The downside of meditation

Sri Lanka, the country that I grew up in, is made up of about 90% of Buddhists and Hindus, religious traditions that have meditation as a part of their tradition and yet, growing up there, I did not know anyone who was a real devotee of the practice. I do recall dropping in with a friend out of curiosity to a place that was supposed to be a meditation center and listened to the leader of the program tell us of the need to ‘open our third eye’, which my friend and I found pretty funny, conjuring up as it did the sudden appearance of an eye in the middle of our foreheads like Cyclops, and tried to suppress our laughter. We never returned.

The point is that meditation was pretty much a non-factor. It is in the US that I became more aware of meditation because it was quite popular, though there has been opposition to it and its associated ‘mindfulness’, along with yoga, from some who feel that they are a surreptitious means of introducing Buddhist and Hindu religious ideas under the guise of a supposedly religiously neutral practice.

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel at ACLJ and personal attorney to President Donald Trump recently criticized the use of mindfulness in schools on his radio program, Jay Sekulow Live, Buddhist website Lion’s Roar reported.

“We’ve got millions of people listening to this broadcast,” said Sekulow, per Lion’s Roar. “Find out what’s going on in your kids’ schools… We will contact the school board on your behalf, dispatch lawyers as necessary.”

Missouri megachurch pastor John Lindell similarly blasted yoga for its “demonic” Hindu roots in November. He added the “spiritually dangerous” practice was ” “diametrically opposed to Christianity.”

People I know in the US practice meditation and have recommended it to me. I still do not practice it because I have not felt the need to do so, not because of any opposition to it. From what I had read and heard, it seemed to have benefits in terms of reducing stress and increasing a sense of calm, neither of which I felt were concerns for me. I do not get unduly stressed about things and when I try to get calmer than my usual state, I tend to fall asleep.

Though I have not felt the need for meditation, I had been under the impression that there were really no downsides to it. I may have been mistaken. In the April 2021 issue of Harper’s magazine (paywall), David Kortawa looks at the psychological risks of meditation.

Although there is data supporting the positive e!ects of meditation, the scientific literature is murkier than some champions of the practice would like to believe, and the possibility of negative outcomes cannot be so easily dismissed. As early as 1976, Arnold Lazarus, one of the forefathers of cognitive behavioral therapy, raised concerns about transcendental meditation, the mantra-based practice then in vogue. “When used indiscriminately,” he warned, “the procedure can precipitate serious psychiatric problems such as depression, agitation, and even schizophrenic decompensation.” Lazarus had by then treated a number of “agitated, restive” patients whose symptoms seemed to worsen after meditating. He came to believe that the practice, while beneficial for many, was likely harmful to some.

One case study, from 2007, documented a twenty-four-year-old male patient who had slipped into “a short-lasting acute psychotic state” during “an unguided and intense” meditation session. He was referred to clinicians following the onset of “an acute sensation of being mentally split.” He saw vivid colors, hallucinated, and was overcome with severe anxiety. At the height of the episode, he was tormented by “delusional convictions that he had caused the end of the world” and talked of suicide. The man had experienced one previous hypomanic episode and had a history of untreated depression. The authors posited that “meditation can act as a stressor in vulnerable patients.”

Most studies don’t monitor for negative reactions, relying instead on participants to report them spontaneously. But the research that does exist is not reassuring. More than fifty published studies have documented meditation-induced mental health problems, including mania, dissociation, and psychosis. In 2012, leading meditation researchers in the United Kingdom published a set of guidelines for meditation instructors, noting “risks for participants,” including depression, traumatic flashbacks, and increased suicidal ideation. Four years later, the U.S. National Institutes of Health cautioned that “meditation could cause or worsen symptoms in people with certain psychiatric problems.” Jeffrey Lieberman, the former head of the American Psychiatric Association, told me he’d seen this in his own practice. “The clinical phenomenon is real,” he said. “There’s no question about it

So what are the factors that can trigger these negative effects?

Exactly who is vulnerable to these negative effects remains a subject of debate. Some clinicians suspect that meditation can trigger such reactions only in individuals with underlying psychiatric conditions. Vinod Srihari, of the Yale School of Medicine, explained that genetics and environmental factors can come together to kindle the onset of psychosis. “For people already at risk for a psychotic disorder, to have a first break on an extended meditation retreat makes sense logically.” Lieberman posits that most cases likely involve a latent psychiatric condition that is activated by sustained or intensive meditation. These mental health crises, he believes, tend to occur in the context of a retreat, when people are meditating for hours at a time. “For most people, meditation is an either innocuous or potentially beneficial activity,” Lieberman said, “but in a small number of individuals it has the potential for psychological destabilization.”

But an alternate view has been around for decades and has recently been gaining traction. Some clinicians believe that meditation can cause psychological problems in people without underlying conditions, and that even forty minutes of meditation per day can pose risks.

The article goes on to describe studies that suggest that problems tend to occur if people meditate for more than thirty minutes a day. For example, people slept better if they meditated for less than thirty minutes a day but sleep got worse if they did more than that.

Interestingly, the article says that while many people see meditation as a way of relieving stress, the origins of the practice had nothing to do with that idea.

The Buddhist ascetics who took up meditation in the fifth century BC did not view it as a form of stress relief. “These contemplative practices were invented for monastics who had renounced possessions, social position, wealth, family, comfort, and work,” writes David McMahan, a professor of religious studies at Franklin and Marshall College, in a 2017 book Meditation, Buddhism, and Science. Monks and nuns sought to transcend the world and its cycles of rebirth and awaken in nirvana, an unfathomable state of equanimity beyond space and time, or at least avoid being reincarnated as a mountain goat or a hungry spirit in the hell realm underground. In the Pali suttas, the earliest Buddhist texts, the Buddha discusses meditation almost exclusively with audiences of followers ready to reject all earthly belongings. “Generally meditation is presented as something monastics aspiring to full awakening do,” McMahan writes, “an activity that is part of a way of being in the world that is ultimately aimed at exiting the world, rather than a means to a happier, more fulfilling life within it.”

