Any dangers with intensive meditation?
Posted 06 March 2013 - 10:58 AM
Re: Jhana meditation and attachment to pleasure
by Kumara » Wed Mar 06, 2013 4:17 pm
Having taught meditation on and off for some years, I do find some people who are addicted to calm states, what to speak of pleasureable states. (I avoid using Pali terms to minimise (mis)interpretating.) Once that happens, they tend to are highly resistant to instructions to observe the nature of things. All they want to do is to get back there.
Some can't even get back to those states anymore, yet they keep on trying and hoping. One was eventually forced to meet suffering when she became clinically depressed. A "gifted" student of mine helped her through. Hope she has learnt the lesson.
Yet, I don't know anywhere in the Suttas speaking of such situations. Makes you wonder: Could it be that these aren't the same experience/practice?
Posted 11 September 2013 - 09:56 AM
Chanmyay Sayadaw wrote:
When I conducted a meditation retreat in England, one of the meditators had put much effort into his practise both sitting as well as walking, and awareness of the activities too. So after about four days meditation he came to me and asked a question. ''Venerable Sir, my meditation is getting worse and worse,' he said. 'Now what happen to your meditation?' I asked him. Then he said, 'When I am walking one day, Venerable Sir, then gradually I am not aware of myself. The foot itself had lifted, and it itself pushed forward, and then dropped down by itself. There's no I or no me, no self, no myself. Sometimes though I control my foot, the foot doesn't stay with the ground. It lifted by itself. Sometimes it pushed forward very long. I couldn't control it. Then sometimes it's getting down by itself. So my meditation is getting worse and worse. What should I do?' Then eventually he said, 'I think I have gone mad.' Such an experience was very amazing.
I don't think it's amazing when someone thinks that he's gone mad...
Me either. I've had that experience. There's nothing liberating about it. It's depersonalization.
Depersonalization (or depersonalisation) is an anomaly of self-awareness. It consists of a feeling of watching oneself act, while having no control over a situation.
Posted 20 September 2013 - 06:24 AM
I don't really want to get into a discussion about Aleister Crowley, but he was of the opinion that meditation ("mysticism" as he called it) is much more dangerous than ceremonial magick?
Posted 24 September 2013 - 06:39 AM
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The hazards of meditation are intimately connected with the benefits. Both the advocates of meditation and its critics are naive and misinformed about this. They simply do not spend enough time interviewing meditators about what actually happens. For example, when an office worker gets access to deep relaxation from meditation, she may realize that her boss is a bag of tension – abusive, toxic, and hopeless. There is no fix to the situation, no adaptation, because he makes people sick. So she may leave that job, or company, or even that profession. From the perspective of that company, meditation made her a bad employee. Her parents and friends will think she is strange. But the new company she joins, or starts, will think she is brilliant. It all depends on your perspective. As Krishna said in the Bhagavad-Gita, “Karma is unfathomable,” (gahanaa karmanah).
You are entitled to know whether the meditation practice you are doing will render you unable to cope with modern civilization. Many of the techniques out there are actually designed to make you dissociated from your natural desires, disgusted by sex, alienated from everyday life, and in search of a guru to surrender to . . . (God help you!). Of course they are – these teachings come from gurus, who tend to think that if you want to abandon your children, divorce your husband, quit your job, donate all your wealth to the guru, that this is wonderful and spiritual.
The dangers of meditation proceed from the fact that it works so well that you let your guard down and stop using your common sense. When you approach meditation, you listen to your instincts more than usual – that's why we call our work Instinctive Meditation.
Meditation is powerful. It's a way of tapping into the body's built-in healing and rejuvenation ability. During meditation, the relaxation is so intense that the body enters a rest deeper than deep sleep, and a lot happens in a few minutes. Twenty minutes of meditation is a lot. Meditation is a little like working out, doing athletic training. You are using your body, and that is natural, but you are also using your body in a specially focussed way. Properly done, this will make you healthier and stronger. You will feel better physically, emotionally and mentally.
There are millions of people in the modern West practicing meditation each day, but there is little information about how to deal with the challenges and avoid the dangers. A 2002 study by the CDC found that about 7.6% of adults in the United States practice meditation, and 5% practice yoga.
Everyone who works out, whether they run, swim, walk miles, goes to a gym, or does yoga, is a hair's breadth away from injury at all times. Runners have a long list of minor and major injuries they encounter, including knee and lower back soreness. Swimmers can get shoulder injuries. People who walk can get sore legs. In gyms, people are constantly getting minor injuries on the equipment, especially overtraining injuries. In every sport, there are injuries and many people know what they are. The magazines devoted to the sport talk realistically about injury.
In the field of yoga, over the past ten years, there has developed considerable attention to injuries and to prevention. This happened in part because people with yoga injuries were filling the waiting rooms of sports doctors and physical therapists across the United States. One physical therapist said, in the late 1990's, "Yoga is the best thing for my business since the jogging fad in the 70's."
By comparison with meditation, running is a very honest sport. There is good, accurate information about the types of injuries that occur, how to prevent them, and the best treatments to explore if you do get hurt. There is easy access to realistic information on what the dangers are and how to prevent them. Runners love their sport. They are passionate about it and want to minimize the time they spend sidelined by injuries. So why are yoga and meditation so dishonest?
The Taboo Against Honesty in Meditation
I don't know why meditation is such a deceptive field, so full of lies. Maybe it is because yoga and meditation come from Hinduism, and Yoga is "by definition" a perfect system, therefore if you get hurt, it's your bad karma. You must have been thinking impure thoughts. Perhaps you were criticizing the teacher in your mind, or not being respectful to the guru.
This quote by the Dalai Lama is the type of honest observation that is incredibly rare in meditation: "In the West, I do not think it advisable to follow Buddhism. Changing religions is not like changing professions. Excitement lessens over the years, and soon you are not excited, and then where are you? Homeless inside yourself." – The Dalai Lama, quoted in Tibet, Tibet by Patrick French.
Many of my friends are sort of homeless within their hearts, because they have been meditating in a Buddhist or Hindu tradition for the last twenty, thirty or more years. They seem lost. Meditators are always getting injured in subtle ways. It usually takes longer to come on than the sunburn or Achilles tendonitis runners get. Because meditation is powerful, it affects your body, nerves, muscles and senses. There are strong tendencies to be healthy and self-regulating in meditation. But any theory you have will probably throw you off balance. To stay in balance, you have to pay close attention to your senses. And to the extent you practice meditation in a religious mood, you will tend to not attend to your senses, and will override your inner wisdom.
For some reason or set of reasons, there is almost no information about the dangers of meditation. It is taboo to even think about it. Meditation is presented as an omni-beneficial activity. We are in the odd situation that the field that is supposed to be about truth, is presented in a deceptive manner. Discussion of the real obstacles and hazards of meditation is met with denial.
Runners get shin splints, sore knees and blisters; swimmers get shoulder injuries and ear infections; soccer players get head and neck injuries; volleyball players, tennis players, skiiers, weight lifters, and golfers all have their characteristic injuries. Coaches and sports doctors study these injuries, figure out how they happened, and how to prevent them. Then they revise the training to minimize injury and publish articles, and the information eventually gets out so that everyone can benefit from it.
This process of studying what works, where things break, and then modifying the training to make it better, is not going on in the field of meditation. It's not that people are lying. The lack of skill, and lack of observation demonstrated by meditation teachers is a manifestation of how denial itself is one of their main techniques.
By contrast, the process of noticing injuries and figuring out how to prevent them is going on in yoga. During the early 1970's, I noticed that quite a few of my friends had lower back, shoulder, and neck injuries from asana practice. By the late 70's, about a third of my meditating friends had more or less permanent injuries from yoga. In the early 1990's, I started meeting a lot of people with yoga injuries, and then I started to hear reports that orthopedic surgeon's offices, from Los Angeles to New York, will filled with yoga injuries and that the doctors were thanking the existence of yoga for paying for their Aspen ski condos. Then finally in the early 2000's, there started to be awareness of yoga injuries in the yoga journals and among yoga teachers. The last few years, my impression is that yoga is taught in a much more balanced and responsible way. I don't see as many new yoga injuries, and the students are encouraged to go at their own pace.
Of course, yoga injuries are similar to sports injuries and have to do with the joints and soft tissue. People know it when they are limping around, and get woken up by pain. They are motivated to go to a doctor.
Meditation injuries are usually very gradual and almost invisible, so they are harder to detect, impossible to x-ray, and difficult to gather data on. As a meditation teacher, it was not until after five years of teaching full-time that I began to see these injuries, because before that I wasn't experienced enough to be perceptive.
