I have never taken Ritalin or other learning/concentration enhancers myself. But descriptions I’ve heard was that under the influence of Ritalin etc the mind is clear, memory works better, and concentration is much more effortless.
Leaving aside for the moment that these are strong drugs with negative side-effects, especially in the long run… Would these drugs help with focusing e.g. on the breath, applying the mindfulness there, not wiggling around?
And again, I don’t encourage to do it or condone the use of strong drugs in general. I’m just curious, and maybe someone has tried it in the past or heard it from someone.
Research has shown that the placebo effect of ADHD drugs is quite large, so you feel more focused because you tell yourself that’s supposed to be the effect," says Karen Miotto, director of the UCLA Addiction Medicine Service.
A review of 40 studies found that in more than half of the research, adults without ADHD who took stimulants didn’t see any cognitive improvements.
A study that came out earlier this summer from Massachusetts General Hospital found that students whomisuse prescription stimulants are more likely to have ADHD than students who don’t.
My life, like most, has been a series of sundry mistakes.
When I was a kid, I was put on Ritalin. It felt like blinders on a horse. It did help me focus — but only because it knocked out my peripheral vision. I couldn’t think creatively or even empathetically. I felt cold and mechanical and on edge. It was the opposite of that cosy, wide-open feeling of a good sit.
But this isn’t about Ritalin (which my psychiatrist, bless her heart, quickly took me off) or meditation (which I wouldn’t discover for years). No, this story is about an even stupider college mistake than taking drugs.
When I entered University, I wanted to continue to learn French as I had in High School. I was given a take-home placement test and, friends (it seems I’m in a confessional mood lately) I cheated on that exam.
I thought getting placed into a higher class than I was ready for would mean learning more, faster. Well, a few weeks later, I dropped out and never picked French up again.
Like getting an exam at the doctor’s, trying to “cheat” at meditation misses the point.
I’m 99% certain that the answer is no. All stimulants do is create new sensations and minimize other sensations. They’re not conducive to the stillness that is necessary for meditative concentration.
If you don’t have ADHD, I’m guessing ritalin would either have no effect or negative effect on meditation. If you do have ADHD, it would probably help you keep to a regular meditation schedule. But it’s unlikely to help with meditative concentration. When people say their mind is clear on ritalin, what they probably mean is that it’s clear compared to how it was before. And if the ADHD was previously unmanaged, the “before” was likely a trainwreck. But it doesn’t mean it’s clear in the way meditation clears the mind. People also say weed or alcohol clears their mind (not that ritalin is equivalent to those things, just commenting on the meaning of clarity). In my own experience, meditation practice is much more effective than stimulants. It’s such a shame that there isn’t more meditation instruction targeted to people with ADHD. All too often ADHD folks don’t even wanna try because they think they have to sit still and not think. But that’s a whole different topic.
While my intuition likes to agree I wonder if it’s more of a grey area…
We use all sorts of internal or external helpers - quiet environment, incense sticks, evocation of adhiṭṭhāna, a mantra, remembering how beneficial a quiet non-reactive mind is, gratefulness, assuming our favorite posture, not eating a heavy meal before a sitting, focusing on a dhamma/sutta etc.
Why don’t we think “Let me meditate in a noisy place, because I don’t want to cheat”? or “let me not use my current calmness but rather agitate myself before my next sitting, because I don’t want to cheat”, etc.
Granted, Ritalin or any other ‘concentration-drug’ is still another category. But don’t we make it harder for ourselves if we confine ourselves to ‘traditional’ helpers and a priori rule out unconventional ones? Isn’t that a romantic idea of what naturally belongs to the realm of meditation and what not?
I note first that doctors and university professors also have special robes, exam rooms, etc so other people don’t bother you while you’re taking your exam, and so everyone knows they’re in a special situation. So there are social reasons for some signalling.
Apart from setting the intention and communicating it, I’d say that we probably shouldn’t be trying too hard to change the environment before we sit. Too tired, too noisy, too whatever just sounds like excuses to me. And intentionally seeking out unsuitable environments is even worse. Torturing yourself is also not the middle way.
So, I think it comes down to doing some signalling of your intention and then accepting whatever you have to work with at that moment. How does that sound to you?
I seem to remember a group in Sydney that did go to noisy places to meditate. Enough people live in noisy environments that they have to put up with if they want to do a daily sit. The noise goes away if it’s just let be.
Meditation isn’t about cheating/not cheating. It’s about being aware. An agitated person does themselves a favour when they bring gentle awareness to an agitated or angry state.
At one of the first retreats I attended at a Buddhist temple, some of the retreat attendees and monks were outside doing some maintenance with power tools. I was still relatively new to practice, so the first thought that came to my mind was that I wanted to yell, “Hey, knock off the racket, we’re trying to meditate in here!” But then I realized, the whole point is simply to be aware, to simply note what is going on, and then let it pass. Just like one’s breath. Rising. Falling. Rising. Falling. Each moment comes and goes. Impermanence. Falling away. Not self.
