the effects were simply due to placebo because of the inclusion of the secular meditation condition. It is interesting that Professor Valentine described the spiritual meditation practice as the ‘real’ meditation practice, given that all participants received the exact same training in meditation. There are a number of meditation practices in both the popular culture and in use by psychologists that are described as secular forms of meditation. Therefore assignment to a secular meditation practice would not necessarily be deemed a lesser or unusual meditation practice by participants”.

Wachholtz, A.B. & Pargament, K.I. (2005). Is spirituality a critical ingredient of meditation? Comparing the effects of spiritual meditation, secular meditation, and relaxation on spiritual, psychological, cardiac, and pain outcomes. Journal of Behavioural Medicine, In Press. DOI: 10.1007/s10865-005-9008-5.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

2 thoughts on “The God ingredient”

  1. As an atheist and someone interested in the benefits of meditation I find this study troubling. But it raises some questions about the variables in the study. For instance what proportion of the participants actually <>believe<> in a god? If the two groups “did not differ on demographics or spirituality” then presumably greater than 90% of the participants believed in God and likely had experience with prayer. Whether the techniques and training differed or not the spritual group no doubt felt that their meditation was real and the secular group felt that their meditations were lacking… specifically lacking God.If anything the study shows that spiritual people are better at practicing spritual meditation. And that secular meditation might take more time to learn and accept given that it is not a common secular practice.If anything I would say that the study shows spritual people are better at meditating

  2. Actually I would suggest that perhaps this is not an issue of belief, but an issue of focus. The main difference between the two groups is that the spiritual group focused on ‘God’ and the secular group focused on ‘I’. The difference therefore may lie in ‘self’-centred meditation versus ‘other’-centred meditation. If one is interested in developing selflessness, compassion and non-attachment than the ‘other’-centred meditation may therefore prove to be more effective.

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