When mindfulness goes wrong.
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.”

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.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less

Researchers at Harvard University have studied the connection between spanking and kids' brain development for the first time, and their findings echo what studies have indicated for years: Spanking isn't good for children.

Comments on this article will no doubt be filled with people who a) say they were spanked and "turned out fine" or b) say that the reason kids are [fill in the blank with some societal ill] these days are because they aren't spanked. However, a growing body of research points to spanking creating more problems than it solves.

"We know that children whose families use corporal punishment are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, behavior problems, and other mental health problems, but many people don't think about spanking as a form of violence," said Katie A. McLaughlin, director of the Stress & Development Lab in the Department of Psychology, and the senior researcher on the study which was published Friday in the journal Child Development. "In this study, we wanted to examine whether there was an impact of spanking at a neurobiological level, in terms of how the brain is developing."

You can read the entire study here, but the gist is that kids' brain activity was measured using an MRI machine as they reacted to photos of actors displaying "fearful" and "neutral" faces. What researchers found was that kids who had been spanked had similar brain neural responses to fearful faces as kids who had been abused.

"There were no regions of the brain where activation to fearful relative to neutral faces differed between children who were abused and children who were spanked," the authors wrote in a statement.

Keep Reading Show less
Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less