The Dilation Syndrome
In sports, injuries can result from being too flexible, or more flexible than you are strong. In meditation, a crucial balance seems to be sensitivity and strength. Meditation does tend to make you more sensitive, and if you meditate just the right amount for your daily activity, just living your life will make you stronger. But if you meditate too much, you may become too sensitive too fast. I am thinking of calling this The Dilation Syndrome, because it may be related to the chakras opening too rapidly. The analogy I am making is that opening the chakras is like learning to dilate your pupils – if they are too wide open, then they will not adapt to the light levels, and bright lights will hurt your eyes. You may then become afraid of the light or think "the light is hurting me." more . . .
Relaxation is Challenging
Oddly enough, it turns out that relaxation is challenging. When you relax deeply, you let go of stress. I know that sounds ridiculously obvious. Think about what happens as you let go of tension, what is this "letting go" process? As your muscles begin to relax, you become aware of what you were tense about: you see mental movies, replay conversations, and feel sensations of tension in your body. And then as you pay attention, these melt away. But you are probably not used to how this feels. The sensations of tension and tension release can be very intense, like rubbing your leg muscles when you have walked or hiked a long ways.
Every night you go through a process of letting go of tension – it's called sleep, and your body relaxes and rests. But the thing is, nature conks you out. You are unconscious. This means you can't resist the rejuvenation process. In meditation, you are conscious, so you can resist. And because you are conscious, you feel everything. The skill of meditation is learning how to not resist, how to cooperate consciously with this natural process.
Meditation is different from sleep in that you are awake inside AND you are resting more deeply than sleep. This takes getting used to, and for the first couple of months it is best to have a trained teacher you are in communication with and can get in touch with immediately, whenever a question arises. If you don't get an answer to your question by the end of the day, you will probably stop meditating soon. You won't know why – you just won't seem to find time to do it anymore. This happens to most people who start meditating. There was some key aspect of how to cooperate with their own process they did not learn in time, so they quit.
The odds are you won't find the right technique immediately. There are thousands of different techniques. This is because people are so different in their inner lives. Meditation is being intimate with your inner being, and you want to be respectful above all. Tender, gentle, respectful, and honest. If you do a technique that feels dishonest to you, you will probably fail. If you go in with an approach that is not yours, you'll feel uncomfortable with it, and you won't want to do it.
What happens if you give up in frustration and by far the most likely, is t because you are making meditation feel complicated or unnatural? You do some damage to yourself. If you try on shoes that do not fit and wear them for half an hour, they will make your feet sore. You may get blisters. Then, for some time after, any shoe, even one that fits, will hurt because your skin has been rubbed raw. So you not only lose the time you spent doing the wrong technique, or the right technique in the wrong way. You also spoil yourself for any technique. You have to allow your body and mind time to forget the insult.
But wait – time is precious. You had an inspiration, "Hey, I think I'll explore meditation!" And this is a precious impulse. It was a long time coming. If you fail, then how long will it be before you get up the nerve to go again?
Learning to Distrust Yourself
This will happen if you try to make yourself do a kind of technique that is not suited to your nature – it feels like trying on shoes that do not fit. Most meditation teachings, and self-improvement techniques in general seem to have about a 5% success rate. Maybe one person in twenty gets with the program, and the others try the process and say, "This isn't for me," or "I couldn't get into it." The 95% of people are right – that techique isn't for them.
The senses, the body, heart and mind are profoundly affected by meditation, and you need to be doing it in a way that these effects fit into your life and help you to thrive. Many meditation teachings are not designed to help you thrive, just the opposite. They want to break you down, break your ego, and train you to be disgusted or detached from daily life, so that the desire builds in you to give yourself to a nunnery or a monastery. The sacred traditions are looking for new recruits. If this is your dharma, great. If not, then you are like a healthy person who thought they were taking vitamins, but the pills turned out to cause brain damage.
Damage to Your Sexuality
This is covered it its own section. One of the problems of studying with gurus and spiritual teachers is that they usually have very strange and often diseased ideas about human sexuality. You absorb their way of thinking just by being around them, even if they don't talk about sex.
Damage to Your Ability to Bond
Many spiritual teachers whine continually about "attachments." Decoded, this is an attack on your attachment or bonding to anything or anyone other than the teacher.
This is actually a brilliant stratagem, because if a guru can get his followers to become alienated from their families and non-cult friends, they will become more and more dependent upon the guru and his circle. The term "detached" is beginning come into popular American idiom associated with spirituality.
Another damaging aspect of meditation teachers is that they do not have peer relationships. No one is their equal. This is true of many workshop leaders and spiritual leaders: they have one or two people "above" them, that they bow down to. Then everyone else is supposed to bow down to them. In the modern West, our whole experiment is with equality, and Asian systems and attitudes can poison us on deep levels, because they pretend to be deep truths.
The Challenge of Change
There are challenges and obstacles having to do with handling the benefits of meditation, even the famous clarity and top-of-the-mountain perspective. Change itself is a challenge to deal with – it's a bit like moving, or traveling. And because you are changing, you might benefit from doing a particular type of meditation for three months, and then you have changed, and so what you have been doing is no longer needed, it becomes too much of a good thing.
The Challenge of Ecstasy
When you meditate, if you find a way that matches your body type, personality, lifestyle, and daily routine, you will find yourself slipping into the greatest restfulness and relaxation you have ever known. This is the kind of inner elixir that people take drugs, drink alcohol, have sex, and move to Tahiti to experience, yet you have access to it by sitting in a chair in your living room and closing your eyes. Even if you only meditate for half an hour a day, the impact of this relaxation will undermine the suspicious, guarded aspects of your personality and lead you to be more open to life and to other human beings. When I started meditating, for example, I laughed for about two years, the kind of bubbling laughter that children exhibit when they are delighted by something they see, such as a caterpillar, dog, or a wave. I was laughing because my senses were so open to magic that I was seeing the whole world in a new light, and I was overwhelmed with fondness for whatever I was gazing at. Openness offers its own kind of protection, the kind that comes from being relaxed and alert, but this is a totally different way of moving through the world than being guarded and suspicious. It's a different world, and you will have to learn to navigate in it, day by day.
There are thousands of different types of meditation, and many of them were designed to shape specific changes in your body, emotions, neural pathways, and belief systems. The medtation traditions are strongly influenced by India, so some were designed to help you adapt to the cold in the mountains, others to loneliness, some are to help you become aloof and detached so you don't need anyone, and are in fact incapable of forming close relationships. Some are to help you to adapt to a life of total poverty, others to make you a compliant and unquestioning obeyer-of-orders, some are to help you to lose interest in life so all you want to do is sit in a cave and slowly die. So it is really quite a task to find or create a meditation practice that is designed to be supportive of the life you want to live. If you don't do that, then you won't proceed on to the next obstacle.
Not Getting the Help You Need
Over the next couple of years, through the late 60's, I met many people who were meditating and noticed that some of them were afraid to face what was coming up during meditation – they did not seem to trust their inner process, or were not getting the coaching or supervision they needed. Some of these people quit meditating, and others continued, but meditation was a bit of a struggle. By and large, those who don't get the feeling of how to ride their rhythms will quit meditating, and the inner uproar fades into the background.
So in general, my sense of meditation is that if you do it, you will have to face everything inside yourself. If you aren't willing to do that, then you are going to have problems meditating. The other thing I have noticed is that just regular people are totally capable of facing everything that comes up in meditation. Everyone who is not an addict has to do this anyway. If you love anyone, if you want to get married, if you have children, if you have friends, you will have to face every feeling in the world, just because of the intimacy of your relationships. Even if you live a charmed life, people you know and love will suffer from various vicissitudes.
In meditation, you pay attention, and this sometimes has the feeling tone of paying bills, it hurts a little. Or a lot, then you feel much better when you have done it. The debts we pay in meditation are our debts to the body, to the nervous system, and to life. Anything we ever said, "I'll deal with that later. I will feel that later. I will think about that later," will come up in meditation, because by meditating you are saying to life, "OK, later is NOW. Bring it on."
For one thing, meditation is in no way separate from anything you do during the day, all your relationships, and your whole purpose on Earth. In every meditation, you will have to sort through all the stuff in your mind and heart, and if anything is out of balance, you will feel it intensely. If you have wronged someone, or left an important conversation unfinished, you will find your attention going to it again and again. If you want to go any deeper in meditation, you will have to bring some resolution to your outer situations, otherwise your meditation will start to feel stalemated. So you'll find yourself adjusting your behavior in daily life to be more ethical, to minimize the amount of your meditation time that is taken up by processing the residue of the day. In other words, in meditation every day you will have a small degree of the insight people have on their deathbed, where they wish they had lived their lives differently.
The Total Lack of Useful Information
The next biggest danger is that no one thinks there are or can be any dangers to meditation, so there is almost no discussion and information-gathering on the subject. Everyone is just going blah blah about the benefits. As a consequence, meditators are constantly being blindsided and derailed by things that should be trivial hazards, easily dismissed or bypassed. If we compare meditation to a day at the beach, it is as if people are saying, "Oh, don't worry, you can never get enough direct sunlight. Just soak it up. You don't even need a hat. And swim out in the ocean as far as you want. It's a lake. With dolphins that will love you."
