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RobertK

Member Since 25 Apr 2006
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In Topic: pdfs

22 May 2019 - 10:58 AM

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In Topic: pdfs

22 May 2019 - 10:57 AM

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In Topic: Wrong view

21 May 2019 - 06:54 AM

 MN 12
 
 
"Sāriputta, when I know and see thus, should anyone say of me: 'The recluse Gotama does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. The recluse Gotama teaches a Dhamma [merely] hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him' - unless he abandons that assertion and that state of mind and relinquishes that view, than as [surely] as if he had been] carried off and put there he will wind up in hell."

In Topic: Any dangers with intensive meditation?

21 May 2019 - 04:45 AM

 
Is mindfulness making us ill?
It’s the relaxation technique of choice, popular with employers and even the NHS. But some have found it can have unexpected effects
 
Dawn Foster
Dawn Foster
 
 @dawnhfoster   Email
Sat 23 Jan 2016 10.00 GMT Last modified on Wed 14 Feb 2018 21.13 GMT
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 Illustration of woman meditating with a shadow of the same woman holding her own head
 Illustration: Nick Lowndes for the Guardian
I am sitting in a circle in a grey, corporate room with 10 housing association employees – administrators, security guards, cleaners – eyes darting about nervously. We are asked to eat a sandwich in silence. To think about every taste and texture, every chewing motion and bite. Far from being relaxed, I feel excruciatingly uncomfortable and begin to wonder if my jaw is malfunctioning. I’m here to write about a new mindfulness initiative, and since I’ve never to my knowledge had any mental health issues and usually thrive under stress, I anticipate a straightforward, if awkward, experience.
 
Then comes the meditation. We’re told to close our eyes and think about our bodies in relation to the chair, the floor, the room: how each limb touches the arms, the back, the legs of the seat, while breathing slowly. But there’s one small catch: I can’t breathe. No matter how fast, slow, deep or shallow my breaths are, it feels as though my lungs are sealed. My instincts tell me to run, but I can’t move my arms or legs. I feel a rising panic and worry that I might pass out, my mind racing. Then we’re told to open our eyes and the feeling dissipates. I look around. No one else appears to have felt they were facing imminent death. What just happened?
 
 
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For days afterwards, I feel on edge. I have a permanent tension headache and I jump at the slightest unexpected noise. The fact that something seemingly benign, positive and hugely popular had such a profound effect has taken me by surprise.
 
Mindfulness, the practice of sitting still and focusing on your breath and thoughts, has surged in popularity over the last few years, with a boom in apps, online courses, books and articles extolling its virtues. It can be done alone or with a guide (digital or human), and with so much hand-wringing about our frenetic, time-poor lifestyles and information overload, it seems to offer a wholesome solution: a quiet port in the storm and an opportunity for self-examination. The Headspace app, which offers 10-minute guided meditations on your smartphone, has more than three million users worldwide and is worth over £25m. Meanwhile, publishers have rushed to put out workbooks and guides to line the wellness shelves in bookshops.
 
 After meditation I would do things that were out of character, acting erratically. I had panic attacks
Large organisations such as Google, Apple, Sony, Ikea, the Department of Health and Transport for London have adopted mindfulness or meditation as part of their employee packages, claiming it leads to a happier workforce, increased productivity and fewer sick days. But could such a one-size-fits-all solution backfire in unexpected ways?
 
Even a year later, recalling the sensations and feelings I experienced in that room summons a resurgent wave of panic and tightness in my chest. Out of curiosity, I try the Headspace app, but the breathing exercises leave me with pins and needles in my face and a burgeoning terror. “Let your thoughts move wherever they please,” the app urges. I just want it to stop. And, as I discovered, I’m not the only person who doesn’t find mindfulness comforting.
 
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Claire, a 37-year-old in a highly competitive industry, was sent on a three-day mindfulness course with colleagues as part of a training programme. “Initially, I found it relaxing,” she says, “but then I found I felt completely zoned out while doing it. Within two or three hours of later sessions, I was starting to really, really panic.” The sessions resurfaced memories of her traumatic childhood, and she experienced a series of panic attacks. “Somehow, the course triggered things I had previously got over,” Claire says. “I had a breakdown and spent three months in a psychiatric unit. It was a depressive breakdown with psychotic elements related to the trauma, and several dissociative episodes.”
 
