Category: Adverse (side) effects

what meditation sickness

What is Meditation Sickness?

What do Eastern traditions say about “meditation sickness”? Who gets it and why?

“Meditation sickness” has been identified by various Eastern Buddhist traditions, and is sometimes also called “Zen sickness”, “falling into emptiness”, or “lung” (Tibetan rlung; pronounced loong).

It is not uncommon for various Buddhist masters, such as Guifeng Zongmi (780-841), a celebrated Zen master, to criticize excessive focus on meditation and achieving “inner stillness” (ningji). In Is Mindfulness Buddhist?, Robert Sharf professor of Buddhist studies at UC Berkeley, writes that Buddhist masters, like Zongmi, warned about disengagement from the world and used the term “meditation sickness” (chanbing) to criticize practices that were detrimental, mostly those techniques that emphasized inner stillness.1

Eastern masters like Zongmi, continues Sharf, were critical of practices that cultivated a non-critical or non-analytical presentness. In other words, what in today’s parlance we might call “zoning out”. We are not referring here to ordinary daydreaming or being lost in thought. Rather “meditation sickness” is a potentially harmful, even psychotic, reaction to too much immersion in meditation practice.

Meditation disorders in Buddhist traditions

In the introduction to The Varieties of Contemplative Experience: A Mixed-methods study of Meditation-related Challenges in Western Buddhists 2 we find brief descriptions from Buddhist sources of what is “meditation sickness”.

In Tibetan Buddhist traditions, nyams is a term that refers to a wide range of “meditation experiences”—from bliss and visions to intense body pain, physiological disorders, paranoia, sadness, anger and fear—which can be a source of challenge or difficulty for the meditation practitioner.

Interpretations vary in Buddhist traditions

We find in the Eastern sources that meditation-related experiences are wide-ranging and interpreted differently by different traditions. For instance:

In some Buddhist (and Hindu) lineages, meditation-related experiences are deliberately cultivated and framed as “signs of progress”. While in other lineages these experiences can be “dismissed as untrustworthy hindrances to genuine insight”.3

For example, in some Zen Buddhist lineages, makyō is a term that refers to “side-effects” or “disturbing conditions” that arise during the course of meditation practice and sometimes may be interpreted as signs of progress 4.

Zen has a long tradition of acknowledging the possibility that certain meditation practices can lead to a prolonged illness-like condition which has been called “Zen sickness” or “meditation sickness”.5

The Śūraṅgama Sūtra—a classic text of Mahāyāna Buddhism—identifies fifty deceptive or illusory experiences (skandha-māras) that are associated primarily, though not exclusively, with the practice of concentration (samādhi). The Sūtra particularly warns about pleasant experiences that lead the meditator into a false sense of spiritual progress, which results in misguided thinking and conduct.6

Likewise, “in Theravāda Buddhist traditions, progress in the practice of meditation is expected to lead to transient experiences called “corruptions of insight” (vipassanā-upakkilesā) on account of meditators’ tendency to confuse these blissful and euphoric states for genuine insight” 7.

Contemporary accounts report monks becoming “mentally unstable” in the wake of such states 8. Other stages of practice, in particular some of the “insight knowledges” (vipassanā-ñāṇa), are presented as being particularly challenging, especially in modern Asian sources 9.

Case: Meditation triggers Pennsylvania woman’s suicide

A June 29, 2017 report from PennLive, a media outlet in Pennsylvania, ran this article:

‘She didn’t know what was real’: Did 10-day meditation retreat trigger woman’s suicide?

The article describes twenty-five year old Megan Vogt who got afflicted with “meditation sickness” during a 10 day vipassana retreat in May 2017. “Instead of emerging from the course enlightened, Vogt exited incoherent, suicidal and in psychosis” wrote PennLive. Following her retreat, Vogt found herself in the psyche ward and wrote desperate emails to the retreat staff pleading for help. It did not help. Ten weeks later, Vogt was found dead after leaping from a catwalk on the Norman Wood Bridge, falling 120 feet. Tragic.