For something so powerful, meditation has relatively few truly negative side effects. This is because meditation is not a drug, it is a way of accessing your body's own built-in healing response. Your body, your nerves, your organs, your entire system has immense inner resources of adapting. Human beings have adapted to environments from the humid tropics to the frozen Arctic. Our bodies are geniuses at adapting to and mastering the world. When you meditate, you give life permission to fine-tune your adaptation to the world.
There is a weird set of problems here, having to do with the meditation traditions themselves, and what a good job they have done of preserving the teachings that were given in 100 BC, 500 BC, 100 AD, 1300 AD, and so on. Almost all teachings on meditation are slanted toward the needs of the monks who lived long, long ago in places far, far away. The traditional teachings are slanted toward how to adapt to life in 500 BC, IF you are a male, IF you are a Hindu, or Buddhist, IF you are a male-Hindu or Buddhist who wants to be celibate. Or how to adapt to life in a Tibetan lamasery in 1500 AD.
Furthermore, because the knowledge of how to meditate has been preserved by the sacred Hindu and Buddhist traditions of India, Tibet, China, and so on, they have framed the knowledge as part of religion. It's not a science in the Western sense, although it pretends to be. Western science is about questioning everything, and always searching for better formulations of principles. To religious thinkers, such questioning is iconoclasm, a breaking of idols, and as such is almost like murder. Ordinary mortals are not allowed to change a religion, or the meditation practices that go with a religion. From a religious outlook, it is forbidden, a great heresy, the deepest kind of treachery and betrayal to modify the teachings to suit the very different needs of all those low-lifes out there who have the bad karma to be born in the United States or Europe. People who are so degraded that they have not taken vows to abandon their families, to abandon working for money, and abandon their individuality. As a consequence, we have a huge literature on "meditation techniques to suit the needs of monks living in monasteries, if they are Hindu or Buddhist," but not much at all about how to meditate if you live in the modern West and have a family and job that you really don't want to abandon.
Many of the best, most brillant and articulate teachers working in the West are from Hindu and Buddhist lineages, and even when they are talking to women who have families, they tend to use language and techniques that were designed only for monks, such as: detachment, renunciation, silencing the mind. These attitudes are harmful to people who are not monks, because they injure one's ability to be intimate with another human being. You can see how monks need to learn techniques for killing off their sexual desire and creating distance, so they don't become too intimate with the monk in the next cell. But men and women who are married should no more internalize these attitudes than they should inject themselves with chemotherapy toxins.
It is very strange that such brilliant people have little sense of how to talk to the people who are actually there in front of them. Just because recluses and renunciates by definition have a sour grapes attitude toward the world, does not mean this is a universal truth. In fact, cultivating monk-like disgust toward bodies, the senses, sensual enjoyment, is very damaging to non-monks. It's like studying cooking with someone with an eating disorder, who conveys a conflicted, problem-laden attitude toward food with every look and word.
If meditation teachers were doctors, they would be prescribing that everyone take antibiotics all the time, because life is a disease. They would give healthy people massive doses of x-rays, just because tradition says that it is good to have a clear, ruthless view of the inside of the body, and to develop contempt for it.
To put things in perspective, many millions of people have meditated, over the past several thousand of years, and written about it extensively – there is a vast literature. If you look at this history as a vast trial run of a new drug, there are remarkably few negative side effects for such a powerful process.
Meditation usually comes wrapped up in a religion and a set of superstitions from a traditional culture. So we can make a distinction between "the dangers of meditation itself" and the dangers of say, converting to Buddhism if you are a woman living in the midwest United States in 2006. There is not much going on in the world of meditation that is aimed at how people really live now. There are thousands of varieties of Buddhism-flavored meditation, Hindu-flavored meditation, and so on. So we have to distinguish the dangers of meditation itself, even if a woman could find a woman-friendly form to practice, from all the extra cultural baggage meditation tends to come with.
Overview of Meditation Dangers
If we take a brief tour of the Dangers, Hazards, Challenges, Obstacles, Enchantments, and Traps on the path of meditation, we see something like this:
The Dangers of Meditation Itself
The challenge of finding the right kind of meditation.
The challenge of learning to face every thought and emotion.
Dangers of doing the wrong type of meditation for your body and personality.
Dangers of over-meditating.
Predictable crises in the life of a meditator.
Dangers of abandoning meditation because you are in a crisis.
Dangers of opening the chakras.
Enchantments and beguilements from opening the senses.
Dangers of stress release.
The Dangers of Yoga
Yoga injuries to knees, back, feet, shoulders.
Yoga diets that weaken your health.
Yoga breath techniques with unexpected side-effects.
Yoga attitudes that resemble an eating disorder.
The Dangers of Religion
Passivity and the idea of karma.
Dangers of making meditation a work against nature.
Dangers of being a recent convert. vs. second or more generation.
Dangers of the Guru system with its master/slave dynamic.
Dangers of practicing repression of sexual desire.
Dangers of detachment, alienation, dissociation.
Dangers of developing a nauseous attitude toward money.
Dangers of New Age thinking.
The Hazards of Not Meditating
At the same time that meditation can be an intrinsically healthy process, there are many places to get stuck. In our outer life, each of us is always getting stuck, and then getting unstuck. The inner life has some parallels. Getting good information is hard, because almost all books were written for a different kind of person than you are.
There definitely are dangers or hazards to meditating, because you are opening a door to your inner life. It's good to know what these hazards are. And at the same time, the hazards of meditating have to be compared to the hazards of NOT meditating. What is the cost to you in your life of just jumping up and running out the door in the morning every day, without fully waking up? What is the hazard to you of walking in the door every day after work and NOT meditating, not fully relaxing and letting go of the stress of the day? The cost of not meditating can be really significant.
How to Deny Everything
The meditation traditions are OLD – like thousands of years old. You can't study meditation for long without being exposed to the way cultures were organized way back when. And thousands of years ago, in the ant-like organization of the Feudal system, everyone was specialized: there were farmer ants, warrior ants, breeder ants, and priest ants. Meditation was conceived of something that only specialized meditation-ants do. In the Feudal system, the deal was: "OK, if you promise to give up sex, and give up owning property, we will let you just sit in your room or cave and meditate, and we will bring you food and honor you, but otherwise leave you alone."
So back then, the fundamental stance of meditation was that you start out by denying everything. You deny the world, you turn your back on everything and every obligation. You deny your family. You abandon your family if you have one, like Buddha did. You deny your desire for sex. You deny your desire to have a home. You deny your desire for innovation or creativity, and take an oath to just accept things as they are. You deny your desire to be an individual, and surrender your will to whover is your superior in the religious order you have committed to.
The denial doesn't always work – often you just get people who are dead inside, and kind of drift around chanting and pretending to be spiritual. But sometimes there is a good match of inner and outer, and the denial serves to redirect the life force of the individual into the blossoming of special gifts. This is similar to what people do when they cultivate roses – they prune away at the bush so that there will be just a few big flowers, so that the rose bush will have no choice but to put all its vitality into a few big flowers, instead of many small ones.
When denial works, you get these brilliant, world-class blossoms of spiritual genius who seem to hold the world in the palm of their hand. Vyasa, Shukadeva, Gaudapada, Govinda, Shankara. Buddha, Padmasambhava. These are the people everyone reads about, and throughout history, it looks like more than 99% of all meditation teachers have been males on the path of denial. They took some sort of vow of renunciation, poverty, celibacy, and obedience. And they created the language and the images we use to think about meditation.
Also, it is forbidden to ever question anything they said, because it is holy, and they are better than you can ever hope to be. This is why meditation teaching remains stuck in the past – they are determined to preserve their traditions, that's their job. And tradition means no innovation. None. You keep saying the same chant, wearing the same robes, and reading the same books.
The traditional nature of meditation teaching has implications for modern people in the West who want to include meditation in their daily lives.
1. The Keepers of the Traditions may have no interest in adapting meditation so that it is appropriate for your circumstance. Within their own traditions, any teacher who did this would be despised for polluting the teachings.
2. They are totally unconcerned that you fail at meditation because they are giving you the wrong teachings for your type. The mental tools to even know what is good teaching barely exist in the meditation traditions.
3. They are in total denial about the dangers of meditating. the real challenges that Westerners face.
Perspective on The Hazards of Meditation
All human activities have their hazards and negative side-effects. Even if you just take a walk down the street, there may be dangers and obstacles such as dogs defending their turf or drivers distracted by their cell phones. If you walk for hours, there is sunburn to consider, and dehydration. It's good to know what the potential hazards are, and then go ahead anyway, well informed. Being knowledgable does not mean you are worried, scared, or overly cautious, it just means you have a a bit of an idea in advance of what you are getting into.
