Lifestyle

When Mindfulness Goes Wrong

by Mark Hay

April 15, 2015
Image by geralt via pixabay

By now, almost everyone is familiar with the purported benefits of meditation. What was once a fringe spiritual practice in the West has, within the space of decades, transformed into a mainstay of modern culture and wellness advice. Over the past few years, science has increasingly started to back popular claims about the effects of mindfulness and contemplation. And studies now link regular attempts to focus our minds and calm our bodies via breathing exercises, chanting, or other meditative techniques to a host of benefits—everything from decreased stress and blood pressure, to increased cognitive abilities, to fundamental shifts in the way we process the world. Last January, Time even ran a cover story on America’s meditative “Mindful Revolution.” 

Yet this rush to validate, package, and promote meditation as a universal good may actually come with unforeseen risks. Although sitting and thinking may seem like an innocuous process, the fact remains that meditation is an altered state that we use as a tool to transform our bodies and minds. And like any tool, although intended for good things—like introspectively confronting our thoughts and feelings and coming to terms with troubling realities—it can wind up causing harm when set towards tasks that it just isn’t meant for (like acting as a quick-fix concentration booster or anesthesia for emotional strife). In the case of meditation, as the practice proliferates in the West, we’ve become increasingly aware that for some people, especially those with mental or personality conditions, mindfulness can trigger anxiety, depressive episodes, or flashbacks to past traumas.

“Because meditation cultivates a type of witness awareness (I’m witnessing my thoughts, I am not my thoughts),” wrote Andrew Holecek, Buddhist spiritualist and teacher, “which if done properly can help us distance ourselves safely and beneficially from the contents of our mind, it can also exacerbate certain kinds of dissociative and depersonalization disorders.”

The Buddhist teachers and scriptures from which many Western teachers draw in creating their local adaptations of meditation regimens have long recognized these risks, with some texts describing anxiety and emotional pain as typical stages in one’s progress through meditative studies. Some even describe these stresses as the mirror state to enlightenment, the confrontation of which is vital.

“There is a sutta [Buddhist scriptural verse]” where monks go crazy and commit suicide after doing contemplation on death,” writes Chris Kaplan of the Mind and Life Institute.

Photo by MeditationMusic.net via Flickr

Most Buddhist teachers believe that, through the idiosyncratic personal guidance of a spiritual teacher and the supportive structure of institutions that have dealt with similar cases in years past, we can move past or benefit from confrontations with these troubling experiences. But extracting good from the bad takes time, guidance, and patience that many of us in the meditative hoi polloi just don’t have access to or the inclination to use.  

Western practitioners have not completely ignored the risks that meditation poses. Groups like the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine have long included disclaimers in their descriptions of meditation and its benefits, pointing towards its potential dark side:

“Meditation is considered 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.”

Even this disclaimer (as is the wont of disclaimer style) makes the problem seem miniscule. And it’s true that we don’t have a real sense of the scale of the problem in terms of the number of people it effects or the impact of negative meditative states. But the lack of research the NCCAM points to is now being filled by studies like Willoughby Britton’s Dark Night Project—a combination psychological study and recovery home for those damaged by meditation.

Britton was inspired to launch the project by two encounters during her psychiatry residency, when patients claimed severe emotional trauma caused by meditation. These incidents were swiftly followed by her own personal case of meditative malaise that hit the problem home to the young psychiatrist and meditator.

“I thought that I had gone crazy,” recalls Britton of the experience. “I thought I was having a nervous breakdown. I mean I had no idea why I was suddenly having all these… like terror was a big symptom of [my own negative meditative episode].”

As of now, the Dark Night Project has catalogued several dozen cases of negative meditative experiences so powerful they resulted in months to years of psychological incapacitation; this is why Britton established a recovery center alongside the study. It will be years until this data is actually compiled into a meaningful body of information. But even these initial anecdotes—along with other lurid and haphazard accounts of “spiritual sickness” and erratic, dangerous behavior brought on by extreme meditative retreats and practices—seem to suggest that the perils of meditation, even if niche, are worth popular consideration and address.  

Photo by Ruth Hartnup via Flickr

As we await definitive studies, one of the best ways to resolve the issue may be to appeal to older meditative traditions that already recognize and cope with the downsides of meditation. Some meditation researchers, like Pacific University’s Sarah Bowen, suggest that trauma may arise because Western meditative traditions bypass the rigorous practices and intensive guidance of older meditation cultures. By treating meditation like a spiritual smoothie rather than an intense and complex practice, we run the risk of confronting meditation’s dark sides, or at least sinking into them more easily than those who have a framework of coping and recovery in place.

There may, then, be some benefit, even if only prophylactic, in seeking out meditation traditions that privilege structure. Promoting this style of meditative practice may help to deter those who don’t want to take meditation seriously from pursuing the practice too far down risky, fast track paths. Yet encouraging this type of moderation will be difficult, as humanity loves a simple, silver bullet solution (as so many believe meditation to be). It seems likely that people will continue to suffer under the dark side of meditation until high profile cases reach a critical capacity or—as the pendulum of pop obsession starts to swing in the other direction—the meditative trend begins to regulate itself. Until then, if your post-yoga om session has your mind turning to anxious or disturbing thoughts that you just can’t process or move past, it might be a good idea to just get up and walk away, rather than pushing yourself into the void. Or if you’re dead set on meditating, at least find yourself a therapist or spiritual guide familiar with the practice who can help you work through the dark states you’re coming up against.

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When Mindfulness Goes Wrong