Westerners Dealing with Meditation “Disease”

In his Spiritual Sickness chapter in A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment Scott Carney gives Westerners’ several accounts of meditation “diseases”, including some which are fatal.

Carney writes:

“In 2002, [Amy Cayton, a psychologist] recited mantras on a three-week meditation retreat and something started to go wrong. At night she tossed and turned in her bed, and her mind kept spinning over the same anxious ideas. At breakfast she didn’t feel like herself. By lunchtime she had trouble breathing. Then, as she hunched over a vegetarian meal, she began to gasp for air. A woman put a hand on Cayton’s shoulder and gave her a diagnosis that she had never read in any of her psychological literature. The lady gave her a concerned look and said that Amy Cayton had lung: the meditator’s disease.

“I was the sort of person who gave 110 percent to everything, and approached meditation the same way. Then lung set in and I was suddenly emotional over everything. I’d get angry over nothing, or just burst into tears. Western doctors couldn’t diagnose the physical symptoms–shortness of breath, and loss of memory. And then there was the exhaustion. The main thing was exhaustion.”

“Cayton approached Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the founder of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT)…Based on Cayton’s symptoms, he suggested an aggressive regimen of Tibetan medicine. He instructed her to eat heavier foods and stop meditating for a while. It took time, but eventually her symptoms subsided.”10

After Cayton fully recovered Lama Zopa requested that she put together a collection of stories from FPMT students for Westerners dealing with the “meditation disease” known as lung. Her book, Balanced Mind, Balanced Body: Anecdotes and Advice from Tibetan Buddhist Practitioners on Wind Disease, is available from FPMT store.

Case: An interpretation in Hindu tradition

The Self-Realization Fellowship is a Hindu-inspired meditation group headquartered in Los Angeles. For decades I lived within the monastic orders’ ashrams. There I was committed 110% to meditation practices as taught in the SRF Lessons. In my blog post, Blank Minds and Tramp Souls, I wrote that SRF warned of the dangers of meditating in the dark without a nightlight and of letting the mind go blank (empty).

For, according to SRF, meditating in the dark or letting your mind go blank (empty) could allow entry of tramp souls to come and possess your body and mind. Demonic possession: A spooky belief, that filled me with fear to be sure. Apparently that was the best SRF could do, provide a childish superstitious diagnosis of psychoses as supernatural demonic possession, instead of warn us like adults that intensive meditation may cause temporary or permanent psychological damage.

What’s causes and cures meditation sickness?

For some people the promise of “enlightenment” pushes them to forsake people around them and risk their lives and sanity. These tend to be the people who get afflicted with meditation sickness. The cure is apparently to meditate less or stop meditating, engage with the world around them, and see a medical professional. The best cure could be prevention: Doubt and critical examination of the promises of enlightenment, nirvana, or samadhi. The connection between intensive meditation and mental instability is unclear. People who get meditation sickness appear to be the most sincere seekers and intense meditators.

Read other posts I’ve written related to:

Adverse (Side) Effects of meditation practices.

Connection Between Intensive Meditation & Mental Instability with quotations from the book cited above A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment.

Notes

Featured image: Courtesy of new 1lluminati, multiverse, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

1 Robert H. Sharf. Is Mindfulness Buddhist? (and why it matters). Transcultural Psychiatry. 2015. Vol 52(4). 470-484. [link]

2  Jared R. Lindahl , Nathan E. Fisher , David J. Cooper , Rochelle K. Rosen, Willoughby B. Britton. The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists. PLOS ONE. May 24, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176239

3 Gyatso J. Healing burns with fire: The facilitations of experience in Tibetan Buddhism. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 1999;67(1):113–47.

4 Sogen O. An Introduction to Zen training. (D. Hosokawa, Trans.) Boston: Tuttle Publishing; 2001. And, Aitken R. Taking the Path of Zen. San Francisco: North Point Press; 1982.