But you are investing your time in an activity that is supposed to have an influence on your mind and body. And in its own way, meditation is powerful. So let's look at some of the things that can go wrong, and some of the challenges you will face even when things go right.
Meditation is not dangerous in the way that, say, commuting to work or school each day has its dangers. Meditation is in general safer than just sitting and watching television for half an hour twice a day. Think about it - TV is a commercial medium and large corporations spend billions of dollars on the best hypnotic material the human mind can contrive, all of it cunningly designed to get inside your head and manipulate your beliefs and behaviors.
A Depressing Sense of Failure
What is the effect on a person of sincerely wanting to meditate, and investing time in learning, but failing? It's like a failed relationship – it hurts. There is loss, grief, and maybe some lasting damage. You do learn something – you learn you are "undisciplined" and that your self is defective.
A corollary hazard to simply wasting time is that your sense of yourself is somewhat lowered. You have added some judgments against yourself. I have spent years interviewing both those who continue and those who quit, and they tend to feel bad about themselves. Almost universally, they feel that there is something wrong with them, that they can't meditate. Most feel bad that they can't make their minds blank.
I think this is like feeling bad that your feet can't fit into size 4 shoes, or that your eyes are not blue. It's a kind of shame that you have learned, and it was unintentionally taught you. Meditation teachers, to the extent that they have been influenced by orthodox religion, whether it be Buddhism, Hinduism or Christianity, tend to be disease carriers of bad attitudes toward life.
Some people go into meditation wanting to develop inner peace and perspective, and instead, get involved in the cult mentality that pervades most meditations schools. Years later, they realize that they learned a lot about the kinds of abuse gurus perpetuate, and how toxic a feudal system can be, but they didn't really get anywhere with their meditation.
A War on the Self
Let's do a thought-journey, what physicists call a gedanken experiment. Let's pretend you are a 18-year old male, whose parents have donated him to a Hindu or Buddhist monastery. The oldest son inherited the farm, and there is nowhere for you to live. So there you are. And there is no escape at all, ever. You are part of the Feudal system. If you leave the monastery, you will simply discredit yourself and your parents and will forever be known as a renegade or fallen monk. So really, there is no escape. There you are, a healthy 20-year old male, whose testicles produce five hundred million sperm each and every day, and who gets an erection at the slightest thought of sex, gets aroused just from the brushing of the cloth of the robe against his penis. Around you in the monastery is a range of males, aged 16 to 60, half of whom are sizing you up as a sexual partner or slave.
Your situation as a monk is probably that you are not there by choice. It is as if you have been drafted into the army. And even if you are there by choice, what is the choice? What would be going on in the mind of an 18-year old if he says, "I forever renounce sex. I renounce ever finding a mate. I renounce all personal relationship, forever. I swear to be in poverty for the rest of my life. I swear to completely and unquestioningly obey every monk who is senior to me, for the rest of my life, no matter what they say. I swear total and unquestioning obedience to my lineage." You may have just wanted to get out of town, get out of the house, and to do that, you entered a monastery.
So there you are, and guess what? All your life energies, that could go to doing work, starting a family, developing a craft, having friends, building a life for yourself, all these energies have to be redirected. You actually have to kill them off. Any impulse you might have, when given an insane order to comply with, to say, "Shove it," has to be broken utterly. And any desire you have for women has to be killed out, entirely. Say you are driven wild by lust and seduce a village girl, either taking her virginity or making her pregnant. She will be ruined – there is no possibilty of marrying her. She may commit suicide, her family will be totally dishonored, and her father and brothers will come and burn down the monastery, even though it has been there for hundreds of years. So you have to, at all costs, kill your sexual desire.
Meditation in such circumstances is part of a war on the self. The need is almost medical, in which amputation is called for. You need to amputate your desires, ambition, individuality.
The next most common hazard is that you do meditate for awhile, and what you do inside is conduct a war on yourself. Meditation books are full of negative judgments that monks and nuns have against householders: "You are doo materialistic, you move too fast, you think too many thoughts, you have passions, you are independent, you are rebellious, you are sexual, you have an identity, you love yourself and love your life."
Traditional meditation teachings have elements in them that are mildly harmful, by design – it is necessary to break the spirit of nuns and monks and make them submissive, kill their wildness.
If you want some examples, you might read A Tale of Two Paths.
Monks and nuns are called renunciates, because they take vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience: I renounce the desire to own anything, I renounce sex, I renounce my ego and independence and vow to obey whoever my superior is. These vows can be very liberating to someone whose destiny it is to be a monk or nun. The individual can even glow with an inner luminosity. But they also become radioactive in a way, and if you study with them you may get radiation poisoning, as if you got too many x-rays.
Monks and nuns tend to see everyday life as a disease. They suggest you internalize toxic attitudes toward yourself as medicine. Slow down, kill out your passion, become submissive, cultivate disgust instead of attraction, and dissolve your identity. These are medicinal attitudes that monks and nuns cultivate in themselves. However, if you are not a monk, these attitudes are simply toxic, like taking antibiotics if you do not have an infection, or drinking radioactive iodine to kill your thyroid gland. If you do not have a disease, they just weaken you. This weakening takes three forms, which are all by design:
Weakening of ambition and passion
Weakening of healthy desire and consequent weakening of the ability to form close relationships and attachments.
Weakening of the individual ego and will and of the ability to tolerate the uncertainty of following your individual path.
Most long-term meditators have been damaged to some extent by these monastic attitudes, because 4hey permeate the atmosphere of meditation. To a certain extent, this cancels out the benefits of meditation. Say a person has been meditating for 10 years. When they look back, they often see that for a year or two they were actually devolving, as they hacked away with their mental knifes at their "attachments," before realizing, "Hey, wait a minute, I am a householder, I work with attachments.
Anything you do in meditation that interferes with the simple joys of living, or with the flow of desire into action, is going to have vast and far-reaching implications for your life. If you spend a year practicing detachment in meditation, it may take you five years to recover your sense of zest and spontaneity in life. You may find yourself feeling detached emotionally and get divorced as a consequence, and this may be good or bad, who knows? In general, if you practice meditation as a war on the self, you will tend toward becoming broke, lonely, and weak. This is actually good from the point of view of the cult-like meditation schools: it means you are ready to take vows as a monk or nun.
The meditation traditions are very old and very well preserved. They have preserved tens of thousands of ancient texts, plus the oral traditions that go with them. In practice this means that you can talk to a Tibetan monk and come into contact with the energy and attitudes of the monasteries of 13th Century Tibet, and going back further, the dynamic and wild 8th Century founders of Tibetan Buddhism, and earlier still, the brilliant 6th and 3rd Century Hindu and Buddhist scholars of India and Nepal, and then on back to Buddha, who was a reformer of Hinduism.
This is a fantastic wealth of information, and the monks and nuns in the traditions are like walking museums. There is a dark side, though, because of this sheer brilliance of the ancient scholars and yogis. They make their way of life extremely appealing. Even the ancient, oppressive system of Masters and Slaves seem beautiful, necessary and inevitable. All of the meditative traditions over the millennia, until recently, lived in the open-air prison of the Feudal System, where people had very little choice in life. You couldn't move, change jobs, choose who to marry, or exercise much control over your life at all. Everything was karma, and everything that happened was karma. An attitude of total resignation and surrender was adaptive.
When meditation is conducted in the spirit of the feudal system, it is about killing individuality, killing out the creative impulse, and creating a submissive, dependent, pliant individual who always obeys. This is very good for nuns and monks, to help them adapt to life in a nunnery or monastery. But if you do not live in a religous order, cultivating surrender and resignation is about as beneficial as cutting off your hands.
Over the last 30 years that I have been doing in-depth interviews with meditators, I have met many who meditate regularly and have become depressed. When I ask them about their practice, they often reveal that they have interpreted the Buddhist or Hindu teachings they are studying in such a way as to detach themselves from their desires, their ego, their loves, and their passion. In other words, they have cut themselves off from everything interesting and thrilling in life.
Depression is a natural result of loss, and if you internalize teachings that poison you against the world, then you will of course become depressed. Detachment techniques were intended only for monks and nuns. Detachment is the DEFINITION of what defines a monk or nun: they take vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience. In other words, they cut themselves off from the desire to make or acquire money, they cut themselves off from their sexual desire, and they cut themselves off from any rebelliousness and independence. This amputation can be a blessing for a soul who really is a monk or a nun, and needs to just go join an ashram. But if you are not a monk or nun, cutting yourself off from life is as depressing as cutting off your foot. It's a loss, and you will suffer grief over the loss.