Four and a half years later, Claire is still working part-time and is in and out of hospital. She became addicted to alcohol, when previously she was driven and high-performing, and believes mindfulness was the catalyst for her breakdown. Her doctors have advised her to avoid relaxation methods, and she spent months in one-to-one therapy. “Recovery involves being completely grounded,” she says, “so yoga is out.”
 
Research suggests her experience might not be unique. Internet forums abound with people seeking advice after experiencing panic attacks, hearing voices or finding that meditation has deepened their depression after some initial respite. In their recent book, The Buddha Pill, psychologists Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm voice concern about the lack of research into the adverse effects of meditation and the “dark side” of mindfulness. “Since the book’s been published, we’ve had a number of emails from people wanting to tell us about adverse effects they have experienced,” Wikholm says. “Often, people have thought they were alone with this, or they blamed themselves, thinking they somehow did it wrong, when actually it doesn’t seem it’s all that uncommon.”
 
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One story in particular prompted Farias to look further into adverse effects. Louise, a woman in her 50s who had been practising yoga for 20 years, went away to a meditation retreat. While meditating, she felt dissociated from herself and became worried. Dismissing it as a routine side-effect of meditation, Louise continued with the exercises. The following day, after returning home, her body felt completely numb and she didn’t want to get out of bed. Her husband took her to the doctor, who referred her to a psychiatrist. For the next 15 years she was treated for psychotic depression.
 
Farias looked at the research into unexpected side-effects. A 1992 study by David Shapiro, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, found that 63% of the group studied, who had varying degrees of experience in meditation and had each tried mindfulness, had suffered at least one negative effect from meditation retreats, while 7% reported profoundly adverse effects including panic, depression, pain and anxiety. Shapiro’s study was small-scale; several research papers, including a 2011 study by Duke University in North Carolina, have raised concerns at the lack of quality research on the impact of mindfulness, specifically the lack of controlled studies.
 
Farias feels that media coverage inflates the moderate positive effects of mindfulness, and either doesn’t report or underplays the downsides. “Mindfulness can have negative effects for some people, even if you’re doing it for only 20 minutes a day,” Farias says. “It’s difficult to tell how common [negative] experiences are, because mindfulness researchers have failed to measure them, and may even have discouraged participants from reporting them by attributing the blame to them.”
 
Kate Williams, a PhD researcher in psychiatry at the University of Manchester and a mindfulness teacher, says negative experiences generally fall into one of two categories. The first is seen as a natural emotional reaction to self-exploration. “What we learn through meditation is to explore our experiences with an open and nonjudgmental attitude, whether the experience that arises is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral,” she says.
 
The second, Williams says, is more severe and disconcerting: “Experiences can be quite extreme, to the extent of inducing paranoia, delusions, confusion, mania or depression.” After years of training, research and practice, her own personal meditation has included some of these negative experiences. “Longer periods of meditation have at times led me to feel a loss of identity and left me feeling extremely vulnerable, almost like an open wound,” Williams says. As an experienced mindfulness teacher, however, she says she is able to deal with these negative experiences without lasting effect.
 
Rachel, a 34-year-old film-maker from London, experimented with mindfulness several years ago. An old school friend who had tried it attempted to warn her off. “He said, ‘It’s hardcore – you’ll go through things you don’t want to go through and it might not always be positive.’ I suppose sitting with yourself is hard, especially when you’re in a place where you don’t really like yourself. Meditation can’t ‘fix’ anyone. That’s not what it’s for.”
 
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After a few months of following guided meditations, and feeling increasingly anxious, Rachel had what she describes as a “meltdown” immediately after practising some of the techniques she’d learned; the relationship she was in broke down. “That’s the horrible hangover I have from this: instead of having a sense of calm, I overanalyse and scrutinise everything. Things would run round in my mind, and suddenly I’d be doing things that were totally out of character, acting very, very erratically. Having panic attacks that would restrict my breathing and, once, sent me into a blackout seizure on the studio floor that involved an ambulance trip to accident and emergency.” Rachel has recovered to some extent; she experiences similar feelings on a lower level even today, but has learned to recognise the symptoms and take steps to combat them.
 
 Illustration of woman meditating with a shadow of the same woman holding her own head
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 Illustration: Nick Lowndes for the Guardian
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So are employers and experts right to extol the virtues of mindfulness? According to Will Davies, senior lecturer at Goldsmiths and author of The Happiness Industry, our mental health has become a money-making opportunity. “The measurement of our mental and emotional states at work is advancing rapidly at the moment,” he says, “and businesses are increasingly aware of the financial costs that stress, depression and anxiety saddle them with.”
 
