For some, meditation has become more curse than cure.
We want meditation to be good. But we don’t want to admit there are side-effects and risks to meditation.
“I started having thoughts like, ‘Let me take over you,’ combined with confusion and tons of terror,” says David, a polite, articulate 27-year-old who arrived at Britton’s Cheetah House in 2013. “I had a vision of death with a scythe and a hood, and the thought ‘Kill yourself’ over and over again.”
Unfortunately, the risks and side-effects of meditation are seldom discussed by practitioners or the media.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine’s website includes an interesting choice of words in its entry on meditation. Under “side effects and risks,” it reads:
Meditation is considered to be safe for healthy people. There have been rare reports that meditation could cause or worsen symptoms in people who have certain psychiatric problems, but this question has not been fully researched.
Dr. Willoughby Britton has been studying the neurobiological and psychological effects of meditation practices for 15 years. She is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University. Her laboratories and clinicians at Britton Lab record the good, the bad, and the ugly of meditation.
Like many other experienced teachers [Britton] spoke to, Goldstein and Kornfield recalled instances during past meditation retreats where students became psychologically incapacitated. Some were hospitalized. Says Britton, “there was one person Jack told me about [who] never recovered.”
[I witnessed several psychological breakdowns of meditating yogi-monks during my 14 years as an ordained monk within the Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic Order. These individuals ended up disturbed and in serious condition after years of intense meditation practice. One individual passed away soon after his mental breakdown. Another monk developed neurological tremors, and, after he left the Order, was not able to take care of himself. He was dependent on his parents, who tried to sue the Order for damages.
Harmful side-effects may be rare. But, I also know other individuals who had less severe psychological meltdowns with years of practicing meditation. Their mental and physical breakdowns were diagnosed by medical doctors as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome), Depression, and Neuroses. These monks were prescribed medication and psychological treatment, which helped stabilize their health. Contrary to what the media and many marketers want us to believe, meditation does not always reduce the need for anti-depressants, relieve stress, nor cure ills. Sometimes, for some people, contemplative practices have harmful side-effects].
“We have a lot of positive data [on meditation],” she says, “but no one has been asking if there are any potential difficulties or adverse effects, and whether there are some practices that may be better or worse-suited [for] some people over others. Ironically,” Britton adds, “the main delivery system for Buddhist meditation in America is actually medicine and science, not Buddhism.”
As a result, many people think of meditation only from the perspective of reducing stress and enhancing executive skills such as emotion regulation, attention, and so on.
For Britton, this widespread assumption—that meditation exists only for stress reduction and labor productivity, “because that’s what Americans value”—narrows the scope of the scientific lens. When the time comes to develop hypotheses around the effects of meditation, the only acceptable—and fundable—research questions are the ones that promise to deliver the answers we want to hear.
In late January this year, Time magazine featured a cover story on “the mindful revolution,” an account of the extent to which mindfulness meditation has diffused into the largest sectors of modern society. Used by “Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Fortune 500 titans, Pentagon chiefs, and more,” mindfulness meditation is promoted as a means to help Americans work mindfully, eat mindfully, parent mindfully, teach mindfully, take standardized tests mindfully, spend money mindfully, and go to war mindfully. What the cover story did not address are what might be called the revolution’s “dirty laundry.”
Read my critique of the Time magazine cover story The Mindful Revolution Or Mindless Meditation?
“We’re not being thorough or honest in our study of contemplative practice,” says Britton, a critique she extends to the entire field of researchers studying meditation, including herself.
As a trained clinician, it can be hard for Britton to reconcile the visible benefits of contemplative practices with data unearthed through the Dark Night Project. More than half of her patients reported positive “life-altering experiences” after a recent eight-week meditation program, for example. But, she says, “while I have appreciation and love for the practices, and for my patients … I have all of these other people that have struggled, who are struggling.”
“I understand the resistance,” says Britton, in response to critics who have attempted to silence or dismiss her work. “There are parts of me that just want meditation to be all good. I find myself in denial sometimes, where I just want to forget all that I’ve learned and go back to being happy about mindfulness and promoting it, but then I get another phone call and meet someone who’s in distress, and I see the devastation in their eyes, and I can’t deny that this is happening. As much as I want to investigate and promote contemplative practices and contribute to the well-being of humanity through that, I feel a deeper commitment to what’s actually true.”
Read the full article The Atlantic: The Dark Knight Of The Soul