5 Hakuin. Idle talk on a night boat. In: Waddell N, editor. Hakuin’s Precious Mirror Cave. Berkeley: Counterpoint; 2009.

6 Hua H. The Shurangama Sutra with commentary, Vol. 8. Burlingame, CA: Buddhist Text Publication Society; 2003.

7 Buddhaghosa B. The Path of Purification. Onalaska, WA: Buddhist Publication Society; 1991.

8 Sayadaw M. Manual of insight. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications; 2016.

9 Tate A. The Autobiography of a Forest Monk. Chiang Mai: Wat Hin Mark Peng; 1993.

10 Carney S. A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment. Avery;2015. p200-201

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.

Connection Between Intensive Meditation & Mental Instability

Photo by Moyan Brenn, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Photo by Moyan Brenn, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Is there a connection between intensive meditation and mental instability? How much should people risk to pierce the veil of divinity itself?

In A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment, investigative journalist and anthropologist Scott Carney unravels riveting accounts of Westerners obsessed with Eastern spiritual teachings. In gripping narrative, Carney delves into the characters of people obsessed with “enlightenment” to the brink that pushes them into insanity.

This post is my review of an absorbing book:

A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment, Scott Carney, Gotham/Penguin Books: NY:NY, Hardcover, 2015

a death on diamond mountain skeptic meditations

“Ian Thorson was well known only briefly in Buddhist circles, and more so for the unusual circumstances around his death than for any of the actions in his life. Looked at from one perspective, his plunge toward enlightenment is an obvious case of madness. Yet lurking in the shadows of the cave where he died are clues about the idiosyncratic reasons Americans have adapted Eastern mysticism to their own ends. More important, Thorson’s own self-sacrifice begs the question, How much is too much to risk for a chance to pierce the veil of divinity itself?” p 13

Path to Enlightenment Fraught with Danger?

On the morning of April 22, 2012 a thirty-eight year old Stanford student, Ian Thorson, died of dysentery and dehydration on a remote Arizona mountain top during his intensive quest for enlightenment. After Thorson’s demise, Carney was struck by how Thorson’s tragic death was similar to the suicide of a young woman he traveled to India with for a silent meditation retreat.

The unorthodox Buddhist teachings of Western Lama Geshe Michael Roach, and his ex-wife Lama Christie McNally, took on a grim reality that culminated during an intensive meditation retreat when Ian Thorson died in McNally’s arms while hiding in a cave to achieve enlightenment1.

Lama Geshe Michael Roach explained that “…Doing yoga for four hours a day or five hours a day; it’s not fun. And it’s not a joke. It’s a life-or-death attempt to become a being who can serve all living creatures before you die”. p 132

Using Thorson’s tragic spiritual journey as a springboard, Carney investigates how the promise of “enlightenment” pushes some people to forsake the world around them and risk their lives and sanity.

Striking parallels with the meditation cult I followed

Reading A Death on Diamond Mountain reminded me of my own decades-long spiritual quest with an Eastern meditation guru. I had forsaken the world, family, all–to obtain the guru promised spiritual liberation. In my obsession to pursue enlightenment, I escaped to the cloistered monastic community on top of Mount Washington that overlooked the jagged skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles2.

Eyal Richter, untitled, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Eyal Richter, untitled, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

There are striking parallels between the cult of yoga meditation that I followed and the tragic obsessions with enlightenment recounted in A Death on Diamond Mountain.    

In upcoming posts I will examine these parallels with dangerous spiritual obsessions, such as Thorson’s in his unorthodox Buddhist cult, with certain spiritual diseases, and with the psychic costs and madness I witnessed while I was a monk for fourteen years in the Self-Realization Fellowship yoga meditation cult.

Students of yoga meditation and Eastern spirituality, or any person concerned about the risks on the path to enlightenment, owe it to themselves to read this absorbing book, A Death on Diamond Mountain.  

