When mindfulness goes wrong.
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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.”

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.

This article originally appeared on GOOD.

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan
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Growing up in Indonesia, Farwiza Farhan always loved the ocean. It's why she decided to study marine biology. But the more she learned, the more she realized that it wasn't enough to work in the ocean. She needed to protect it.

"I see the ocean ecosystem collapsing due to overfishing and climate change," she says. "I felt powerless and didn't know what to do [so] I decided to pursue my master's in environmental management."

This choice led her to work in environmental protection, and it was fate that brought her back home to the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra, Indonesia — one of the last places on earth where species such as tigers, orangutans, elephants and Sumatran rhinoceros still live in the wild today. It's also home to over 300 species of birds, eight of which are endemic to the region.

"When I first flew over the Leuser Ecosystem, I saw an intact landscape, a contiguous block of lush, diverse vegetation stretched through hills and valleys. The Leuser is truly a majestic landscape — one of a kind."

She fell in love. "I had my first orangutan encounter in the Leuser Ecosystem," she remembers. "As the baby orangutan swung from the branches, seemingly playing and having fun, the mother was observing us. I was moved by the experience."

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan

"Over the years," she continues, "the encounters with wildlife, with people, and with the ecosystem itself compounded. My curiosity and interest towards nature have turned into a deep desire to protect this biodiversity."

So, she began working for a government agency tasked to protect it. After the agency dismantled for political reasons in the country, Farhan decided to create the HAkA Foundation.

"The goals [of HAkA] are to protect, conserve and restore the Leuser Ecosystem while at the same time catalyzing and enabling just economic prosperity for the region," she says.

"Wild areas and wild places are rare these days," she continues. "We think gold and diamonds are rare and therefore valuable assets, but wild places and forests, like the Leuser Ecosystems, are the kind of natural assets that essentially provide us with life-sustaining services."

"The rivers that flow through the forest of the Leuser Ecosystem are not too dissimilar to the blood that flows through our veins. It might sound extreme, but tell me — can anyone live without water?"

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan

So far, HAkA has done a lot of work to protect the region. The organization played a key role in strengthening laws that bring the palm oil companies that burn forests to justice. In fact, their involvement led to an unprecedented, first-of-its-kind court decision that fined one company close to $26 million.

In addition, HAkA helped thwart destructive infrastructure plans that would have damaged critical habitat for the Sumatran elephants and rhinos. They're working to prevent mining destruction by helping communities develop alternative livelihoods that don't damage the forests. They've also trained hundreds of police and government rangers to monitor deforestation, helping to establish the first women ranger teams in the region.

"We have supported multiple villages to create local regulation on river and land protection, effectively empowering communities to regain ownership over their environment."

She is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year. The donation she receives as a nominee is being awarded to the Ecosystem Impact Foundation. The small local foundation is working to protect some of the last remaining habitats of the critically endangered leatherback turtle that lives on the west coast of Sumatra.

"The funds will help the organization keep their ranger employed so they can continue protecting the islands, endangered birds and sea turtle habitats," she says.

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen. Do you know an inspiring woman like Farwiza? Nominate her today!

Photo by Vanessa Garcia from Pexels

A professor's message to students has gone viral.

If you know any teachers, you probably know how utterly exhausted they all are, from preschools all the way up through college. Pandemic schooling has been rough, to say the least, and teachers have borne the brunt of the impact it's had on students.

Most teachers I've known have bent over backwards to help students succeed during this time, taking kids' mental and emotional health into consideration and extending the flexibility and grace we all could use. But teachers have their own mental and emotional needs, too, and at some point, something's gotta give.

A college student posted screenshots of a professor's message on Twitter with the comment "someone PLEASE check on my professor." It's simply incredible.

The message reads:

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Courtesy of Ms. Lopez
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Marcella Lopez didn't always want to be a teacher — but once she became one, she found her passion. That's why she's stayed in the profession for 23 years, spending the past 16 at her current school in Los Angeles, where she mostly teaches children of color.