Rather than removing the source of stress, whether that’s unfeasible workloads, poor management or low morale, some employers encourage their staff to meditate: a quick fix that’s much cheaper, at least in the short term. After all, it’s harder to complain that you’re under too much stress at work if your employer points out that they’ve offered you relaxation classes: the blame then falls on the individual. “Mindfulness has been grabbed in recent years as a way to help people cope with their own powerlessness in the workplace,” Davies says. “We’re now reaching the stage where mandatory meditation is being discussed as a route to heightened productivity, in tandem with various apps, wearable devices and forms of low-level employee surveillance.”
 
One former Labour backbencher, Chris Ruane, recently proposed meditation for civil servants, on the basis that it would cut Whitehall costs by lowering sick leave through stress, rather than making the workplace and jobs less stressful in the first place. “The whole agenda is so fraught with contradictions, between its economic goals and its supposedly spiritual methods,” Davies argues. “It’s a wonder anyone takes it seriously at all.”
 
Mindfulness has also been adopted by the NHS, with many primary care trusts offering and recommending the practice in lieu of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). “It fits nicely with the Nutribullet-chugging, clean-eating crowd, because it doesn’t involve any tablets,” says Bethan, a mental health nurse working in east London. “My main problem with it is that it’s just another word for awareness.”
 
 My main problem with mindfulness is that it’s just another word for awareness
Over the past few years, Bethan has noticed mindfulness mentioned or recommended increasingly at work, and says many colleagues have been offered sessions and training as part of their professional development. But the move towards mindfulness delivered through online or self-help programmes isn’t for everyone. “It’s fine, but realising you have depression isn’t the same as tackling it,” she says. “I don’t see it as any different from the five-a-day campaign: we know what we should be eating, but so many of us don’t do it. We know that isolating ourselves isn’t helpful when we feel blue, but we still do that.”
 
Part of the drive is simple cost-cutting. With NHS budgets squeezed, resource-intensive and diverse therapies that involve one-on-one consultations are far more expensive to dispense than online or group therapies such as mindfulness. A CBT course costs the NHS £950 per participant on average, while mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, because it’s delivered in a group, comes in at around £300 a person. “It’s cheap, and it does make people think twice about their choices, so in some respects it’s helpful,” Bethan says.
 
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But in more serious cases, could it be doing more harm than good? Florian Ruths has researched this area for 10 years, as clinical lead for mindfulness-based therapy in the South London and Maudsley NHS foundation trust. He believes it is possible to teach yourself mindfulness through apps, books or online guides. “For most people, I think if you’re not suffering from any clinical issues, or illness, or from stress to a degree that you’re somewhat disabled, it’s fine,” he says. “We talk about illness as disability, and disability may arise through sadness, it may arise through emotional disturbance, like anxiety. Then, obviously, it becomes a different ballgame, and it would be good to have a guided practice to take you through it.” This runs counter to the drive towards online mindfulness apps, delivered without supervision, and with little to no adaptation to individual needs or problems.
 
But for Ruths, the benefits outweigh the risk of unusual effects. “If we exercise, we live longer, we’re slimmer, we’ve got less risk of dementia, we’re happier and less anxious,” he says. “People don’t talk about the fact that when you exercise, you are at a natural risk of injuring yourself. When people say in the new year, ‘I’m going to go to the gym’ – out of 100 people who do that, about 20 will injure themselves, because they haven’t been taught how to do it properly, or they’ve not listened to their bodies. So when you’re a responsible clinician or GP, you tell someone to get a good trainer.”
 
 People may not know they have a bipolar vulnerability until they try mindfulness
Certain mental health problems increase the risk of adverse effects from mindfulness. “If you have post-traumatic stress disorder, there is a certain chance that you may find meditation too difficult to do, as you may be re-experiencing traumatic memories,” Ruths says. “Once again, it’s about having experienced trainers to facilitate that. We’ve seen some evidence that people who’ve got bipolar vulnerability may struggle, but we need to keep in mind that it may be accidental, or it may be something we don’t know about yet.”
 
Of course, people may not know they have a bipolar vulnerability until they try mindfulness. Or they might have repressed the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, only for these to emerge after trying the practice.
 
