According to Buddhist teaching, the self is an illusion. The religion preaches a fundamentally selfless worldview, encouraging followers to renounce individual desires and distance themselves from self-concern. To advance this perspective, millions of people around the world practice yoga and meditation.
But a recently published psychological study directly contradicts that approach, finding that contemporary meditation and yoga practices can actually inflate your ego.
In the paper, published online by University of Southampton and due to be published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers note that Buddhism’s teachings that a meditation practice helps overcome the ego conflicts with US psychologist William James’s argument that practicing any skill breeds a sense of self-enhancement (the psychological term for inflated self-regard.)
There was already a fair bit of evidence supporting William James’s theory, broadly speaking, but a team of researchers from University Mannheim in Germany decided to test it specifically in the context of yoga and meditation.
They recruited yoga 93 students and, over a period of 15 weeks, regularly evaluated their sense of self-enhancement. They used several measures to do this. First, they assessed participants’ level of self-enhancement by asking how they compared to the average yoga student in their class. (Comparisons to the average is the standard way of measuring self-enhancement.) Second, they had participants complete an inventory that assesses narcissistic tendencies, which asked participants to rate how deeply phrases like “I will be well-known for the good deeds I will have done” applied to them. And finally, they administered a self-esteem scale asking participants whether statements like, “At the moment, I have high self-esteem.”
When students were evaluated in the hour after their yoga class, they showed significantly higher self-enhancement, according to all three measures, than when they hadn’t done yoga in the previous 24 hours.
A second study of 162 people who practiced meditation, recruited through Facebook groups devoted to meditation, found that the practice had similar impacts on self-enhancement as yoga. In this study, participants were asked to evaluate themselves based on statements like, “In comparison to the average participant of this study, I am free from bias.” The study found that participants had higher self-enhancement in the hour following meditation, than when they hadn’t meditated for 24 hours.
Researchers also evaluated participants’ well-being using two measures, the satisfaction with life scale and the eudemonic well-being measure, which evaluates satisfaction with autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relations with others, purpose in life, and self-acceptance. They found that well-being increased along with self-enhancement, suggesting that self-enhancement is linked with the increased sense of well-being that many get from meditation.
These findings suggest that spiritual Buddhist practices like yoga and meditation may not do what proponents typically say they do, according to the study authors. “Ego-quieting is a central element of yoga philosophy and Buddhism alike. That element, and its presumed implications, require serious rethinking,” they write. “Moreover, ego-quieting is often called upon to explain mind-body practices’ well-being benefits. In contrast, we observed that mind-body practices boost self-enhancement and this boost—in turn—elevates well-being.”
There is an alternative explanation, though. It’s possible the study participants were doing meditation and yoga wrong. All of the participants were based in Germany, and various academics have theorized that western practitioners of Buddhism fail to practice with an eye towards the selflessness that should characterize the goals of these efforts. Though yoga and meditation were originally intended as ways to calm the ego, many non-Buddhist practitioners do these activities with an eye to self-improvement or calming personal anxieties.
Meditation can indeed be narcissistic, notes Buddhist writer Lewis Richmond in The Huffington Post. “The act of sitting in silence, eyes closed or facing a wall, attention focused on the inner landscape of breath, body, and mental activity, could at least be characterized as self-absorbed,” he says. Those who practice meditation with a self-centered perspective will likely become more self-interested, not less.
The notion that yoga can feed rather than diminish the ego won’t be surprising to those who’ve met holier-than-thou yoga devotees clad in designer athlesiure. But the psychological study didn’t examine whether Buddhist teachings themselves influenced this ego boost. Yoga alone may not be enough to dissolve the ego, but one psychological study does not invalidate thousands of years of Buddhist teaching and practice.