Try meditating with tinnitus, you have no choice but to make peace with the A/C in your head. External noises are nothing compared to when there is no silence ever. Making peace with distractions is the only way ‘ to be’.
“ it’s not the noise that disturbs you, it’s you who disturbs the noise”- Ajahn Chah
I hope this doesn’t stray too far into discussion my own practice, but for what it’s worth I have tried stimulants with the hope that they would improve my practice and, despite my wishes, have not found that to be the case. Letting go is a huge part of meditation, and the type of concentration these drug bring is a tight, contracted one. The one clear benefit is that drowsiness is vanquished, but for most people drugs are hardly necessary for this.
Ritalin and other ADHD drugs are (ironically) stimulants–they increase norepinephrine I’m addition to other neurotransmitters that make you feel “up,” a similar effect to coffee. Have you tried meditating after too much coffee or tea? Yeah, it’s not great.
Once when I came home from college for the holidays my sister gave me a pill so I would hurry up my work and join the family. I definitely had heightened awareness and worked faster. But my eyes were also darting around and my heart was racing.
IMO being"up" is not a conducive meditation state. The breath does not slow, body does not slow. There’s more tendency for restlessness and worry. The kind of focus produced would be more like a one-pointed forced robot than the broad whole body awareness and joy that come from a calm yet alert samadhi.
WRT “cheating” in meditation… The Buddha did suggest that folks go to an empty hut or tree root, which presumably were quiet places. I do find that sound can disturb the very subtle states. But ultimately aren’t we training to be able to remain equanimous during a range of situations? I would think that being able to tolerate/ignore noise is helpful. But it may be a matter of degree and when you first start it’s more helpful to have the more assisted conditions.
Looking back on my own continuing struggles with drowsiness, what I have learned over the years is that the fight for clarity itself develops skills and strengths that would not otherwise arise through easy effort.
Ritalin might give a taste, but would not give us the skill.
Yes, thank you. That is in line with some suttas (e.g. AN 4.114). They say that heat, mosquitos, etc should be patiently endured, not sought after (in order to ‘test’ under which terrible conditions I can meditate)
I wonder if part of the arguments ‘for’ difficult conditions come from an implicit samatha vs vipassana attitude.
Thank you @clay for sharing your experience, this is valuable. So going beyond Ritalin specifically my question changes into:
“If I could, with the help of a hypothetical designer drug, make it very easy to observe the vipassana (dis)appearing of phenomena, or the beauty/death of the breath - would that be conducive to the practice?”
Partly it seems for people here to be a question of path vs. result. And dhamma-wise there is surely an argument for the path, but ‘result’ seems underrepresented for me so far. Don’t I close the window for meditation if I live at a noisy street?
Interestingly, there was a study going in the opposite direction - can meditation replace Ritalin in treating children with ADHD.
Playing with this idea, it does seem in theory there should be a point where results are more important than the path. For instance, at the extreme, if a one-time pill made a person an Arahant (truly an Arahant, no trick) and distributing them would end all suffering, war, cruelty, violence, I can’t think of any reason not to distribute it. It seems it would be quite cruel to withhold it from a suffering world.
Of course, we’d be extremely skeptical of such a claim. It’s not how medicine or narrative work. Medical interventions have side effects. And every narrative we’ve ever heard where there’s a wish or shortcut, there’s always a catch.
But, if something truly made the path shorter or allowed more to follow it, and it didn’t have a catch, I don’t see any a priori reason to reject it. In fact, I imagine it is quite likely if civilization survives there will be something in the next few decades (bio-feedback?) that helps meditators progress more quickly. And there will be arguments between purists and pragmatists. And the proof will be in the pudding–if the method produces a number of teachers like Ajahn Chah (truly, no trick, monastics of that caliber) it will might become a standard part of the path for students.
That’s the argument I was contemplating. If something makes the path shorter, why would I care if it’s a smelly book, an audio tape, a mantra, a touch, or a flower (Mahakassapa-reference)? Or differently: Doesn’t it overly limit my mind (hence my development) if I have a rigid preconceived notion of what passes as a helper and what not?