"I wanted purpose, to give back, to live a life of public service, to light the spark in others to think critically and to be kind human beings," she says. "More importantly, I wanted my students to see themselves when they saw me, to believe they could do it too."

Ms. Lopez didn't encounter a teacher of color until college. "That moment was life-changing for me," she recalls. "It was the first time I felt comfortable in my own skin as a student. Always remembering how I felt in that college class many years ago has kept me grounded year after year."

It's also guided her teaching. Ms. Lopez says she always selects authors and characters that represent her students and celebrate other ethnicities so students can relate to what they read while also learning about other cultures.

"I want them to see themselves in the books they read, respect those that may not look like them and realize they may have lots in common with [other cultures] they read about," she says.

She also wants her students to have a different experience in school than she did.

When Ms. Lopez was in first grade, she "was speaking in Spanish to a new student, showing her where the restroom was when a staff member overheard our conversation and directed me to not speak in Spanish," she recalls. "In 'this school,' we only speak English," she remembers them saying. "From that day forward, I was made to feel less-than and embarrassed to speak the language of my family, my ancestors; the language I learned to speak first."

Part of her job, she says, is to find new ways to promote acceptance and inclusion in her classroom.

"The worldwide movement around social justice following the death of George Floyd amplified my duty as a teacher to learn how to discuss racial equity in a way that made sense to my little learners," she says. "It ignited me to help them see themselves in a positive light, to make our classroom family feel more inclusive, and make our classroom a safe place to have authentic conversations."

One way she did that was by raising money through DonorsChoose to purchase books and other materials for her classroom that feature diverse perspectives.

Courtesy of Ms. Lopez

The Allstate Foundation recently partnered with DonorsChoose to create a Racial Justice and Representation category to encourage teachers like Ms. Lopez to create projects that address racial equity in the classroom. To launch the category, The Allstate Foundation matched all donations to these projects for a total of $1.5 million. Together, they hope to drive awareness and funding to projects that bring diversity, inclusion, and identity-affirming learning materials into classrooms across the country. You can see current projects seeking funding here.

When Ms. Lopez wanted to incorporate inclusive coloring books into her lesson plans, The Allstate Foundation fully funded her project so she was able to purchase them.

"I'm a lifelong learner, striving to be my best version of myself and always working to inspire my little learners to do the same," she says. Each week, Ms. Lopez and the students would focus on a page in the book and discuss its message. And she plans to do the same again this school year.

"DonorsChoose has been a gamechanger for my students. Without the support of all the donors that come together on this platform, we wouldn't have a sliver of what I've been able to provide for my students, especially during the pandemic," she says.

"My passion is to continue striving to be excellent, and to continue to find ways to use literature as an anchor, depicting images that reflect my students," she says.

To help teachers like Ms. Lopez drive this important mission forward, donate on DonorsChoose.

Courtesy of Ms. Lopez

This article originally appeared on 03.30.16


Dalton Ross wanted to make sure his family didn't miss him too badly while he was studying abroad in London.

To help them cope, the 22-year-old Tennessee native did what any selfless college student would do: He sent his mom a life-size cutout of himself.

All photos courtesy of Dalton Ross, used with permission.

"I thought maybe they'd put it in the living room corner until I got back to remember I exist," he explained about the cutout, which came with a short note: "You're welcome."

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Comedy Wildlife Award Winners 2021.

Six years ago, the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards started humbly as a small photo contest. But it's grown to be a worldwide renowned competition seen by millions across the globe. The photos are always funny but they come with a serious message: We need to protect the natural world.

This year's winner is "Ouch!" a photo of a Golden Silk Monkey who appears to have injured the family jewels by landing on a wire with his legs open. The photo was taken by Ken Jensen in 2016.

"I was absolutely overwhelmed to learn that my entry had won, especially when there were quite a number of wonderful photos entered," Jensen said in a statement. "The publicity that my image has received over the last few months has been incredible, it is such a great feeling to know that one's image is making people smile globally as well as helping to support some fantastically worthwhile conservation causes."

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