The Evil of Meditation: Everyone Talks About Nobody Talking About the Risks of Meditation

There are visible signs that some Buddhist communities in the United States are beginning to feel a greater need to respond to what are often referred to today as “difficult” or “adverse” meditation experiences. For a few decades now, meditation practices have received very good press in the English-speaking media and beyond. Meditation is often presented as helpful, as therapeutic, for almost every segment of society, from healthcare to professional sports, from the classroom to the courtroom.

From my dual location as a researcher in religious studies and a practicing psychotherapist, I research how psychotherapists have approached Buddhist traditions. I was struck when, in a 2018 journal article, a cohort of leading psychologists and scientific researchers who study meditation practices actually expressed concern about the “hype” surrounding mindfulness practices. especially.

They suggested that the risk of meditation’s adverse effects — from sleep disturbances to depression to hallucinations — might be obscured or ignored by those who might enthusiastically promote its therapeutic benefits. In interviews for my new book project examining how psychotherapists have responded to the so-called “sickness of meditation”, some psychologists have told me that they are concerned that the financial stakes involved in the hype around meditation may even encourage teachers to minimize the danger of adverse effects of meditation.

However, relatively extensive treatments of adverse meditation experiences have actually appeared very recently, published just two months apart in two of the country’s most popular Buddhist magazines, Tricycle and The lion’s roar (Previously Shambhala Sun). This could demonstrate an increased interest in the subject within the communities that produce these periodicals, communities made up primarily of white practitioners as opposed to Asian American Buddhists or Buddhist populations in Asian-majority countries. Further away, Anne Gleiga leading scholar of Buddhist traditions in the United States, has referred to them as “meditation-based communities of converts”, to signal how strongly they are centered on meditation, unlike more traditional Buddhist practices such as deserved and the propitiation of the deities.

Gleig describes these communities as ambivalent about the influence of the psychological and psychotherapeutic on Buddhist doctrine. Nevertheless, some Buddhist leaders are well aware that many turn to the group meditation sessions and multi-day retreats they sponsor primarily in search of therapeutic benefits, reduced stress or anxiety, an increased sense of peace, etc. One would expect members of these particular communities to be sensitive when new students are rather surprised that meditation can be very difficult, even painful.

Indeed, in both cases, the recent articles in popular Buddhist magazines were written because their authors perceived a change in the media treatment of meditation practices. According to The lion’s roar piece, reporting on “risks” or “dangers” has become “increasingly common in recent years.” Wendy Biddlecombe Agsar, the author of Tricycle piece, told me that it had inspired her to cover the subject as well when, knowing of my research in this area, she contacted me for a comment. (And, full disclosure, I was later quoted in the article.)

In an upcoming analysis I recently conducted of popular writing on this topic, I found that there has, in fact, been a noticeable increase in coverage in recent years. Points of sale like Washington Post and Vice published articles with titles such as, respectively, “Meditation and mindfulness are not as good for you as you think: there are negative side effects that no one ever talks about” and “The side effects of the meditation no one talks about”. “But this growth has been commensurate with the continued boom in media coverage of therapeutic meditation in general which remains overwhelmingly positive.

Meanwhile, some meditation teachers are responding to efforts to raise awareness of the existence of unpleasant meditation experiences by describing them as, essentially, “old news.” They explain that centuries-old Buddhist writings tell stories of initiates undergoing difficult, unpleasant and even terrifying experiences. (The expression “meditation evil” is itself a translation of the rather old Buddhist concepts of zenbyō (Japanese) or to change (Chinese).) Some meditation teachers point out that, among themselves, the existence of difficult meditative experiences is therefore well known. And they assure critics that, equipped with this knowledge, properly trained instructors are competent to guide meditators safely through such challenges.

The meditation teachers quoted in lion’s roar, for example, state that most uncomfortable effects of meditation are mild and, with reference to historical accounts, suggest that they are often an essential part of the contemplative process. For example, many of these teachers believe that modern people tend to distract themselves from emotional pain in their daily lives. Inhibited emotions can then surface as meditators become still and quiet, which can create significant discomfort. But, they think, it also allows people to actually get out of these emotional difficulties and, therefore, to free oneself from them.

But psychologists like Willoughby Britton have told me they worry that not all meditation teachers take the risks of adverse side effects from meditation seriously enough. Qualitative research from his lab has included an in-depth study of meditation teachers and the protocols they use (or don’t use) to respond to students who are having difficulty. She has been troubled by teachers who suggest these meditators must have a pre-existing psychiatric condition, even though evidence shows many do not. To assert that, if someone falls into depression, it’s because there was already a propensity for it, sounds to Britton, as she told me, a lot like “victim blaming” – a effort to champion meditation practices as purely positive, yet powerful, transformative.

However, as recent articles in the English-language American Buddhist press demonstrate, the number of meditation teachers who vocally and stridently adopt such a posture may be rapidly diminishing. Meditation centers continue to rework their selection processes in hopes of ensuring their visitors are fully prepared to handle the intensity of offerings such as 10-day silent retreats. And many walk away from this format as too emotionally draining; there are more and more offers which, for example, have reduced lengths of stay and which allow greater interaction with the instructors and socialization between the participants.

Much attention has also been paid to the proper training of meditation teachers. Well-known meditation teachers like Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield have long promoted certification processes they have devised as the “Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program” in the hope that such programming will educate trainers on the benefits and risks of meditation. Notably, Kornfield holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and included in his thesis reports on meditators who had difficult and uncomfortable experiences.

Some meditation teachers might consider that Kornfield’s background in psychology gives him greater sensitivity to these issues. For example, the revolutionary feminist Buddhist teacher Grace Schireson has been described as centering psychotherapeutic knowledge as essential. The The lion’s roar article states that “Schireson ultimately believes safety comes down to teachers getting more counseling training.”

Franz Metcalf, a scholar of “Buddhism and psychology,” has observed the recent prominence of what he calls “psychologists as dharma teachers” among the baby boomer generation of Buddhist communities in white predominance based on meditation. Perhaps such practitioners are uniquely suited to address meditation difficulties. “After all”, the The lion’s roar the article continues, “A meditation teacher should be able to recognize the difference between letting go of attachments, which does not require therapy, and chronic depression, which does.”

And, ultimately, perhaps that’s where many of these conversations lead: to deliberations about what my fellow psychotherapists would call “differential diagnosis.” Do meditators have religious experience or do they suffer from mental illness? Many of my religious studies academic colleagues would counter that this actually represents a “culture clash” between Buddhist and biomedical psychotherapeutic worldviews. Some Buddhists may very well believe that the practice of meditation, when done correctly, always yields far higher goals than the reduction of symptoms, including enlightenment itself, even if part of the way is difficult. and unfounded. Assessing whether or not these difficulties qualify as “chronic depression,” for example, might in itself sound like “psychologizing,” the subsumption of the religious to the biomedical.

Anyway, for those who seek meditation purely for stress relief, such a back and forth is probably more like a headache.

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