Advocates of meditation say it helps free the mind, possibly liberates the human spirit from bondage and leads to enlightenment. Others say meditation has many benefits and is effective in fighting depression. But few are discussing the negative effects of meditation.
These interview questions were adapted from CBC Radio. The responses below are by Scott at SkepticMeditations and are the author’s personal opinions and anecdotes.
Your interest in the negative effects of meditation began after you meditated for decades and spent 14 years in a Hindu-Yoga monastery. What happened to you?
I’ve had many positive experiences with meditation. However, I’ve noticed during the decades of my practice that my thoughts about meditation changed, matured. I used to believe that meditation, when practiced properly, brought enlightenment and spiritual liberation. My spiritual or religious aspirations motivated me to intense practice of meditation.
While I was an ordained monk in a Swami Order, I lived and meditated with hundreds of monastics. The daily routine in the ashram included four hours of intensive meditation–a minimum of two hours of private meditation, individually, and at least two hours of group meditation.
Nervous breakdowns of meditating monks
I knew monks who had nervous breakdowns and panic attacks. As far as I know these psychotic episodes did not occur during meditation. The strict 24/7/365 monastic rules and vows of imposed social pressure and a heavy emphasis on renunciants to strive for nothing less than absolute liberation and spiritual perfection.
Years of suppressing emotions led some monks, all vowed to celibacy, into romantic and sexual outbursts with other monastics or church members. One committed monk-friend hopped over the cloister walls and shopped for prostitutes. He was found out by the leaders of the community and was immediately asked to leave the Order. Another dedicated monk developed neurological tremors and twitches. Doctors didn’t know what caused his symptoms, they could not find any physiological cause. This monk was prescribed medications to control his tremors and psychoses. He eventually was asked to leave the Order, was incapable of taking care of himself and went to live with his parents who tried to sue the Order for psychological damages to their son.
My own nervous breakdown and panic attack lasted two days and nights. It was a terrible but invaluable experience. It was a breaking- and turning-point in my life. I freaked out, was paranoid, and imagined that the spiritual authorities would ask me to leave the Order. My beliefs about meditation were, at least partly, responsible.
You said that you thought meditation might be a good thing, but the benefits are overrated. What makes you say that?
Meditation has benefits. First, relaxing and learning to discipline body and mind are good things–within reason, in a balanced way. Observing our thoughts and emotions can be enlightening, frightening, and maddening.
Frankly, when we really listen to ourselves–to our inner chatter of thoughts and feelings–we quickly discover how petty, trivial, and neurotic we are. This realization can be unsettling and scarey. Also, most practitioners believe that their meditation methods are perfect and that any adverse effects are the fault of the practitioner. So we blame the victim–we fault ourselves for failing in meditation or for not living up to our spiritual ideals.
Once in a while the meditator gets a glimpse of subjective experience without all the chatter–she has a moment of peace, of thoughtlessness, of stillness. Those moments are profound but seem to be normal byproducts of being attentive and allowing ourselves opportunities to relax.
So how do you know negative side effects are connected with meditation? Couldn’t people have a pre-existing psychological condition that might be triggered by other things?
I don’t know that meditation by itself is the cause of negative side effects.
My experience and observation is that the meditator’s entire belief system or worldview contributes to psychotic episodes. Intense practice of meditation is often a way to escape problems or to dodge the reality of one’s life situation.
Westerners seem to believe in souls, afterlives, sins, karma. All sorts of wacky ideas seem normal. We project onto meditation all our societal and personal beliefs, fears, aspirations, and self-deceptions. If anything meditation without a strong rational, critical thinking mind will most likely lead the practitioner deeper into self-delusion, confusion, and disillusion. Having a good guide or therapist may help, but is no guarantee.
In your experience, when you saw profound psychosis in meditators that required long term treatment, was that typical for the people you knew who had problems with meditation?
Serious psychotic episodes were rare. But the dozen or so monks I know who had episodes were indeed serious: most required medical and psychological care, and were incapacitated for weeks, months, or years.
So some of the people that you’ve observed, like the monks you mentioned, these effects came after practicing meditation for years, sometimes decades?
Yes. Those monks who were the most sincere and most committed to meditation practice, and who were the most dedicated to following the spiritual guidelines of the religious community, they often had the worst psychotic episodes.
Seldom did meditators or monks talk about negative side effects or breakdowns. It goes against the foundation of meditator beliefs, of following a “higher” path or the wisdom of the gurus, and would call into question enlightenment or whatever liberated state of mind or being you want to call those ideals.
There are hundreds of millions of people who practice meditation. Why aren’t more of them coming to the same conclusions as you?
It’s difficult to step back from what the media, religion, and our intuitions are telling us. We humans want so much to believe in the meditative dream: that there is some utopia we can attain for ourselves and for humanity. Meditation is sold as a magic elixir: a promise of permanent peace, enlightenment, salvation from sins and suffering.
We humans are too easily trapped inside our own confirmation bubbles. Only when we are willing to burst those bubbles and think skeptically about the claims of meditation advocates do we have a chance to see we might actually be engulfed in magical- or wishful-thinking.
What do you think is happening in the process of meditation that’s leading people into a possible psychosis?
The beliefs that people hold about meditation I think are what exacerbate psychotic problems. We are taught and believe that we humans are broken, sinful, and egotistical (and that that’s bad) and that meditation is always good and will lead us to fixing our brokenness.
But what are the alternatives for people who are suffering who might benefit from meditation. What advice do you have for someone who’s thinking of taking up meditation?
Meditate is one option from many alternatives. I find that life’s simple pleasures provide me with equal benefits to meditation: listening to music, hiking in nature, cycling on backcountry roads and so on.
I encourage those who are considering meditation to ask themselves: why do I want to meditate? Do I challenge my beliefs and assumptions about the benefits of meditation? Do I read contrary viewpoints to my treasured notions about meditation or supernatural beliefs? We all need to develop our critical-thinking skills. We humans are extremely prone to endless self-delusions.
Read Can mindfulness meditation have negative side effects? on CBC Radio