Another aspect of the damage resulting from the War on the Self and Learned Helplessness is as cultural poisoning. In your outer life you are living one way – you are a citizen of the United States or France or England or Slovakia – and in your inner life, as part of your meditation, you are a low-caste serf in an 15th Century Hindu ashram, struggling to get a little bit of attention from the Master, and begging for permission to exist. It is a very different thing to be living in Tibet in 1120 A.D. and be practicing Tibetan Buddhism, or Japan in 1425 and practicing Zen, than to be living in New York in 2004 and practicing Tibetan Buddhism. There is a different process for fitting your personality and daily life into the teachings.
Consider medicine: almost all medications have a bit of a poisoning effect, no matter how needed they are. What the doctor decides, and perhaps discusses with you, is if the negative side effects of the medication are going to be worth it. This is what good medicine is.
Since you are mostly on your own when you do standardized meditation practices – teachers rarely spend the time to work out individual practices – you have to be your own "doctor," and carefully assess the costs and benefits of your approach to meditation. And one of the costs is to notice how much your meditation tradition alienates you from the society you are in. How insular do you get? How much contempt do you develop for your own culture, your family, your ancestors, and your job?
The Challenge of Successful Meditation
When meditation is successful, there is a whole universe of challenges that open up. In general, when you meditate your senses open up and your intuition becomes stronger. But many families and groups are built on denial and have effective mechanisms in place to squash any dissidents. When you get closer to your truth sense, then you will become more uncomfortabe if you betray your integrity. Then consider the notion of opening the chakras or energy centers, which yogis talk about. Say that you meditate and open up a chakra such as the 4th chakra, called the anahata or heart chakra. What then?
Think about how much trouble it caused in your life when your second chakra opened – the sexual center. It provoked a crisis in your development, the transition from being a child to being a teenager charged with hormones, ready and able to reproduce. You had all kinds of wild sensations you had not known before, and all of a sudden, new concerns, interests and fears. Each energy center, as it opens, provokes a crisis, a change in life such as that induced by the opening of the second chakra. You enter a kind of "puberty" of development of energy and perception pertaining to that chakra.
Each chakra opening evokes a different kind of crisis, a wonderful and challenging change in the way you metabolize the energy of the universe.
Note - some of the pages within the Dangers of Meditation sections are repetitive. I have taken sections that are very long, and have been up on this site for years, and duplicated them, then chopped them up into shorter sections, so that when people are searching for particular sentences or thoughts they will be easier to find.
Posted 26 June 2014 - 01:14 AM
By Olga Khazan
The Dark Side of Meditation
By Tomas Rocha
A Time-Lapse of New Zealand's Night Sky
By Chris Heller
The Dark Knight of the Soul
For some, meditation has become more curse than cure. Willoughby Britton wants to know why.
TOMAS ROCHAJUN 25 2014, 8:45 AM ET
Set back on quiet College Hill in Providence, Rhode Island, sits a dignified, four story, 19th-century house that belongs to Dr. Willoughby Britton. Inside, it is warm, spacious, and organized. The shelves are stocked with organic foods. A solid wood dining room table seats up to 12. Plants are ubiquitous. Comfortable pillows are never far from reach. The basement—with its own bed, living space, and private bathroom—often hosts a rotating cast of yogis and meditation teachers. Britton’s own living space and office are on the second floor. The real sanctuary, however, is on the third floor, where people come from all over to rent rooms, work with Britton, and rest. But they're not there to restore themselves with meditation—they're recovering from it.
"I started having thoughts like, 'Let me take over you,' combined with confusion and tons of terror," says David, a polite, articulate 27-year-old who arrived at Britton’s Cheetah House in 2013. "I had a vision of death with a scythe and a hood, and the thought 'Kill yourself' over and over again."
Michael, 25, was a certified yoga teacher when he made his way to Cheetah House. He explains that during the course of his meditation practice his "body stopped digesting food. I had no idea what was happening." For three years he believed he was "permanently ruined" by meditation.
Everything he had found pleasurable before the retreat—hanging out with friends, playing music, drinking—"turned to dirt."
"Recovery," "permanently ruined"—these are not words one typically encounters when discussing a contemplative practice.
On a cold November night last fall, I drove to Cheetah House. A former student of Britton's, I joined the group in time for a Shabbat dinner. We blessed the challah, then the wine; recited prayers in English and Hebrew; and began eating.
Britton, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior, works at the Brown University Medical School. She receives regular phone calls, emails, and letters from people around the world in various states of impairment. Most of them worry no one will believe—let alone understand—their stories of meditation-induced affliction. Her investigation of this phenomenon, called "The Dark Night Project," is an effort to document, analyze, and publicize accounts of the adverse effects of contemplative practices.
The morning after our Shabbat dinner, in Britton’s kitchen, David outlines the history of his own contemplative path. His first retreat was "very non-normal," he says, "and very good … divine. There was stuff dropping away … [and] electric shocks through my body. [My] core sense of self, a persistent consciousness, the thoughts and stuff, were not me." He tells me it was the best thing that had ever happened to him, an "orgasm of the soul, felt throughout my internal world."
David explains that he finally felt awake. But it didn't last.
Still high off his retreat, he declined an offer to attend law school, aggravating his parents. His best friends didn't understand him, or his "insane" stories of life on retreat.
"I had a fear of being thought of as crazy," he says, "I felt extremely sensitive, vulnerable, and naked."
Not knowing what to do with himself, David moved to Korea to teach English, got bored, dropped out of the program, and moved back in with his parents. Eventually, life lost its meaning. Colors began to fade. Spiritually dry, David didn't care about anything anymore. Everything he had found pleasurable before the retreat—hanging out with friends, playing music, drinking—all of that "turned to dirt," he says, "a plate of beautiful food turned to dirt."
He traveled back and forth from Asia to home seeking guidance, but found only a deep, persistent dissatisfaction in himself. After "bumming around Thailand for a bit," he moved to San Francisco, got a job, and sat through several more two- and 10-week meditation retreats. Then, in 2012, David sold his car to pay for a retreat at the Cloud Mountain Center that torments him still.
"Psychological hell," is how he describes it. "It would come and go in waves. I’d be in the middle of practice and what would come to mind was everything I didn't want to think about, every feeling I didn't want to feel." David felt "pebble-sized" spasms emerge from inside a "dense knot" in his belly.
He panicked. Increasingly vivid pornographic fantasies and repressed memories from his childhood began to surface.
"I just started freaking out," he says, "and at some point, I just surrendered to the onslaught of unwanted sexual thoughts … a sexual Rolodex of every taboo." As soon as he did, however, "there was some goodness to it." After years of pushing away his emotional, instinctual drives, something inside David was "reattached," he says.
Toward the end of his time at the Cloud Mountain Center, David shared his ongoing experiences with the retreat leaders, who assured him it was probably just his "ego's defenses" acting up. "They were really comforting," he says, "even though I thought I was going to become schizophrenic."
Mindfulness meditation is promoted as a means to help Americans work mindfully, parent mindfully, take standardized tests mindfully, and go to war mindfully.
According to a survey by the National Institutes of Health, 10 percent of respondents—representing more than 20 million adult Americans—tried meditating between 2006 and 2007, a 1.8 percent increase from a similar survey in 2002. At that rate, by 2017, there may be more than 27 million American adults with a recent meditation experience.
In late January this year, Time magazine featured a cover story on "the mindful revolution," an account of the extent to which mindfulness meditation has diffused into the largest sectors of modern society. Used by "Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Fortune 500 titans, Pentagon chiefs, and more," mindfulness meditation is promoted as a means to help Americans work mindfully, eat mindfully, parent mindfully, teach mindfully, take standardized tests mindfully, spend money mindfully, and go to war mindfully. What the cover story did not address are what might be called the revolution's "dirty laundry."
"We're not being thorough or honest in our study of contemplative practice," says Britton, a critique she extends to the entire field of researchers studying meditation, including herself.
I'm sitting on a pillow in Britton’s meditation room. She tells me that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine's website includes an interesting choice of words in its entry on meditation. Under "side effects and risks," it reads:
Meditation is considered to be safe for healthy people. There have been rare reports that meditation could cause or worsen symptoms in people who have certain psychiatric problems, but this question has not been fully researched.
By modern scientific standards, the aforementioned research may not yet be comprehensive—a fact Britton wants to change—but according to Britton and her colleagues, descriptions of meditation's adverse effects have been collecting dust on bookshelves for centuries.
The phrase "dark night of the soul," can be traced back to a 16th-century Spanish poem by the Roman Catholic mystic San Juan de la Cruz, or Saint John of the Cross. It is most commonly used within certain Christian traditions to refer to an individual's spiritual crisis in the course of their union with God.
The divine experiences reported by Saint John describe a method, or protocol, "followed by the soul in its journey upon the spiritual road to the attainment of the perfect union of love with God, to the extent that it is possible in this life." The poem, however, is linked to a much longer text, also written by Saint John, which describes the hardships faced by those who seek to purify the senses—and the spirit—in their quest for mystical love.