How can an individual gauge whether they’re likely to have negative side-effects? Both Farias and Ruths agree there isn’t a substantial body of evidence yet on how mindfulness works, or what causes negative reactions. One of the reasons is obvious: people who react badly tend to drop out of classes, or stop using the app or workbook; rather than make a fuss, they quietly walk away. Part of this is down to the current faddishness of mindfulness and the way it’s marketed: unlike prescribed psychotherapy or CBT, it’s viewed as an alternative lifestyle choice, rather than a powerful form of therapy.
 
Claire is clear about how she feels mindfulness should be discussed and delivered: “A lot of the people who are trained in mindfulness are not trained in the dangers as well as the potential benefits,” she says. “My experience of people who teach it is that they don’t know how to help people if it goes too far.”
 
There is currently no professionally accredited training for mindfulness teachers, and nothing to stop anyone calling themselves a mindfulness coach, though advocates are calling for that to change. Finding an experienced teacher who comes recommended, and not being afraid to discuss negative side-effects with your teacher or GP, means you’re far more likely to enjoy and benefit from the experience.
 
As both Claire and I have found, there are alternative relaxation methods that can keep you grounded: reading, carving out more time to spend with friends, and simply knowing when to take a break from the frenetic pace of life. Meanwhile, Claire’s experience has encouraged her to push for a better understanding of alternative therapies. “No one would suggest CBT was done by someone who wasn’t trained,” she says. “I’d like to see a wider discussion about what mindfulness is – and on what the side-effects can be.”

In Topic: Any dangers with intensive meditation?

30 October 2018 - 08:29 AM

MEDITATION IS TOUTED AS A CURE FOR MENTAL INSTABILITY BUT CAN IT       ACTUALLY BE BAD FOR YOU?
If it's so powerful, might meditation also do harm to sensitive souls? Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, it can leave devotees in pieces
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Indy/Life

Aaron Alexis was looking for something. He started attending a Buddhist temple in Washington and learned to meditate; he hoped it would bring him wisdom and peace. "I want to be a Buddhist monk," he once told a friend from the temple. His friend advised him to keep studying, and Alexis did. He learned Thai and kept going to the temple – chanting, meditating. But other things got in the way.

On 16 September 2013, Alexis drove into Washington's Navy Yard. It was 8am. He'd been working there not long before, and security let him in. Minutes later, the security cameras caught him holding a shotgun, and by 9am, 12 people were dead. Alexis killed randomly, first using his shotgun and, after running out of ammunition, the handgun belonging to a guard he'd just killed. He died after an exchange of gunfire with the police.

 

It took only 24 hours for a journalist to notice Alexis had been a Buddhist, prompting her to ask: "Can there be a less positive side to meditation?" Western Buddhists immediately reacted: "This man represented the Dharma teachings no more than 9/11 terrorists represented the teachings of Islam," wrote one. Others explained that Alexis had a history of mental illness. However, some noted that meditation, for all its de-stressing and self-development potential, can take you deeper into the recesses of your mind than you may have wished for.

 

 

I'd come across the idea that, without the guidance of an expert, meditation can have adverse effects, but I'd thought this was a metaphor for the difficulties we might encounter as we venture into ourselves. Then, one day, I heard a first-hand account that opened my eyes. At the time, I was teaching a course on the psychology of spirituality, and the majority of students were in their late fifties and early sixties: a combination of retired lawyers, Anglican priests and psychiatrists, and three or four yoga and meditation teachers – of whom Louise was one.

 

In her late fifties and lean, Louise was quiet and spoke only when she felt she had something important to say. She had taught yoga for more than 20 years, stopping only when something unexpected happened that changed her life, and she had chosen to give a presentation about this as part of her assessment on the course.

During one meditation retreat, she said – she'd been on many – her sense of self changed dramatically. "Good," she thought initially, "it must be part of the dissolving experience." Still, she couldn't help feeling anxious. "Don't worry, just keep meditating and it will go away," her teacher told her. But it didn't. She couldn't get back to her usual self. It felt like something was messing with her sense of identity, how she felt in her body, the very way she looked at the world and at other people. The last day of the retreat was excruciating: her body shook, she cried and panicked.

 

The following day, back at home, her body was numb and she didn't want to get out of bed. Louise's husband took her to the GP; within hours, she was being seen by a psychiatrist; and she spent the next 15 years being treated for psychotic depression. Now, she talked lucidly about her illness and its possible origins (including a genetic predisposition). She explained that she had gradually taken up yoga again, but had never returned to meditation retreats. "I had to have electroconvulsive therapy," she said.