The final sentence of the book is, “Only the curious will learn what happened here”. Unfortunately, many serious devotees lack interest in learning about the risks of intensive meditation. Worse, they deny risks. Many people obsessed with the quest for spiritual awakening are in danger of abuse and mental instability.

A Death on Diamond Mountain is an engrossing investigative story that reveals how an obsessive quest for enlightenment is riddled with danger.

Notes

1 Here’s an ABC News video on the tragic events that led to the death of Ian Thorson and the reactions from his stunned, angered family: Buddhist Yoga Retreat Death Raises Questions on Ariz. Monk’s ‘Enlightenment’ Preaching

2 Read my Monasticism index of posts for many of the experiences and examinations I had within the Monastic Order of Self-Realization Fellowship.

The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?

the buddha pillCan practice of contemplative techniques bring lasting personal change? If so, are changes always for the better?

Two Oxford psychologists, Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm, examine the empirical evidence and tease out facts from fictions about meditation.

In The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? Farias and Wikholm examine 40 years of clinical studies about the effects of Transcendental Meditation, popularized by Beatles Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and investigate the astonishing claims made by mindfulness meditation advocates.

Meditation practice appears to have physiological benefits. Yet, “a crucial problem”, grapples Farias, “is how to pinpoint the active ingredient of mindfulness that helps with depression.” (p 111)

The authors also did their own empirical studies using inmates of U.K. prisons: stress-testing the effects of yoga meditation on murderers, rapists, and thugs.

Examining 40 years of research on effects of meditation, the authors concluded:

  1. Scientific evidence for lasting change from meditation practice is weak.
  2. Only modest changes for practitioners of meditation. Yet many who use or teach meditation techniques make astonishing claims about their powers.
  3. Meditation gives rise to different mental states, but there is nothing physiologically extraordinary going on.
  4. Studies are poorly conducted: have small sample sizes, lack proper control groups, and full of problematic biases. They explain why in detail.
  5. There is a dark side to meditation–psychosis, breakdowns, and violent behaviors–that seldom is spoken of by meditation advocates and practitioners.

Farias and Wikholm are sympathetic to meditation. Though the empirical evidence revealed that meditation is not a cure-all and is not a magic pill, while some practitioners experience nothing and others have adverse side-effects.

“I haven’t stopped believing in meditation’s ability to fuel change, but I am concerned that the science of meditation is promoting a skewed view: meditation wasn’t developed so we could lead less stressful lives or improve our wellbeing. It’s primary purpose was much more radical–to rupture your idea of who you are; to shake to the core your sense of self so that you realize there is ‘nothing there’.” (p 152)

The chapter The Dark Side of Meditation gives many examples of Buddhist violence and how a Buddha or bodhisattva may justify killing. Farias recounts how during his visit to an Indian yoga guru’s ashram, he was confronted by machine gun-carrying guards and was walled-in by pro-death penalty posters. “What if Hitler had meditated?” they ask: speculating what if the Fuhrer would have meditated and experienced lasting physiological change, conquered the world by compassion and peace instead of killing and violence.

“One of the crucial teachings of Buddhism is that of emptiness: the self is ultimately unreal, so the bodhisattva who kills with full knowledge of the emptiness of the self, kills no one; both the self of the killer and the self of the the killed are nothing more than an illusion (p 166).

“The most recent evidence, which analyzes dozens of studies conducted over more than forty years, suggests that if you are generally anxious or emotionally unstable, TM (Transcendental Meditation) will help you to a moderate extent, and will be more effective than simple relaxation. If you have have high blood pressure, the American Heart Association recommends TM (while mindfulness is not recommended), although physical exercise, such as swimming or running, would be better.” (p 14)

A ground-breaking book, The Buddha Pill, promotes critical thinking about meditation in an easy to follow and yoga-friendly tone. Farias and Wikholm guide the reader to question and think critically about the astonishing claims of meditation advocates.

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