Psychotherapy and Meditation

CC BY 2.0
CC BY 2.0

Psychotherapy and meditation have long been at polar opposites, the rational and scientific versus the intuitive.

In The Observing Self (Beacon Press, 1983) Arthur Deikman M.D. relates how the mystical tradition of meditation can enable Western psychology to come to terms with the essential problems of meaning, self, and human progress. Deikman was a contributor to The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. His books include Personal Freedom: On Finding Your Way to the Real World (1976) and The Wrong Way Home: Uncovering the Patterns of Cult Behavior in American Society (1990).

Intrigued by his experiences of altered awareness while he vacationed alone in the wilderness of the Adirondacks, noted psychiatrist Arthur Deikman became a pioneering investigator of mystical states in the 1950s. In the following decade he created a humane form of psychotherapeutic treatment for patients suffering from psychosis, sometimes defined as loss of contact with reality. Deikman also became a student of Zen meditation under Suzuki Roshi, of Sufism under Idries Shah, and engaged with leaders within the 1970s Human Potential Movement.

“Adverse effects are common”

Arthur Deikman 2010
Arthur Deikman 2010

An advocate for meditation, mysticism, and intuition, in The Observing Self Deikman also warns:1

“In considering the potential usefulness of meditation for psychotherapy, we must recognize that some people are unable or unwilling to meditate. Most who start quit, in spite of obtaining initial benefits. [The same applies with prescriptions for drugs and other therapeutic treatments]. Not everyone is improved by the experience; on the contrary, adverse effects are common. Some people find intensive meditation a convenient way to withdraw from social interaction and defend against intimacy. Good results are not guaranteed: certain meditations can increase obsessiveness and schizoid tendencies. Impressive altered states of consciousness are not necessarily accompanied by an increase in maturity. In fact, the reverse is just as likely. Misinterpretation of altered consciousness may result in an increase in grandiosity, magical thinking, and paranoia. Anxiety, even terror, may be occasioned by the weakening of conceptual and perceptual boundaries.

Adverse effects are almost certain for those who reason that if thirty minutes of meditation is good, three hours is better, and three days even more so. Such dubious logic seems to flourish in the field of esoteric practice. These people would not ordinarily consider taking one hundred aspirin simply because two had relieved their headache. Although they begin meditation on a modest enough scale, they soon proceed to gorge themselves. The result can be psychotic decompensation.

Because of these possible effects, authors who advocate meditation for psychotherapeutic purposes usually specify the techniques be employed selectively by a therapist trained in the procedure and able to deal with idiosyncratic [adverse] reactions.

The problems attendant to using meditation in psychotherapy are not limited to the patient. When the use of meditation is at variance with or unintegrated with the therapist’s natural style and clinical training, the effect on therapy is likely to be detrimental. As with any other intervention, the prescription of meditation by the therapist may be in the service of countertransference [when the personal feelings of the therapist are transfered to the patient] or overlook an impasse that should be explored or resolved. Equally important, the need for meditation techniques may be reduced or eliminated by a more adroit use of a therapist’s own techniques and clinical knowledge. Unless these different considerations are borne in mind, the patient could easily end up with neither good meditation nor good therapy”.


1 Deikman, Arthur, J. M.D., The Observing Self: Mysticism and Psychotherapy, Beacon Press, Boston. 1982. Paperback. p 149-51

See Deikman for written works by Arthur J. Deikman


  1. SkepticMeditations

    @2bidule22: I agree that for many people there’s value in meditation and deep personal experiences. I can’t say I agree “therefore no misinterpretations”. I think it’s smart to be skeptical of “guides” who promise realization, enlightenment, or liberation. Thanks for your comments.

  2. 2bidule22

    Thanx. I should have put “right” between brackets. But I was also being provocative. I know there’s not an only one right interpretation, or maybe even not any right interpretationS. Therefore no misinterpretations….
    I think we agree that these “symptoms” might just happen if you meditate. Here should intervene “the guru” or your meditation teacher. It should be their job to monitor and give some advice. I say should because, from my own experience, it seems these psychological phenomena can not be shared and understood easily by another person. My ” gurus” didn’t understand my stuff simply because they didn’t experience it. And didn’t bother really because their main plan is to make out of you an effective participant of the group. Do competent meditation advisers exist (not for short term learning classes but for years and thousand s of hours of meditation) ? Are there people abble to guide you in your very personal depoths to “a” ” right ” path. A right path, a detailed path they know of.
    The fact that it is all human phenomena, and I agree on that, doesn’t mean it has to be discarded as bullshit or potentially dangerous fantasies. Can deep/long meditation lead us “somewhere” interesting ? Or should it be avoided as it will make you feel like an alien, for no profit at all ?
    I still think there are right pathS . But no proper guides on the trecks of that lonely planet. Worth exploring. I heard it hides an Eldorado lol.

  3. SkepticMeditations

    @2bidule22: Thanks for your comments. I’ll post more and welcome additional sources from readers.

    Regarding your questions:
    “What is the right interpretation?” and “Where is it supposed to lead us to?” – The word “right” is tricky. I’d avoid using that word here. And, frankly, I don’t know. However…

    I’m taking the position that these are human phenomena. (As important as all human experience is, no more, no less). It is not what we make it to mean. It’s a misconstruction to interpret it at face value. It’s human speculation masquerading as knowledge or revelation. Failure to see that is a failure of critical judgement.

  4. 2bidule22

    ” Misinterpretation of altered consciousness may result in an increase in grandiosity, magical thinking, and paranoia. Anxiety, even terror, may be occasioned by the weakening of conceptual and perceptual boundaries ”
    More on that anytime please. Thanx.
    Misinterpretation of altered consciousness… Isn’t it rather difficult to have “The” correct interpretation/perception? So, what is the right interpretation ? The weakening of conceptual and perceptual boundaries… Where is it supposed to lead us to ? And so on… Many questions on that matter.

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