when scientists explore the dark side of meditation with buddhist monks

Researchers want you to know that immersing yourself in your own mind isn’t all sunshine and enlightenment.

zen monk concept
Illustration: concept art from We Came As Romans

In less than a decade, meditation and mindfulness went from zen practices for the spiritual to often invoked treatments for everything from addiction to depression. Unscrupulous alt med practitioners pitch them as universal magic cure alls. Doctors recommend them to improve treatment compliance and help tackle the mental aspects of certain disorders. In either case, you’ll never hear a word about side effects or potential problems with meditation. In fact, you might not even know that meditation or mindfulness therapy could possibly have side effects or downsides and be wondering what those could possibly entail. Can you actually get too zen or too mindful? Turns out that yes, yes you can.

According to a 2017 study of various meditation practices by researchers at Brown University and UCSB, there hasn’t been enough research done to understand the effects of journeying into one’s own mind without much one one one guidance and too many of us in the West forget just how many different forms of meditation and mindfulness there are. As a result, we managed to overlook that for a minority of those who try them, attempts to clear the mind lead down a very dark path in which they become either overwhelmed by their daily lives or become withdrawn, depressed, and detached. What starts out as clarity and awareness can suddenly turn into a spiral to misery, despair, and frustration. And what’s more, practitioners have known and written about this for many centuries, albeit with a heavy patina of religious metaphors.

Some patients ends up with obsessive flashbacks of trauma. Others start dwelling on their anxieties and fear instead of simply noticing them and letting them go, as instructed by most mindfulness practices. Yet others experience exacerbations of existing mental issues. Notably, one of the researchers involved in the study, Dr. Willoughby Britton, spent almost a decade running a center called Cheetah House, helping those for whom meditation has done more harm than good. This study was prompted by the common problems she and her colleagues saw in their patients, and the fact that far too many experts were ignoring thick stacks of literature detailing the downsides of diving too deeply into one’s own psyche without a safety wire.

Overall, the researchers don’t say that meditation itself is harmful or problematic. It still has very legitimate, although understudied, benefits for those who choose to do it. But they do think there needs to be more widespread understanding that not every type of meditation is the same and that it can be harmful to some practitioners, and recommend more guided experiences in which the guide is an expert in meditation and mindfulness able to spot signs of patients’ distress and pull them back from the mental ledge. In other words, they want to bring rigor to how doctors and therapists pick and recommend a meditation or mindfulness practice.

The bottom line according to the study is that different practices offer different skills which can be beneficial. Our goal should be to understand the cognitive skill that best fits the patients who’d benefit from it and can walk them through the right way to learn it by meditation, minimizing the chance that their minds will stray into dark memories or accidentally learn to inhibit normal emotional responses, leaving them cold and detached from the world around them. And the experts in Buddhist practice interviewed by the researchers couldn’t agree more. After all, they’re been warning pilgrims and monks in training about the same thing for centuries.

See: Lindahl JR, et. al., (2017) The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0176239. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0176239

# health // meditation / mindfulness / psychology / scientific research


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