According to Britton, the texts of many major contemplative traditions offer similar maps of spiritual development. One of her team's preliminary tasks—a sort of archeological literature review—was to pore through the written canons of Theravadin, Tibetan, and Zen Buddhism, as well as texts within Christianity, Judaism, and Sufism. "Not every text makes clear reference to a period of difficulty on the contemplative path," Britton says, "but many did."
What Happens to the Brain During Spiritual Experiences?
"There is a sutta," a canonical discourse attributed to the Buddha or one of his close disciples, "where monks go crazy and commit suicide after doing contemplation on death," says Chris Kaplan, a visiting scholar at the Mind & Life Institute who also works with Britton on the Dark Night Project.
Nathan Fisher, the study's manager, condenses a famous parable by the founder of the Jewish Hasidic movement. Says Fisher, "[the story] is about how the oscillations of spiritual life parallel the experience of learning to walk, very similar to the metaphor Saint John of the Cross uses in terms of a mother weaning a child … first you are held up by a parent and it is exhilarating and wonderful, and then they take their hands away and it is terrifying and the child feels abandoned."
Kaplan and Fisher dislike the term "dark night" because, in their view, it can imply that difficult contemplative experiences are "one and the same thing" across different religions and contemplative traditions.
Fisher also emphasizes two categories that may cause dark nights to surface. The first results from "incorrect or misguided practice that could be avoided," while the second includes "those [experiences] which were necessary and expected stages of practices." In other words, while meditators can better avoid difficult experiences under the guidance of seasoned teachers, there are cases where such experiences are useful signs of progress in contemplative development. Distinguishing between the two, however, remains a challenge.
Britton shows me a 2010 paper written by University of Colorado-Boulder psychologist Sona Dimidjian that was published in American Psychologist, the official journal of the American Psychological Association. The study examines some dramatic instances where psychotherapy has caused serious harm to a patient. It also highlights the value of creating standards for defining and identifying when and how harm can occur at different points in the psychotherapeutic process.
One of the central questions of Dimidjian's article is this: After 100 years of research into psychotherapy, it's obvious that scientists and clinicians have learned a lot about the benefits of therapy, but what do we know about the harms? According to Britton, a parallel process is happening in the field of meditation research.
"We have a lot of positive data [on meditation]," she says, "but no one has been asking if there are any potential difficulties or adverse effects, and whether there are some practices that may be better or worse-suited [for] some people over others. Ironically," Britton adds, "the main delivery system for Buddhist meditation in America is actually medicine and science, not Buddhism."
As a result, many people think of meditation only from the perspective of reducing stress and enhancing executive skills such as emotion regulation, attention, and so on.
For Britton, this widespread assumption—that meditation exists only for stress reduction and labor productivity, "because that's what Americans value"—narrows the scope of the scientific lens. When the time comes to develop hypotheses around the effects of meditation, the only acceptable—and fundable—research questions are the ones that promise to deliver the answers we want to hear.
"Does it promote good relationships? Does it reduce cortisol? Does it help me work harder?" asks Britton, referencing these more lucrative questions. Because studies have shown that meditation does satisfy such interests, the results, she says, are vigorously reported to the public. "But," she cautions, "what about when meditation plays a role in creating an experience that then leads to a breakup, a psychotic break, or an inability to focus at work?"
Given the juggernaut—economic and otherwise—behind the mindfulness movement, there is a lot at stake in exploring a shadow side of meditation. Upton Sinclair once observed how difficult it is to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. Britton has experienced that difficulty herself. In part because university administrators and research funders prefer simple and less controversial titles, she has chosen to rename the Dark Night Project the "Varieties of Contemplative Experience."
Britton also questions what might be considered the mindfulness movement's limited scope. She explains that the Theravadin Buddhist tradition influences how a large portion of Americans practice meditation, but in it, mindfulness is "about vipassana, a specific type of insight … into the three characteristics of experience." These are also known as the three marks of existence: anicca, or impermanence; dukkha, or dissatisfaction; and anatta, or no-self.
Mindfulness is not about being able to stare comfortably at your computer for hours on end, or get "in the zone" to climb the corporate ladder.
In this context, mindfulness is not about being able to stare comfortably at your computer for hours on end, or get "in the zone" to climb the corporate ladder. Rather, says Britton, it's about the often painstaking process of "realizing and processing those three specific insights."
Shinzen Young, a Buddhist meditation teacher popular with young scientists, has summarized his familiarity with dark night experiences. In a 2011 email exchange between himself and a student, which he then posted on his blog, Young presents an explanation of what he means by a "dark night" within the context of Buddhist experience:
Almost everyone who gets anywhere with meditation will pass through periods of negative emotion, confusion, [and] disorientation. …The same can happen in psychotherapy and other growth modalities. I would not refer to these types of experiences as 'dark night.' I would reserve the term for a somewhat rarer phenomenon. Within the Buddhist tradition, [this] is sometimes referred to as 'falling into the Pit of the Void.' It entails an authentic and irreversible insight into Emptiness and No Self. Instead of being empowering and fulfilling … it turns into the opposite. In a sense, it's Enlightenment's Evil Twin. This is serious but still manageable through intensive … guidance under a competent teacher. In some cases, it takes months or even years to fully metabolize, but in my experience the results are almost always highly positive.
Britton's findings corroborate many of Young's claims. Among the nearly 40 dark night subjects her team has formally interviewed over the past few years, she says most were "fairly out of commission, fairly impaired for between six months [and] more than 20 years."
The identities of Britton's subjects are kept secret and coded anonymously. To find interviewees, however, her team contacted well-known and highly esteemed teachers, such as Jack Kornfield at California's Spirit Rock and Joseph Goldstein at the Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts. Like many other experienced teachers they spoke to, Goldstein and Kornfield recalled instances during past meditation retreats where students became psychologically incapacitated. Some were hospitalized. Says Britton, "there was one person Jack told me about [who] never recovered."
The Dark Night Project is young, and still very much in progress. Researchers in the field are just beginning to carefully collect and sort through the narratives of difficult meditation-related experiences. Britton has presented her findings at major Buddhist and scientific conferences, prominent retreat centers, and even to the Dalai Lama at the 24th Mind and Life Dialogue in 2012.
"Many people in our study were lost and confused and could not find help," Britton says. "They had been through so many doctors, therapists, and dharma teachers. Given that we had so much information about these effects, we realized that we were it."
In response, Britton conceived of Cheetah House as a public resource. "We're still in the process of developing our services," she says. "Lots of people just come live here, and work on the study. Because they're part of the research team, they get to stay here and listen to other people's experiences, and that's been incredibly healing."
As a trained clinician, it can be hard for Britton to reconcile the visible benefits of contemplative practices with data unearthed through the Dark Night Project. More than half of her patients reported positive "life-altering experiences" after a recent eight-week meditation program, for example. But, she says, "while I have appreciation and love for the practices, and for my patients … I have all of these other people that have struggled, who are struggling."
Posted 05 October 2014 - 04:35 AM
Health Interview MBSR Meditation Mindfulness neuroscience Science Tricycle Science Health
Last May, an article about mindfulness on a popular mainstream news website finally spurred neuroscientist and meditation researcher Catherine Kerr to act. The article cited 20 benefits of meditation, from “reducing loneliness” to “increasing grey matter” to “helping sleep,” and painted a picture of meditation as a kind of golden elixir for modern life. Kerr posted the article on her Facebook page. “It is not like any of this is grossly inaccurate,” she wrote in her post. “It is just that the studies are too cherry-picked and too positive.”
Assistant Professor of Medicine and Family Medicine at Brown University, Kerr directs translational neuroscience for Brown’s Contemplative Studies Initiative and leads a mindfulness research program at Providence’s Miriam Hospital. She takes no issue with the value of mindfulness practice; Kerr has personally reaped enormous benefit from Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in a two-decade-long battle with cancer, and as a researcher she has studied the beneficial effects MBSR has had on others. But as a scientist committed to facts, she was worried. “I think we are all going to need to take responsibility and do something so that the coverage looks slightly more balanced,” she wrote to her Facebook friends who are scientists, clinicians, philosophers, and contemplatives in the meditation research community. “Otherwise, when the inevitable negative studies come, this whole wave will come crashing down on us.”
Within three days, Kerr’s Facebook thread grew to over 100 comments. Kerr founded a Facebook group and moved the discussion there. Today, “Mindfulness and Skillful Action: A Research Discussion Group” is an important rallying point for over 400 prominent academic, scientific, and clinical meditation researchers as well as leaders from the Buddhist community. (The group is now closed to new members.) This Facebook community has been tracking two rapidly diverging discourses: the evolving scientific, scholarly, and clinical consensus and the popular press coverage about that consensus. As the gap between the two widens to what Kerr fears will soon reach a “crisis point,” group members are asking themselves and each other what ethical obligations they have to intervene in the popular discourse around meditation. Together they are strategizing about how to tone down the hype to accord with the facts while not, as Kerr commented in one post, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Tricycle spoke with Kerr in Providence, Rhode Island to understand the significance of this emerging meta-discourse—the conversation about the conversation about meditation.
