challenges meditation-related experiences

Meditation-Related Challenges in Western Buddhists

Study shows meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists are underreported and adverse experiences such as anxiety, fear, or paranoia are common.

Most studies of meditation we read or hear of trumpet the benefits of contemplative practices. Meditation practices, especially mindfulness–a Buddhist-derived method, has become a popular form of health promotion. However, we seldom read or hear in the Western media and literature about the challenges with meditation-related experiences.

PLOS One published The Varieties of Contemplative Experience (VCE): A Mixed-Methods Study of Meditation-Related Challenges in Western Buddhists. Researchers cataloged 59 meditation-related experiences, which included challenging, distressing, and impairing situations which occurred to meditation practitioners.

To conduct the VCE study, researchers from Brown and Santa Barbara Universities recruited a total of 73 meditation experts and practitioners from Buddhist traditions: Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan.

This post provides a summary and comments on the VCE study.

Study of Meditation-Related Challenges with Western Buddhist-Meditators

For the VCE study, participants were asked to describe, in their own words, and to offer their own explanations of their meditation-related experiences. Participant’s responses to the researcher’s questions were cataloged. A catalog was compiled of  59 meditation-related experiences and used to categorize each of the participant’s reported experiences. Then each reported experience was weighted as a percentage of all the experiences reported by study participants.

For example, the three categories of meditation-related experiences most widely reported were:

  • Fear, anxiety, panic, or paranoia (82%)
  • Positive affect (75%)
  • Changes in self-other or self-world boundaries (53%)

Three interesting meditation-related challenges reported by study participants had to do with:

  • Inability to concentrate for extended periods, or problems with memory (executive functioning)
  • “Mind racing” as it’s commonly called or increased cognitive processing speed
  • Feelings ranging from bliss and joy to fear and terror

With my nearly two decades as an ordained monk practicing meditation, I found this VCE comment interesting:

Scrupulosity or obsessive and repetitive thoughts about ethical behavior, was primarily a concern for practitioners in a monastic context… p11

Researchers were neuroscientists, psychologists, and religious scholars

The five authors/researchers of the VCE study are from Brown University and University of Santa Barbara. The five are university professors each specializing, respectively, in a field of neuroscience, humanities, religion, or psychology.

The researchers from Brown University’s Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory (CLANlab) study contemplative, affective, and clinical neuroscience, specifically related to meditation practices. Co-directed by neuroscientist and clinical psychologist Willoughby Britton, Ph.D., and religious studies scholar Jared Lindahl, Ph.D., the lab researches the effects of contemplative practices on cognitive, emotional, and neurophysiological processes in both clinical and non-clinical settings.

My post Dark Side of Meditation discusses another meditation-related study from Brown University.

Participants were practitioners and experts of Buddhist-meditation

The VCE researchers recruited a total of 73 meditation experts and practitioners from Buddhist traditions: Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan.

The criteria for selecting the study’s 73 participants was:

  • Minimum 18 years of age
  • Meditation practice in a Buddhist tradition
  • Ability to report on meditation-related experience that was challenging, difficult, or distressing or impairing.

The criteria for excluding participants was:

  • History of unusual psychological experiences prior to learning meditation (eg. substance abuse or mental illness)
  • Mixed practice history that included non-Buddhist practices
  • Presence of medical illness that might account for challenging experiences.

Thirteen of the original 73 participants were eventually excluded from the final study results. (The final results were based on 60 participants). The participants were asked structured questions in an interview format lasting from 45 to 120 minutes.

Problems with VCE study

The VCE study, like most meditation-related research, is flawed, inconclusive, and has numerous weaknesses.

Common problems with meditation-related research and this VCE study, include:

  • Small sample size. VCE study included 57 participants in the final results.
  • Values (good or bad) of experiences were colored by the interpretations of subjects/interviewees.
  • Participants can interpret an experience as either positive or negative.