That goes both ways: Actually achieving jhana or liberation vs. an endless attachment to a path and to ‘trying’. That’s btw a (as I find valid) logical argument of advaita against the various gradual paths - being attached to a ‘constant growth’ without getting anywhere. (obviously advaita is non-sensically on the other end of the spectrum…)
The commonly prescribed ADHD “medications” are not dissimilar from stimulant “street” drugs, in fact, many of them are exactly the same compound. Methylphenidate (brandname: Ritalin) has exactly the same mechanism of action as cocaine [source]. Amphetamine (brandname: Adderall) is just a patented mixture of the right (dextro-) and left (levo-) isomers of amphetamine, otherwise identical to what is known in the street as “speed”. Lisdextroamphetamine (brandname: Vyvanse) is simply dextroamphetamine bound to an amino acid so it is only psychoactive via oral administration (breaks down in stomach), to lessen abuse by insufflation (snorting), and to give it a long duration of effect. In the US, methamphetamine (brandname: Desoxyn) - literally meth - is prescribed for extreme cases treatment-resistant ADHD and obesity.
Two insights I’ve had from my drug research:
The distinction between a pharmaceutical/therapeutic drug and a street/recreational drug is paper-thin or nonexistent. It just comes down to societal acceptability, dose, and use patterns.
The disctinction between drugs and us is similarly paper-thin or nonexistent. We have opioid receptors, cannabinoid receptors, nicotinic, etc. In some sense, we are drugs. If you accept the bio-chemical view, they are correlated with our motivation, mood, wakefulness, drowsiness - basically everything psychological. So even without taking exogenous (outside) substances, you’re already made of drugs.
Drugs that might more closely approximate the experience of mindfulness: microdoses of psychedelics. Commonly, there is sensory enhancement (colors seem brighter, music is enhanced…), a user will feel more naturally drawn to the experience of the senses over the chatter of the mind, and the focus is broad/open compared to the restricted/narrow focus of the stimulants.
disclaimer: I’m not a biologist, chemist, nor psychiatrist. So take my amateur research with a lump of salt. I’m always open to being corrected by well-researched data.
Your relationship is in trouble. The two of you get along well and seem compatible in most things, but nagging doubts about your partner’s fidelity spoil your happiness. Sometimes you tell yourself these doubts are irrational, and you try to put them out of your mind. And perhaps they are irrational: it’s so hard to judge from the inside. That lingering glance at the party, a late return from work: are these genuine grounds for suspicion, or events that any normal person would hardly notice? Whether reasonable or not, your doubts just won’t go away, so what to do? Those who hire private investigators are beneath contempt, and raising the matter with your partner would inflame their anger without quieting your suspicions.
Clearly, your troubled psyche is badly in need of repair, and so you visit The Pharmacy of the Future. You walk through the door intending to purchase the new anti-doubt pill Credon. Credon will lull your suspicions, will make you credit your partner’s stories and stop your scrutinizing their every movement at parties. Credon isn’t an all-round gullibility pill: it won’t make you believe whatever a random second-hand car salesman tells you. It works only in the context of intimate relationships. True, the manufacturers warn that, in trials, Credon has generated a level of trust between lovers that some might consider excessive. But who can say when it is reasonable to stop trusting your loved ones? That is for you to decide.
Having made up your mind about this, you ask for Credon, but your conscientious pharmacist suspects that you have yet to consider all the options. Aren’t you taking it for granted that you should want your partner to be faithful to you? Why take that for granted, the pharmacist asks? Why not resolve your psychic tensions by taking the anti-possessiveness pill Libermine instead? Those on Libermine don’t care whether their partners have the occasional tryst, just so long as these flings don’t come to anything. On Libermine you can speculate with tender curiosity about your partner’s fidelity.
Seeing you hesitate between an anti-doubt and an anti-possessiveness pill, the pharmacist can’t resist making a further suggestion. If you think the choice must be between Credon and Libermine, you obviously haven’t reflected on the relationship itself. This relationship might be as fulfilling as any you could reasonably hope for. But why must you be part of a couple at all? True, in the past you always felt miserable living alone and couldn’t be happy without the knowledge that you were someone’s top priority. Solox, the emotional independence pill, can change all that…
Yes, excellent thought experiment. It has a ‘Black Mirror’ vibe too. An aspect that is neglected here is that the drug effect would subside with time. Also, the creepy sci-fi aspect makes us forget that we actually apply low-tech variants: we talk to people, or we talk to ourselves.
I ask a friend for advice what to do, or a therapist, or a magazine, or the internet. In contrast to the drug which has a rigid effect, by talking to people I expose myself to much unclearer agendas. It looks like I have more free will when I talk to people, but I actually set up conditions. And when I talk to somebody who is really convincing I might end up being brain washed for months with a certain idea (“I think you should leave him, I was gas-lit too in the past, that’s what cheating partners do…” etc.).
So isn’t reading a book or talking to convincing people like taking a drug with more random effects? Of course there are differences, but I wonder: since the non-drug alternative emphasizes the agency of the ‘I’ more, and Buddhism deconstructs the ‘I’ - where is the fine line where I-agency would be encouraged or demanded by Buddhism? Doesn’t it go back to, not I-agency, but relying on the Buddha saying what is wise and what not, i.e. a complete dependence on canonized knowledge?