—Linda Heuman, Contributing Editor
In a recent article in U.S. News, you were quoted as saying: “Mindfulness is a science that is just beginning. And there’s a lot of media hype around that.” What kind of hype? The Huffington Post is the worst offender. The message they deliver becomes a ubiquitous, circulating meme that people put up on their Facebook pages and that becomes “true” through repetition alone. The Huffington Post features mindfulness a lot and tends to represent only the positive findings (and in the most positive light imaginable) rather than offering a balanced reading of the science. They use that approach to justify the idea that every person who has any mental abilities should be doing mindfulness meditation. I don’t think the science supports that. The Huffington Post has really done mindfulness a disservice by framing it in that way.
How does hyping mindfulness do it a disservice? One of the negative consequences if this wave of hype continues could be that the backlash will be too strong. People will lose faith and revert to the other side: mindfulness has no value.
What are some of the popular myths or narratives about mindfulness that scientists would like to correct? Scientists are, for the most part, circumspect about making claims for cures attributed to mindfulness. The science doesn’t support that. Scientists know from looking at meditation trials that not every person benefits from mindfulness therapies, but this is something non-scientists seem to have difficulty with. Individuals should not make clinically based decisions based only on neuroscientific studies because the sample sizes are too small; if you are making an evidence-based decision, it should be from a full picture of the evidence that includes clinical trial data. The clinical trial data on mindfulness for depression, for example, is not a slam-dunk. The results are really not better than those for antidepressants. In general, mindfulness is not orders of magnitude stronger than other things that people are doing right now to help manage stress and mood disorders. So you have to look at mindfulness in the context of a range of options. Unlike other therapies, mindfulness can be self-led at a certain point—it becomes a practice rather than a therapeutic modality in the same way that exercise is a training or practice. But mindfulness doesn’t work for everything and is not suitable for everyone.
Another popular narrative about MBSR is that it’s derived from a two-and-a-half-millennia-old practice. It is very hard to evaluate or falsify that statement or even to figure out what it means. I think it gets assigned way too much weight.
Could you give an example of a scientific result that was oversold by the media? I was the second author in Sara Lazar’s 2005 paper “Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness.” It is a lovely paper, but its findings were preliminary.
Was this the study that had everyone saying that meditation changes your brain? Yes. It is cited over 800 times in scientific literature. Sara is still interviewed constantly about this study. And scientists know that it’s a nonrandomized cross-sectional study, which means that the measures are only taken at one time point. So if there is a difference in brain thickness, we don’t know if the cause is practice or lifestyle, or if people with thicker brains are simply attracted to mindfulness. To see that something is causing something else, we need to see change over time that’s controlled. And we don’t see that in the paper. But the typical headline in the popular press was “Mindfulness Makes Your Brain Grow.”
We also didn’t claim that there was a directly measured behavioral benefit in having a thicker brain. (There are actually some conditions where it’s not good to have a thicker brain!) We were really clear about the significance of our findings in our paper, but because the brain is such a fetish and because the idea of growing your brain was so attractive, many media portrayals missed the subtlety entirely.
Sara Lazar’s finding has since been replicated. I wasn’t totally sure about the results until they were replicated.
So even though the measures were only taken at one point, because it has been replicated the results are still significant? Yes, it has been replicated many times in different ways. It’s very exciting for a scientist to have your findings replicated. There’s a really significant replication crisis right now in psychological science—especially in social psychology. Many findings that were thought to be canonical—which were in the psychology textbooks and which everyone just thought were true—are not replicable. We can’t generate those effects. It’s not necessarily the case that the first study was bad, but the gold standard of science is replication.
There’s a broader replication crisis in medicine. There is a very famous article about this by John P. A. Ionnidis called “Why Most Published Research Studies Findings are False.” In the same vein, a report published in Nature reviewed preclinical cancer studies and found that over 80 percent of the findings reported in top journals were nonreplicable. That means we can’t trust them. They’re likely not true!
Both scientists and scientific laypeople have a lot of trouble with these reports.
Why do you think that is so? We want certainty; we do not like the indeterminacy of not really understanding what is going on. Yet somebody who has a clear scientific understanding knows that the evidence base is always mixed—it is not a 100-percent, only-positive thing. Mixed into the weave of the science are negative findings and poorly designed studies. The problem is not isolated to mindfulness.
So how should scientific laypeople interpret the research on meditation? It’s fair to say that there are some clues from brain science that meditation might help enhance brain function. That is an evidence-based statement. The mistake is investing 100-percent certainty in a result and not holding a probabilistic view of scientific truth or risk and benefit. When people are making decisions for their own well-being, they need to be able to hold that uncertainty in mind. And they need to understand that the scientific context in which they are making their decisions could be different five years from now. Personally, I don’t really make decisions about what to practice based on these small-sample-size studies reported in the media. Many mindfulness scientists are very puzzled by people making decisions based on these small neuroscientific studies.
What kind of evidence would it be appropriate to consider in evaluating mindfulness as a therapeutic remedy? Consideration of the concrete experience of doing these practices should be much more central in the discussion. “This is what it feels like to follow your breath for twenty minutes. How do you like it? What did it make you feel like later in the day?” Those seem like the real questions, not “What would happen if I threw you in a scanner?”
There are many claimants for attention and funding from the National Insitutes of Health (NIH) and insurance companies. I think it’s fair to ask for some objective evidence before you decide to reimburse on something, to have preliminary scientific data before the NIH bestows a million-dollar grant. That type of demand has its place. The problem is when the volume is turned up too high, when there is an overestimation of what the evidence might really mean. This problem of overestimation is ubiquitous. It is true in statin literature; it true in hormone replacement therapy literature. We thought there were really strong benefits, and they turned out to not be there—sometimes these therapies were even harmful.
Do you think that the researchers themselves are in part responsible for the media hype? The approach in mindfulness science is pretty much aligned with how scientists generally communicate, where, especially in early-stage work, one of your responsibilities is to generate enthusiasm. To get things going, get collaborators, and garner NIH interest, you need to be a little entrepreneurial. There is a real art to expressing something as a theory you want to test and getting people excited about it while making sure that they understand this theory hasn’t been proven yet. Researchers have to strike a tricky balance between expressing genuine enthusiasm and cautioning about limitations.
But a lot of times I will clearly say, “I am stating a very exciting hypothesis.” When I lay out how the hypothesis might work, listeners grab onto that hypothesis story as though it is true—even though I’ve said, “It hasn’t been proven yet.” People don’t really know how to hear a story that a scientist is telling as a hypothesis. They don’t know how to gauge that. The hypothesis somehow registers as “already proven.”
Do researchers benefit from the hype? Do they leverage it—intentionally or unintentionally? You can read media coverage of scientists’ encounters at public forums and probably find examples where they are making a story a little stronger than the evidence suggests. Mindfulness didn’t invent the problem. It is a big problem in science communication across the board. That is how things work in these TED-style forum talks—it is not about skepticism or careful thinking; it is about who can tell the most dramatic story.
It is very hard for the public to remember a complex story. Part of our job as communicators is to strip the story down. The tricky thing is to determine when we cross a line to become manipulative and not true to the underlying science.
The NIH takes an interest in therapies that are popular and available, so publicity can translate into more NIH funding. Other scientists start to get interested, and that recruits more scientists into the field. It makes our studies seem more interesting and significant because they relate to a phenomenon that people are interested in. So we do benefit. But I don’t think that is the main thing that has been driving the hype.
You have called on scholars of contemplative studies to take the lead in starting a critical dialogue about mindfulness. What would that look like? Some important questions to ask are why people want to believe that mindfulness is good in every circumstance, that there are no negative side effects, and that it’s derived in a pure way from a 2500-year-old practice. Why do contemplative practices, especially Asian contemplative practices, seem to elicit this type of positive response? Those are the really interesting cultural questions about the present moment.
What would be your contribution be? I’m very interested in patient narratives—clinical narratives. When I read critiques of mindfulness closely, I see they often don’t address the experiences of people who do the practice. Left out of consideration in current critiques of mindfulness is people’s sincere desire to be happy and to suffer less.
In my brain science course, I bring in examples of what a scientific abstract says and also a news article that reports on it. They are very disconnected from one another. People want ways to reduce suffering and stress and they have grabbed onto mindfulness like a life jacket. I find that very moving, and I want to take it seriously.
There is a flavor of desperation around some of this hope. I’m sensitized to this from over ten years of research I did on the placebo effect at Harvard Medical School with Ted Kaptchuk, a leader in the field. When people seek help in a medical-therapeutic context, they are often quite desperate for relief.