There is a wide range of interpretations about the meditation-related experiences. Interpretations can vary between persons, teachers, or meditation traditions.

In Conclusion

The Varieties of Contemplative Experience (VCE): A Mixed-Methods Study of Meditation-Related Challenges in Western Buddhists aimed to increase our understanding of the adverse effects of contemplative practices. The authors hoped to provide resources to promote health and to raise awareness of potential damaging effects of meditation-based practices.

While the VCE study offers unique insights into underreported challenges related to meditation, this paper is only a preliminary examination of the field. It does not provide conclusive evidence of the severity of benefits or problems with meditation-related experiences. However, we could draw a few conclusions.

Challenges related to meditation are typically underreported

Not everyone who practices meditation experiences health-promoting benefits.

A significant percentage of meditation-related experiences, in the VCE study, were challenging, distressing, or temporarily or permanently debilitating. At least one of the study participants reported meditation-related experiences that required medical support or hospitalization.

The 31 page (not including data tables and Supporting Information files) paper is available at:

PLOS One, The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists, Jared R. Lindahl , Nathan E. Fisher , David J. Cooper , Rochelle K. Rosen, Willoughby B. Britton. Published: May 24, 2017.

If you have any thoughts on meditation-related challenges, please write to us in the box below titled “Leave a Reply” and enter your comments there.

4 comments

  1. Ron Krumpos

    Two novice Buddhist monks were arguing about what ‘enlightenment’ meant. The abbot passed by and tapped both on the heads. “Stop thinking,” he said. It is not meditation itself which causes the problems, it is thinking about the problems of meditation.

    Devotees of mysticism can accept, intellectually, the absolute unity of all existence and ultimate oneness with the divine. Most other people either doubt these concepts or reject them altogether. Suddenly, consciously being in the One can transform some of the aspirants into confirmed mystics or shock a few non-believers into amazement. Each of them may emerge from that direct awareness enlightened; it might just result in their ego inflation or neurosis.

  2. Scott

    Interesting Buddhist story, Ron. I disagree with your conclusion. Most people don’t seem to doubt “mystical” concepts enough. Though they ought to more. Most people seem overeager to accept what some spiritual authority tells them about some mystic’s mystical experience.

    I don’t reject “mystical” experiences per se. I just don’t accept the claims I’ve heard so far of others who say they “know” what those experiences mean, especially when others value “mystical” experiences as superior to other experiences: thought, thinking, and acting.

    “When we finally break up with religion, we rebound. Eventually, non-religious people who once had religious epiphanies get those same feelings from being in nature, or from seeing profound scientific ideas expressed, says Jeffrey Anderson, a radiology professor at the University of Utah who studies religion in the brain. “The context changes but the experience doesn’t.” Most non-religious people are “passionately committed to some ideology or other…”

    My current “ideological commitment”, as well as my skepticism of mystical experiences, is pointed to in my post Re-Interpreting Mystical Experience.

  3. Ron Krumpos

    Sorry Scott…I missed your reply. You are right that you do not have to be religious, or believe in God, to have a “mystical experience.”

    I was introduced to mysticism in 1959 by a Nobel astrophysicist who was an atheist. During my career in the travel industry I met 18 other mystics, of five faiths, in 12 countries. None of them wanted to be called a mystic, let alone describe their absorption in universal oneness. Application to living is far more important. It transformed their sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on life.

  4. Scott

    @Ron: Sounds like you’ve had interesting travels and met interesting people.

    I don’t know if the term “mystical” is all that helpful. Carries so much religious baggage or spiritual ideology. I agree with you that what might be label “mystical” experiences could be profound or life-changing. Often, those same feelings can be trigger in nature, from thinking or feeling deeply or quietly, or listening to music, skydiving, etc. When we label certain experiences as spiritual or mystical it doesn’t necessarily say anything about the experience itself, just the person interpreting it. The context changes but the experience doesn’t.
    Thanks

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