I was stunned – and more so when I looked through medical and psychological data bases to research the possible adverse effects of meditation. One paper, written in 2001 by a British psychiatrist, told of a 25-year-old woman who, like Louise, had a serious mental health problem following meditation retreats. The first time she was admitted to hospital her symptoms included "thought disorder with flight of ideas", elevated mood and grandiose delusions "including the belief that she had some special mission for the world… to offer 'undying, unconditional love' to everyone. She had no [critical] insight".

 

This woman, called Miss X, was diagnosed with mania. After six weeks' medication, her symptoms were controlled. A psychiatrist saw her regularly for two years and she started twice-weekly psychotherapy. Then she took part in a Zen Buddhist retreat and was hospitalised again. She couldn't sleep for five days and displayed a number of unrestrained behaviours: she was irritable, sexually disinhibited and restless, made repeated praying gestures and attacked a member of staff.

 

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Gun-toting Aaron Alexis, who immersed himself in meditation, killed 12 people in 2013 (Getty)

I looked further into the literature. In 1992, David Shapiro, a professor at UCLA Irvine, published an article about the effects of meditation retreats. After examining 27 people with different levels of meditation experience, he found 63 per cent of them had suffered at least one negative effect and seven per cent profoundly adverse effects.

The negative effects included anxiety, panic, depression, pain, confusion and disorientation. But perhaps only the least experienced felt them – and might several days of meditation not overwhelm those who were relatively new to the practice? The answer was no. When Shapiro divided the larger group into those with lesser and greater experience, there were no differences: all had an equal number of adverse experiences. And an earlier study had arrived at a similar, but even more surprising conclusion: those with more experience also had considerably more adverse effects than the beginners.

 

Amid the small pile of articles on the topic, I found two by Arnold Lazarus and Albert Ellis, co-founders of CBT. In 1976, Lazarus reported that a few of his own patients had had serious disturbances after meditating, and strongly criticised the idea that "meditation is for everyone". And Ellis shared his misgivings. He believed it could be used as a therapeutic tool, but not with everyone – and overall, that it could be used only in moderation as a "thought-distracting" or "relaxing" technique. "Like tranquilisers," he wrote, "it may have both good and bad effects – especially, the harmful result of encouraging people to look away from some of their central problems, and to refrain from actually disputing and surrendering their disturbance-creating beliefs."

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I felt like an archaeologist digging up long-forgotten artefacts. How could this be completely absent in the recent research? It was conceivable that clinicians and researchers simply did not report the negative consequences of meditation, but it was more likely that the meditators themselves did not talk about it: many who encounter difficulties during or after their practice may feel they're doing something wrong, or even that their distress is part of the process and will eventually pass. That was the case with Miss X, who eventually refused continuous treatment, explaining that her mania was just a release of blocked energy from years of not dealing with her emotions adequately. And many meditators thinking like Miss X could go towards explaining why negative reports didn't make it into journals – because the effects were seen as mere stones on the road to peace or spiritual attainment.

However, a number of Western Buddhists are aware that not all is plain sailing with meditation; and they have even given a name to the emotional difficulties that arise – the "dark night" – borrowing the phrase coined by the 16th-century Christian mystic St John of the Cross to describe an advanced stage of prayer and contemplation characterised by an emotional dryness, in which the subject feels abandoned by God. Buddhists, in principle, ought not to feel abandoned by God, but a Buddhist blog on the subject is riddled with turmoil:

 

"Nine years on and off of periods of deep depression, angst, anxiety and misery"; "there was a nausea that kept coming up, terrible sadness, aches and pain"; "I've had one pretty intense dark night, it lasted for nine months, included misery, despair, panic attacks… loneliness, auditory hallucinations, mild paranoia, treating my friends and family badly, long episodes of nostalgia and regret, and obsessive thoughts (usually about death)".

Willoughby Britton, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Brown University, is now trying to map what she calls "the dark side of Dharma", an interest that arose from witnessing two people being hospitalised after intense meditation practice, together with her own experience after a retreat in which she felt an unimaginable terror. And reading through the classical Buddhist literature, she realised that such experiences are often mentioned as common stages of meditation.

