in Meditation

Dark Side Of Meditation

Playing with fire, photo by Jeremy Higgs on Flickr

Playing with fire, photo by Jeremy Higgs on Flickr

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.”

Salinera/Salt Lake, photo by Mike Young at flickr

Salinera/Salt Lake, photo by Mike Young at flickr

[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.

TIME magazine’s 2 Feb 2014 cover (above, left) announces the arrival of the “Mindful Revolution.” The publication joins a flurry of recent examples confirming that a shift is taking place in the representation of meditation in American popular media.

TIME magazine’s 2 Feb 2014 cover (above, left) announces the arrival of the “Mindful Revolution.” The publication joins a flurry of recent examples confirming that a shift is taking place in the representation of meditation in American popular media.

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

Leave a Reply


  1. Yeesh, and I thought I had it bad because any time I ever tried to meditate I just ended up falling asleep.

    Very interesting dirty side of the coin here.

  2. @T.S.: Learning to practice meditation takes time and discipline. Like many pursuits, to get proficient at meditation discipline takes years of daily practice. Falling asleep, or “nodding off”, when attempting to practice meditation is fairly common. Just don’t want to make nodding or sleeping in meditation a habit. I’ve seen people in group meditations who when they sat down to meditation slept every time.

  3. Couple thoughts:

    (1) It would be interesting to see an intervention study instead of case reports, because we know that wacky people can be drawn to weird groups and it may not be the mediation practice causing the issues, but the person came in with issues which meditation can’t help.

    (2) I have always been suspect that some forms of meditation can be harmful for some dispositions. In some wiser meditation traditions, a teacher offers very different methods, depending on the temperament of the student. Most traditions are one-size-fits-all, however. “Meditation” is not “Meditation” — you can do tons of different stuff while your eyes are closed and label it “meditation” — having only one word for the activity (as in “prayer”) is a way of dumbing down true understanding.

    (3) I have also wondered if meditations which use systematic body relaxation, chakra focusing and such body awareness methods can (in some folks) nourish an underlying hypochondriacal neurosis (to use out-dated terms).

    Actually, I have written a bit on this back in 2010 — take a look if you’d like:

  4. @Sabio: Responding to your thoughts-
    1) I agree. How do we know that “adverse events” are the result of meditation practice itself? It would be helpful to see studies that could isolate and “unpack” meditation practice from the belief systems or lifestyles that many practitioners also have while practicing meditation. We can reverse the question above and also ask “How do we know that “beneficial” effects are the result of meditation practice itself”? Very difficult to isolate. But yet many and the media claim meditation is the “cause” of benefits but do not question further.

    2) Yes. “Meditation” has many different meanings to many different practitioners. However, there are some criteria that could be used to define meditation. Types of techniques, attention requirements, hours sitting, etc. Good question and problem with many meditation studies.

    3) In my experience in communities of practice with 100s of meditators, I’ve seen and read about situation where meditators pass through various psychological and emotional states which are questionable. It’s common for meditators to struggle with sleeping in meditation, or at least realize they may be dreaming or wandering in some mental imaginations. Some of these imaginations may not always be pleasant, like dreams. Some could be nightmares, very real and disturbing.

    I checked out your post on prayer and made a comment there. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me and readers.

  5. Concerning #2
    Yes, there are criterion but it would mean there are many types of meditation — using the word without qualifying which one, leads to confusion and overgeneralization.

  6. It’s about time someone addressed the dark side of spiritual seeking. I have a different take on it, though. To me, the dark side is no argument against anything, it is instead a much-needed clarification on what spiritual seekers are really asking for–if a better life is what they want, they’re barking up the wrong tree. What they are asking for is nothing less than total annihilation.

    I am not a Buddhist, not a Hindu, Christian nor a member of any spiritual or religious group. I have learned what I’ve learned on my own, only through years of seeking, suffering, and illness.

    Should we assume that those who suffer madness and torture from meditative practices are “the weak,” “not healthy enough,” etc? To the contrary! Those who see the demons are the strong ones, they are able to face reality for what it is. “Enlightenment,” if indeed it exists, has nothing to do with health or illness, strength or weakness, and it certainly is NOT about improving everyday “functionality.” it is simple the recognition of WHAT IS, and what is is not pretty. Those who escape a long-term meditative practice without any “dark nights” are the weak and deluded ones, because their need for the cosmos to be rainbows-and-carebears is too strong to allow reality and all of its horror and indifference to penetrate their armor.

    In the end I think this conflict has nothing at all to say about spiritual practices. Those who read articles like the Atlantic’s Dark Knight thinking meditation was some sort of medical treatment, and say “Oh, that’s disturbing and horrible! I’ll stay away from meditation now,”…those people are right to react the way they do. This is not about meditation being revealed as something bad. This is about the conflict between what meditation was designed for–to annihilate delusion–and what it has been co-opted and stolen for, to make people more productive cogs in the grand machine of technocapital. Of course those seeking the latter will not like the former, if they are so “lucky” as to find it.

    I’m thinking of writing an essay on this myself to post on my own blog–excellent work, and I look forward to reading more!

  7. @Katherine: Good points. I think contemplative practices have benefits. But probably, not the benefits we imagine them to be, or want them to be, or what techno-capitalists (and spiritual-consumers) market them as. There’s a big difference between the promise a product is “said” to have and what the product “actually” delivers. Discerning the “what is” factor, like you said, is not an easy task. I look forward to reading your essay.

    Thanks for your comments.

  8. Well, in Yoga meditation is at 7th limbs,

    Before that most Important part is Brahmacharya – celibacy, continence.. if anyone do without reaching to 8th limb it may create tragedy.

    (The five yamas are:
    Ahimsa: nonviolence
    Satya: truthfulness
    Asteya: nonstealing
    Brahmacharya: continence
    Aparigraha: noncovetousness)
    (The five niyamas are:
    Saucha: cleanliness
    Samtosa: contentment
    Tapas: heat; spiritual austerities
    Svadhyaya: study of the sacred scriptures and of one’s self
    Isvara pranidhana: surrender to God)

  9. @Param Purohit: Would you be able to explain why and how not “reaching” brahmacharya (celibacy) can lead to tragedy in practice of meditation? What kind of tragedy do you refer to? How does a practitioner “know” she has “reached” any states or limbs that you simply quote in your yoga doctrine?


  10. Are there those who meditate too much, so much that they lapse into daydreaming quite often and unable to focus for long periods of time…?