Be Wary of Hyping Up Meditation, Say Researchers
Even mindfulness-based meditation can have side effects.
Mindfulness has been heralded as practically a body hack that rolls productivity, anti-anxiety, and focus into one, its therapeutic benefits ranging from easing addiction to quieting mood disorders.
Meditation May Trigger Unpleasant Experiences
For some people, meditation may trigger experiences that are unpleasant or even distressing, according to a new study.
But researchers are dousing water on meditation’s glamorization as a miracle cure-all. In a paper published May 24 in the open-access journal PLOS One, psychiatrist Willoughby Britton and her colleagues interviewed Western Buddhist meditation practitioners and found that mindfulness-based meditation can have unintended negative consequences. Practitioners of Buddhist meditative traditions, —like Theravāda, Zen, and Tibetan style — show that using meditation as a psychological therapy is much more complicated than it seems, and can come with long-lasting consequences.
Britton and her fellow researchers conducted interviews with 60 meditation practitioners about their challenging, difficult, distressing, or impairing experiences associated with meditation. These issues spanned seven different areas: cognitive, perceptual, affective, somatic, conative, sense of self, and social.
“Mindfulness meditation programs, in particular, show small improvements in anxiety, depression, and pain with moderate evidence and small improvements in stress/distress and the mental health component of health-related quality of life,” write the researchers. They found no evidence of negative side effects — but most of these studies did not look for negative effects.
“The vast majority (88%) of participants reported that challenging or difficult meditation experiences bled over into daily life or had an impact on their life beyond a meditation retreat or beyond a formal practice session,” they wrote. Seventy-three percent of the subjects told researchers that they experienced moderate to severe impairment in at least one area. These results are especially significant when considering the fact that 60 percent of these people are meditation teachers, not just casual practitioners.
There’s a dark side to meditation that no one talks about
We’ve all heard about the benefits of meditation ad nauseam. Those disciplined enough to practice regularly are rewarded with increased control over the brainwaves known as alpha rhythms, which leads to better focus and may help ease pain. In addition to calming the mind and body, meditation can also reduce the markers of stress in people with anxiety disorders. Rigorous studies have backed health claims such as these to convince therapists, physicians, and corporate gurus to embrace meditation’s potential.
What contemporary and ancient meditators have always known, however, is that while the hype may be warranted, the practice is not all peace, love, and blissful glimpses of unreality. Sitting zazen, gazing at their third eye, a person can encounter extremely unpleasant emotions and physical or mental disturbances.
Zen Buddhism has a word for the warped perceptions that can arise during meditation: makyo, which combines the Japanese words for “devil” and “objective world.” Philip Kapleau, the late American Zen master, once described confronting makyo as “a dredging and cleansing process that releases stressful experiences in deep layers of the mind.”
This demanding and sometimes intensely distressing side of meditation is rarely mentioned in scientific literature.
However, this demanding and sometimes intensely distressing side of meditation is rarely mentioned in scientific literature, says Jared Lindahl, a visiting professor of religious studies at Brown University, who has an interest in neuroscience and Buddhism. Along with Willoughby Britton, a psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown, the two mediators have co-authored a study that documents and creates a taxonomy for the variant phenomenology of meditation. The paper, published in Plos One, is the beginning of an ongoing series of studies. “Just because something is positive and beneficial doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of the broader range of possible effects it might have,” Lindahl says.
To conduct their research, the pair interviewed 60 Western Buddhist meditation practitioners who had all experienced challenging issues during their practice. They included both rookies and meditation teachers, many of whom had accumulated more than 10,000 hours of meditation experience in their lifetime. All belonged to either Theravāda, Zen, or Tibetan traditions.
The researchers identified 59 kinds of unexpected or unwanted experiences, which they classified into seven domains: cognitive, perceptual, affective (related to moods), somatic, conative (related to motivation), sense of self, and social. Among the experiences described to them were feelings of anxiety and fear, involuntary twitching, insomnia, a sense of complete detachment from one’s emotions, hypersensitivity to light or sound, distortion in time and space, nausea, hallucinations, irritability, and the re-experiencing of past traumas. The associated levels of distress and impairment ranged from “mild and transient to severe and lasting,” according to the study. Most would not imagine that these side-effects could be hiding behind the lotus-print curtains of your local meditation center.
However, the survey respondents didn’t necessarily perceive every non-euphoric event as negative. In fact, says Britton, she and Lindahl deliberately avoided the word “adverse” in their study for this reason. Instead, they chose “challenging,” which better captured the meditators’ varied interpretations of their experiences. For instance, a person who came away from a retreat feeling “very expanded and very unified with other people in the world” might have found their oneness with the universe distracting once they returned home. (That’s challenging, not tragic.)
The goal of the study was to look for patterns in the common accounts of unwanted reactions. Who runs into the unexpected hurdles? What are the unique set of factors involved? In which ways do teachers assist students who are struggling? (And do they blame inner demons for the upsets, or maybe something you ate at lunch?) The answers, which still require future research, may one day be relevant to the ways meditation is used as therapy.