In other words, mindfulness was not invoked to savor the beauty of nature or to be a more present, thoughtful spouse. According to the Pali suttas, the point of meditation was to cultivate disgust and disenchantment with the everyday world and one’s attachments to people and things. Aspiring Buddhas were “asked to contemplate the body from head to toe, inside and out,” McMahan writes, “not for relaxation and even less for body acceptance, but to bring to full realization its utter repulsiveness, coursing as it is with blood, phlegm, and pus.” If meditation conferred any practical benefit, it was in helping ascetics “accept the discomfort of a hard bed and a growling stomach or in preventing them from being beguiled by physical beauty.”

That is indeed very different from what I have been made to understand.

So what we may have here is another case of some people in the west taking a practice from the east, stripping it of its context, and promoting it as a means of meeting certain psychological needs. Unfortunately, many people tend to believe that if something is good, then more of it is better and doing things to excess and end up taking meditation too far.


  1. garnetstar says

    Yeah, I think that’s right. It can be truly frightening to get lost in your own mind, without any stimulation or input from reality to tell you what’s real and what is just your own thoughts/lack of thoughts. You panic at the loss of any point or focus with your thoughts just becoming random and floating and not guided in some way by input.

    That happens in solitary confinement too, and that it is universally considered torture does suggest that psychological problems could be induced in anyone who gets walled up in their own mind by prolonged meditation.

    As for the purpose of long meditation being to “cultivate disgust and disenchantment with the everyday world and one’s attachments to people and things”, well, Sam Harris seems to have achieved that.

  2. says

    I’ve never understood the point of it. Clearing your mind? If you are consciously thinking about clearing your mind, it’s not actually cleared. It’s sounds almost like “speaking in tongues” in reverse.

    I’ve used exercise in the past to help focus on things, but I wouldn’t call it meditation. While doing an activity that doesn’t require high concentration but is exhausting (e.g. running, cycling), I would work on a problem mentally. It would serve as a distraction to ignore the discomfort or pain, and require extra effort to deal with it.

  3. garnetstar says

    Yes, to Intransitive @2. Although, it can help. What most westerners mean by “meditation” is to focus on the present for a few minutes. On what’s happening in the present, not the past or future. And that is calming if you are overstimulated by what you did today, your thoughts still racing about what happened, etc.

    It’s also calming if you are anxiously and complusively reviewing the future and your anxious thoughts build up to panicky consideration of a catastrophe.

    Luckily, most of us don’t maintain that focused-on-the-present state very long: it’s too much work and we “have to get back to our lives.”

    I do a rather similar thing to “mindfulness”, but inverse to you, with exercise: I would swim intensively or lift weights, something where you need lots of focus and concentration and cannot think about the past or worry about the future. (Swimming takes complete focus if you do it intensively enough, because then all your brain can think about is if it can continue to breathe.)

    So that focusing on one thing only for a period of time is calming. Also, you get more fit!

  4. mnb0 says

    “people in the west taking a practice from the east, stripping it of its context”
    The last five words has made me suspicious decades ago. In Suriname 22+ % of the population is hindu; I never met one who promoted, let alone practiced it.

  5. says

    This is good to know.

    I see mindfulness and meditation as a practice as a benefit for general nervous system awareness and control. “Fleshing out” ones anatomical maps and connections. Getting used to the “parts” of the mind and awareness.

    I’m not surprised that a subset of people can run into problems. While moderation might not be a specific solution here, “venting” is more like “practice” where chosen responses are better than periods of uncontrolled anger. It’s hard to have a general rule here but impulses should have controls so you can choose.

  6. Holms says

    I remember being introduced to meditation as a child by my very vaguely spiritual mum. At first, there was dread at being dragged to some boring get-together of adults. Then, a glimmer of hope when people told me that meditation is all about sitting still and being quiet -- maybe I could bring a book! Lastly, despair. Books were not allowed.

    My speculative answer as to why some people fare very poorly when meditating is from my own experience. When I was in a depression for some years, being left alone with my thoughts and no distractions led to brooding, and brooding was bad for me. Anxiety would spike, and sometimes I would be mildly physically ill from it. In that era, distractions and activity were very healthy for me to keep, at least in moderation.

  7. anat says

    Sorry for the late response, but I have been a bit swamped lately.

    Though I know nothing of how meditation is used in a Hindu context, I have some experience with mindfulness meditation in the context of secular Buddhism, and my husband has been practicing several forms of meditation for many years now.

    Meditation is a tool for self-development. It can be used to calm oneself, and my husband has found he can retool concentration meditation to improve his creativity and problem-solving abilities (by selectively allowing thoughts about a specific, pre-selected topic during a session). But beyond that, mindfulness meditation allows the practitioner to gain insight into their common thought patterns -- what kind of thoughts arise, in response to what, leading to questioning whether one’s thought patterns reflect skillful or unskillful ways of being, and finding a more skillful way to respond. For instance, some people tend towards self-recriminatory thoughts, while some tend to blaming others -- both are unskillful ways, and by identifying such patterns one can learn to let go of them and come back to the present moment. Brooding as Holms describes is similarly unskillful.

    Another form of meditation is loving-kindness meditation, where one cultivates compassion -- towards oneself, towards someone close, towards a stranger, and towards an enemy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *