Mindfulness meditation (the practice of sitting still, focusing on your breath, noticing when your attention is drifting and bringing it back to your breath) is all the great rage at the moment—and for good reason too. There are some pretty amazing benefits of meditation that science agrees can work to everyone’s benefit. An Oxford University study, for instance, has found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) courses can reduce relapses into depression by 44%. In other words, mindfulness meditation is as effective as taking antidepressants, say the researchers.
However, like most things in life, there are potential dangers associated with meditation you may not know about. Without attempting to be alarming, psychiatrists are now increasingly sounding a warning that mindfulness meditation can have troubling side-effects that are intimately connected with the benefits. Keep in mind that the following concerns about meditation and its hidden dangers come not from critics of mindfulness but from supporters.
1. It can bring feelings of ennui, emptiness and even fear.
Dr Florian Ruths, consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital in south London, has conducted a number of investigations into adverse reactions to MBCT and uncovered some troubling news. She has reported rare cases of “depersonalization” where some meditators feel like they are watching themselves in a film. For some people this “depersonalization” can whip up some difficult emotions that can include feelings of ennui and emptiness, disconnection and even fear, says Ruths.
This potential side-effect or danger of meditation is important to know beforehand because if you’re diagnosed with a mental illness like depression and anxiety in many western countries, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is something you’re likely to be offered as a treatment.
2. It can bring changes in your sense of self, and cause impairment in social relationships.
This particular concern about meditation follows the “dark night” project at Brown University in the US, which has catalogued how some Buddhist meditators have been assailed by traumatic memories. Professor Willoughby Britton, lead researcher and psychiatrist in the project, has recorded surprising problems among some of the Buddhist meditators that include: “cognitive, perceptual and sensory aberrations,” impairment in social relationships and changes in their sense of self.
One Buddhist monk, Shinzen Young, has described the “dark night” phenomenon as an “irreversible insight into emptiness” and “enlightenment’s evil twin.” Another man who felt he’d been harmed by meditation described going through “psychological hell” as a result of his practice, while yet another man worried he was “permanently ruined.”
Mindfulness experts, however, say such extreme adverse reactions are rare and only likely to occur after prolonged periods of meditation, such as weeks on a silent retreat. Nonetheless, this information opens up a new angle to think about meditation amid the avalanche of hype.
3. It can be disempowering and keep you passive, contained and compliant.
In the mainstream arena, mindfulness meditation is merely a tool or way for calming and focusing oneself. But, mindfulness meditation in its original Buddhist tradition is more about gaining insight into the human condition, reducing stress and suffering in our own hearts and minds, and also in the world of which we are a part. It certainly has calming benefits in situations where we cannot do much to change things and it’s necessary to calm down and de-stress. However, there are times when we should be angry, distressed and determined to change things.
The single-minded enthusiasm in which meditation is now being deployed in schools, hospitals and even offices of companies like Google to paper over the cracks in situations where oppression, inequality, discrimination and other difficulties face us is concerning. This kind of deployment is tantamount to using repressive psychopharmacology to restrain people, or an injunction to ‘stop thinking about it,’ which is quite disempowering. It is an effective way to keep you isolated, passive and compliant.
The way to address these and other hidden dangers of meditation is to view it as part of a repertoire of techniques for living. Many times meditation is helpful, but it can also have troubling side effects. As Britton cautions, meditation is not all calm and peace. It opens up a space for you to see what’s going on in your mind. Psychological material (old resentments, wounds, trauma etc.) can surface that require additional support or even therapy.
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