"I was woefully uninformed," she now admits. Meditation retreats easily lead people to sense the world differently: the hearing gets sharper; time moves more slowly. But the most radical change that can occur is in what Britton calls "the narrative of the self". Try this out: focus on the present moment, nothing else than the present moment. You may be able to do it easily for a very short time. However, if you try extending this "presentness" for one or two hours, and keep trying for some days, your usual sense of self – that which has one foot in the past and the other in the future – collapses. The practice may feel great for some, but for others it is like being tossed around a roller coaster.

 

 

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A study found 63 per cent of meditators in a group had suffered at least one negative effect (AFP/Getty)

Other unpleasant things can happen, too, as Britton discovered through interviews with numerous individuals: arms flap, people twitch and have convulsions; others go through euphoria or depression, or report not feeling anything at all as their physical senses go numb. Still, unpleasant though they are, if these symptoms were confined to a retreat, there wouldn't be much to worry about – but they're not. Sometimes they linger, affecting work, child care and relationships. They can become a clinical health problem, which, on average, lasts for more than three years. What's more, meditation teachers know about it – Britton says – but researchers are usually sceptical; they ask about the psychiatric history of meditators who develop mental illness, as if meditation itself had little or nothing to do with it.

I used to think the same. But from the moment I started researching, I kept finding more and more evidence. Take the correspondence section on the website of the revered Deepak Chopra, where readers post their questions and Chopra answers. On 11 April 2014, an individual who had been meditating for one year – and finding in it "true bliss" – describes having twice experienced a deep emotional sensation, "like something is being ripped from me", that left her wanting to cry and yell. Chopra's reply is optimistic: "It's both normal and okay. It just means there is some deep emotional trauma from your past that is now ready to come to the surface and be healed. After meditation I would recommend you take a few minutes and sing out loud.

"Find a song you love that resonates with the emotional tone of your pain. Listen to it at above normal volume so that you can really feel the sonic effect of the song and music. When you feel it has engaged your emotions, start to sing so that your voice translates your feelings into sound. If you do this every time you feel some unresolved residue of emotion after your meditation, it will facilitate the release and healing process."

 

But what if someone like Aaron Alexis had emailed Deepak Chopra and received a reply like this? Would singing along to his favourite song, turned up nice and loud, have healed his emotional traumas and led into the wisdom he sought, rather than a killing spree? Unlikely. Furthermore, there is a real danger that what Chopra's correspondent was feeling is not "normal and okay", and that if she keeps meditating without an expert teacher, it may disturb rather than heal her.

Despite its dark side and the limitations of the current scientific research, I still think meditation is a technique with real potential for personal change, if properly guided and taught within a larger spiritual-ethical framework. But I wanted to speak to someone who, coming from the West, had embraced the Eastern meditation tradition without denying its darker side – and I found that person in Swami Ambikananda, a South African woman living in England, who took religious Hindu vows and now teaches meditation and yoga in Reading.

We sat in her living room and, when I told her I was looking into the potential dark side of meditation, she asked if I had heard of Aaron Alexis.

 

"There is a new dogma about meditation: when it fails, its limitations are never questioned," she said. "We are told they weren't doing it right. But maybe neither the practice nor the person is wrong. The truth about our human condition is that no one thing works for everyone. The spiritual journey is about the unmasking of oneself, being more authentically 'self', and whatever path leads us there is grand for each of us. That particular path is not necessarily good for all of us – but since it has moved out of the monastic environment into the wider secular world, meditation is being sold as that which will not only make us feel better but will make us better people – more successful, stronger, convincing …"

So what about the researchers claiming that meditation per se can turn you into a better, more compassionate person?

"No, no, no," she stressed. "Meditation needs to be embedded in its context; there are moral and emotional guidelines to be followed."

 

Really? Isn't the whole purpose of meditating to make you an enlightened and deeply moral individual; moral in the sense of unselfish and compassionate?

"Morality can be divorced from spirituality. My ego can dissolve while I meditate. But when I get up, it's reconstructed. You can meditate 22 hours a day, but in those two hours you have left, you're a human being living in matter, and this aspect of reality [she touched the ground] doesn't care too much if you're enlightened or not."

After our talk, Ambikananda gave me a lift to the station. I thanked her for her time and asked again about Alexis. Did she think his killing spree had anything to do with meditation?

"I don't know. I don't dispute that he had serious mental health problems; but meditation probably didn't help him either. Meditation is about looking into the abyss within. It wasn't created to make you or me happy, but to help us fight the illusions we have and find out who we truly are."

'The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?' by Dr Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm (Watkins, £10.99) is out no