What is the placebo effect, and does it relate to the healing power of mindfulness? The placebo effect is usually defined, somewhat tortuously, as the sum of the nonspecific effects that are not hypothesized to be the direct mechanism of treatment. For example, having a face-to-face conversation is not hypothesized as what makes psychotherapy work—you could have a face-to-face conversation with anybody. But for some reason, if you go every week to therapy, you are going to get better. But you could talk about the weather! When we perform these rituals with a desire to get better, we often do. We now know that a lot of the positive therapeutic benefit from psychotherapy and from various pain drugs may come from that initial context; it often has nothing to do with the specific treatment that is being offered. It is really just about the person approaching a situation with a sense of hope and being met by something that seems to hold out that hope.
MBSR has tapped into that in a really deep way. What happens to an individual in the course of the eight-week MBSR course is based on this initial motivation to get better. Much of the benefit he or she receives from MBSR likely comes from that. Participants have complex relationships around their hopes of getting better. There is something very profound about that—something very human.
My sense of this isn’t only grounded in my knowledge of mindfulness science and my earlier work on the science of the placebo; I live this. I have had an underlying cancer for 18 years. Qigong and mindfulness have been very helpful to me in managing the side effects of my illness and psychological fluctuations. They may have even helped me manage my immune system. But what is in the foreground for me is that every morning I get up and have a sincere desire to be better.
If someone is aware that the placebo effect may be an important part of why a particular treatment works, will the treatment still work for that person? As someone who is an expert on the placebo effect, can it still affect you? Why wouldn’t it? You can’t imagine you are healing. If you are healing, you are healing!
Ted Kaptchuk did a great study on “placebos without deception.” He recruited people with irritable bowel syndrome and told them: “We have a treatment here that we’ve already studied. It appears to really help people. It is called ‘the placebo.’ So I’m going to hand you some pills that have no physiological benefit. But based on our data, we think this will help you.” And there was a pretty robust response.
Even though people knew it was a placebo? So you don’t need to be under the illusion that you are taking an actual drug? You need something that you are actively doing for yourself. You need to take a pill; you need to get touched—something needs to happen. There needs to be a ritual where there is a transaction of some sort.
The placebo effect is a kind of category mistake. It is what gets left over when you throw out the effects of the specific treatment. But the minute that you make the placebo a veritable mechanism, it stops being “the placebo effect.” It is paradoxical in that way. It has been studied, and it is tractable. It seems like the dynamics of ritual are very important.
Are you saying that if there are two people who are both ill and really want to get better, the one who takes any kind of action has a better chance of recovery? Yes. What is interesting about mindfulness is the way it works with that desire and the simple fact of taking action by doing your homework every day. It enrolls you in a process of which you are very self-aware.
Do you think there is a risk that mindfulness hype preys on that hope people have by giving them a false promise of cure? I’ve heard reports of people who have abandoned chemotherapy to do mindfulness. I don’t know if that has really happened. Certainly there are people who go off their antidepressants or lithium and think that mindfulness is going to manage their serious depression or bipolar disorder. That’s a concern we have with the current hype around mindfulness. People might see it as being more active than it really is. It doesn’t resolve those situations.
If mindfulness doesn’t actually resolve conditions like depression, how does it help? I did a qualitative study of participants in an MBSR course and I found that they appear follow a trajectory. People show up and they really want relief. They have a lot of different conditions. They are seeking help. They think that maybe this course is going to take away their problems. And the teacher on the first day says that’s not what this class is about. This class is about learning how to be present to your own inner life, including distress and suffering that you may have been avoiding. By weeks four and five, people really get it. They’ve been sitting and their suffering has not gone away, and there’s this profound experience people have in which they realize that maybe just wiping away the suffering is not what this is about. Then people have a lot of generalized distress, and they go through it and end up on the other side. They realize, “I can face that!”
When promoters of mindfulness only focus on its effects on brain mechanisms—and I say this as a brain scientist—they are missing a big part of the story. Similarly, when Buddhist critics of mindfulness attack secularized mindfulness because they are worried it is corrupting the dharma, they too are missing something important. Both are blind to this experiential dimension of what it is like for people in pain to take an MBSR course: you have this very complex process of wanting relief, discovering that this isn’t going to take your problems away, and then facing into your problems in a new way. That process is about learning how to tolerate the uncertainty that is our existential problem. We’re not sure if we are right; we don’t know how things are going to turn out. Living with that uncertainty is really deep! And MBSR and its variants help people with that. I worry that our tendency to parse the world into competing abstractions—scientific reductionism on the one hand or dharma purism on the other—may cause us to miss this hard-to-see qualitative shift that may be the true source of the power of mindfulness.
Do you consider yourself part of the “mindfulness backlash?” I am a cautious member of the backlash, but I am also aware that the backlash can crystalize into ideological rhetoric. People who think of mindfulness as “training their brains” are taking refuge in an idea that has not been proven; they are either unaware of or unable to process the problem of scientific uncertainty. Similarly, people who are concerned that “McMindfulness” could be watering down the dharma could also be viewed as ideological and intolerant of the uncertainty that comes with something new. Insistence on surefire answers, whether in science or about a received notion of the dharma, can be an avoidance of the existential problem of uncertainty.
Do you think that there is no place for critics who are saying we should exercise caution about whether we consider this a new form of Buddhism? These are important questions for dharma teachers, but I’m not sure of their social significance beyond committed dharma teachers and students. Viewed in terms of the amount of suffering that is being met by MBSR, the question of whether or not MBSR is Buddhism doesn’t really matter.
There are, however, significant questions about how the increasing popularity of secular meditation programs might affect Western Buddhism. How would you recommend Buddhists meaningfully discuss these issues? It is important for mindfulness critics to be curious about the experiences of people who take these secular mindfulness programs. The questions people need to be asking are not these abstract ones: “Is it scientific?” “Is it true dharma?” The question to ask is: “What does it feel like?” If you go straight to brain circuits or straight to ideology, you are missing that fundamental question—and that curiosity.
Linda Heuman, a Tricycle contributing editor, is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island.
With support from the John Templeton Foundation, Tricycle’s Buddhism and Modernity project is initiating a conversation between Buddhists and leading thinkers across the humanities and social sciences. Tricycle is exploring how perspectives drawn from research on the nature of religion, culture, science, and secularism can shed light on unexamined assumptions shaping the transmission of Buddhism to modernity. This project offers Western Buddhists new ways of thinking about their spiritual experiences by demonstrating how reason can be used as a tool to open up—rather than shut down—access to traditional faith.
Image: Christiana Care/Flickr
Posted 01 December 2016 - 05:54 AM
though religious experience impacts more than 5.8 billion people worldwide, our understanding of the brain networks involved remains obscure. In a study published today in the journal Social Neuroscience, researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine report that religious and spiritual experiences activate reward circuits in the brain — the same that are associated with feelings of love and drug-induced euphoric states.
Researchers used fMRI to image the brain’s electrical activity while spiritual feelings were evoked in participants inside the scanner. 19 young devout Mormons, 12 males and 7 females, who were all former full-time missionaries, were chosen because of the intensity of their routine religious experience—known as “feeling the spirit.” A key part of being Mormon involves identifying this experience in oneself and teaching this ability to new converts. Followers of the faith make decisions based on these feelings and view them as a way to communicate with God. This made them the ideal choice for a study aimed at uncovering the specific neural circuits involved with religious experience.
To trigger these religious feelings, participants were given four tasks over the course of an hour while their brains were scanned. The exercises were designed to emulate the Mormon religious experience, and included prayer, scripture study, audiovisual presentations of religious music with images of Biblical scenes and other strongly religious content, and quotes from church leaders. To make sure only the images of brain states associated with intense religious experience were captured, participants were intermittently asked to give subjective ratings, with responses to “Are you feeling the spirit?” ranging from “not feeling” to “very strongly feeling.”
The tasks were highly effective, as many participants were actually brought to tears during the session. Detailed first-person assessments showed that feelings of inner peace and physical sensations of warmth were common. Overall, the feelings evoked were described as similar to those experienced during a typical intense worship service.
The lead investigator on the project, Dr. Michael Ferguson, said, “When our study participants were instructed to think about a savior, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded.”
In addition to elevating heart rate and deepening breathing, the brain imaging data revealed that religious and spiritual experiences consistently activated electrical brain patterns in multiple regions, including the nucleus accumbens, which is a central part of the brain’s reward and reinforcement system. Activation of ventromedial prefrontal cortex was also observed, a brain area involved in many complex functions, including decision-making and emotion regulation. Frontal attentional regions were also active, which play a role in alertness and focused attention.
Posted 13 December 2016 - 04:25 AM
Posted 30 October 2018 - 08:29 AM
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.
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."Read more
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- Airports are installing yoga rooms to help tense travellers relax
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- Mindfulness can help prevent relapses of depression
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.
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