Can Meditation Have Negative Side Effects?

meditation negative side effects
Insomnia, Evan, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

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

5 comments

  1. Scott

    @John Allen: Excellent questions. There’s many reasons. I’ll give three general yet specific reasons below.

    A few of reasons–based on my perspective and my experience of being an SRF monk for 14 years–I’d say some SRF Monks may not speak much because:

    1) First let me say that most of the SRF monks, I knew, were generally good people who wanted to make the world a better place, save souls, by dedicating their life to spreading SRF teachings. Yet, doing good works in the world is not as important seeking God within, holding onto the after-effects of their meditation practice. It’s a strange dichotomy: self/ego, worldly/spiritual tension.

    2) Psychological insecurities, including fears of sexuality, worldliness/delusion, fear of outsiders/anyone not a monk. SRF monks are trained that they are chosen-by god/guru. People outside the monastery are somehow less-than ideal or at least enveloped in “worldliness”. The later is the whole premise for monasticism in the first place. It’s premise is monastic life is superior to all other life-stances.

    3) Majority of monks, that I knew, were introverts. There were a few monks that were extroverts. Though extroversion seemed rare and was often discouraged for reasons noted in point #1 above. SRF monks were generally encouraged to be friendly or welcoming to visitors of SRF temples or centers. SRF monks are human. Monastic training included avoiding direct eye contact with women or “worldly” people. I was a monk-host to visitors to SRF Mother Center and accompanied ministers at the SRF temples and services. It felt awkward many times. I often worried about saying or doing the wrong thing, of making too much eye contact, especially with women. Sexual insecurities are obvious. Monks take vows to be celibate.

    There’re many psychological problems inherent with these kinds of SRF ideals. I felt psychological pressure in SRF to be perfect within and without. I took my religion and SRF practices seriously. I wanted to attain the blessings of God, guru who were supposedly always watching–so often were the eyes of other SRF monks and members. It’s a closed system. Those inside it, can’t see it’s problems and believe the guru/SRF is their path and discipline to spiritual liberation. Psychologically, I believe, it’s a vicious cycle.

    Let me know what you think about the above. I’ll give your questions more thought and may be able to answer further in future comments or posts. Great questions. Scott

  2. John Allen

    Why don’t SRF Monastics speak much? For example, if I say hi to a monastic they will just keep walking. At Temple they would just hide in their office after the service and not talk to the congregation. If I would come up to one and chit chat with one they would just turn around and walk away. At Convocation, if you spoke to one during the meet and greet periods they would push you away after a few seconds to a minute. Also, after Temple service if their is a monastic walking around everybody knows not to speak to them. What is the game of unavailability being played here?

  3. Bip

    Thank you for your answer.
    The link doesn’t show, I don’t know why.
    What is perplexing is that meditation is said to help with stress amongst other things.
    But I guess meditation should only be seen as a tool, not a magic pill. Just like religion, practicing a religion doesn’t mean a person will magically be on the “good side”, it takes honesty and constant reevaluation of one’s acts and feelings.

    I cannot help her since nothing coming from me is of any value to her.
    She has been into psychotherapy a lot and is studying to become a psychotherapist, also studying to become a spiritual guide. She is in total denial about her attitude, and projects it onto others. So there is no chance she will understand herself since the problems come from others in her mind.
    For instance, she would scream and hang up on you if you don’t comply to her plans (even if you say it in a very careful and gentle manner), and then she will accuse you of saying things you didn’t say and accuse you of having hung up on her.
    She twists the reality, and will never see a problem in herself. I believe that is the reason why she wants to become an expert in those fields (psychotherapy and religion), not to be the one under scrutiny but the one who delivers the verdict. Outer image and opinion of outsiders is of primal importance for her.
    The gap between her inner world and her outer appearance is becoming so wide, I wonder if that point isn’t what’s creating more tension in herself.

    But you are right, the meditation isn’t what created this situation, she’s always been like that, with a gradual worsening.
    Anyway, a lot of stress ans distress.
    Thanks again for your answer!

  4. Scott

    @Bip: There’s a saying in statics, “correlation is not causation”. You’re acquaintance with difficult personality who started meditating may or may not have anything to do with meditation. Though there sometimes seems to be a correlation with people who meditate that on rare occasions experience serious psychotic episodes. Many meditators have reported psychotic experiences. I wrote about some of the possible adverse events in my posts at:
    Thanks

    P.S. I wonder if your acquaintance is getting medical help or professional psychological support. Are you able to help her get help?

  5. Bip

    I know someone who has had a difficult personality from childhood, and since she has two (opposite) facets, one private and one public, it is not visible to outsiders.
    It has grown in time, her tactics to hide her dark side has become more sophisticated. Extremely kind and charming in public, controlling, domineering and agressive in private (if things don’t go her way).

    It’s been a few years she started meditating (3 or 4), and it seems like the gap between the two personalities is getting wider, meaning that the more she is kind and perfect to outsiders, the bigger her rage when it blows in private.
    I believe that the meditation, although not responsable for a “condition” that was there before, has helped her ignore her dark side even further.
    I think it might totally cut her from any chance to get an insight to her problems, which she suppresses all the time.
    What scares me is the violence (not physical) that comes from her, and I don’t know where this is going to lead down the road…

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