Can Meditation Be Bad for You?

Back in 1979, when I was living in Pune, India, as a starry-eyed devotee of the infamous guru Bhagwan Rajneesh, something happened that has disturbed me to this day. A man who had just come down from Kathmandu after completing a thirty-day Tibetan Buddhist meditation course killed himself. I had met him the night before, and we’d had coffee together. I don’t remember what we spoke about, but he was friendly and didn’t appear distressed. But the next day he climbed to the top of the multi-storied Blue Diamond Hotel and leapt off.

The Bhagwan, at his first lecture after the man’s suicide, tried to reassure us by saying the man had already reincarnated as a more enlightened soul. But I was quite upset and remember thinking how strange it was that someone should kill himself after a meditation course. Isn’t meditation something you do to get–at the very least–peace of mind? I wondered whether he might have had a mental illness and perhaps shouldn’t have taken the course in the first place. Even if he had, shouldn’t the meditation have helped? It didn’t occur to me that the meditation itself might have caused a mental imbalance that tipped him over the edge–that meditation could be dangerous for some people. Has such a notion ever appeared in the mainstream media, let alone the myriad New Age magazines?

Since the 1970s, meditation has become increasingly popular in the West and is promoted as a way to reduce stress, bring about relaxation, and even manage depression. It’s now being used in classrooms, prisons, and hospitals. Here in Australia, meditation groups and teachers have popped up like mushrooms: hundreds head off to the free (donation only) ten-day Vipassana courses, or sit and meditate with groups such as the Brahma Kumaris or Sahaja Yoga. There is a general assumption and belief that meditation is a secular technique and is good for everyone.


The most common types of meditation taught include sitting still and concentrating on the breath, silently repeating a sound (mantra) or visualizing an image. What is often overlooked is that these Eastern meditation techniques were never meant to be methods to reduce stress and bring about relaxation. They are essentially spiritual tools, designed to apparently “cleanse” the mind of impurities and disturbances so as to attain so-called enlightenment–a concept as nebulous as God.

In the Hindu scripture The Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says to Arjuna:

    Sitting and concentrating the mind on a single object, controlling the thoughts and the activities of the senses, let the yogi practice meditation for self-purification . . . by always keeping the mind fixed on the Self, the yogi whose mind is subdued attains peace of the Supreme nirvana by uniting with Me.

And Sri Lankan-born K. Sri Dhammananda, who before his death in 2006 was the foremost Theravada Buddhist monk in Malaysia and Singapore, wrote: “No one can attain Nibbana [nirvana] or salvation without developing the mind through meditation. Meditation is a gentle way of conquering the defilements which pollute the mind.”

What is interesting is that Buddhist and Hindu teachers, even the Dalai Lama, have occasionally pointed out the potential hazards of meditation. Dhammananda warned:

    The practice of meditation has been abused by people. They want immediate and quick results, just as they expect quick returns for everything they do in daily life . . . the mind must be brought under control in slow degrees and one should not try to reach for the higher states without proper training. We have heard of over-enthusiastic young men and women literally going out of their minds because they adopted the wrong attitudes towards meditation.

Dr. Lorin Roche, a meditation teacher, says a major problem arises from the way meditators interpret Buddhist and Hindu teachings. He points out that meditation techniques that encourage detachment from the world were intended only for monks and nuns. He has spent thirty years doing interviews with people who meditate regularly and says many were depressed. He says they have tried to detach themselves from their desires, their loves, and their passion. “Depression is a natural result of loss, and if you internalize teachings that poison you against the world, then of course you will become depressed.”

The Dalai Lama has said that Eastern forms of meditation have to be handled carefully: “Westerners who proceed too quickly to deep meditation should learn more about Eastern traditions and get better training than they usually do. Otherwise, certain physical or mental difficulties appear.”

I don’t remember any such warnings when I began meditating, and probably wouldn’t have taken much notice if there were. Along with fellow seekers, I regarded any negative experiences as healing or just clearing out bad karma.

I meditated a lot in the 1970s and thought I was superior to those who didn’t. Thankfully I didn’t have a breakdown (though sometimes I was surely “out of my mind”). I had all sorts of bizarre and strange experiences and in the early days often felt bliss and ecstasy. There were a few occasions where I felt as though I was “one with the universe”, and I once began hallucinating that the trees outside were vibrating with white light, convinced I could hear the sacred Om sound booming through the Himalayan night.

In addition to Hindu meditations–which involved mumbling mantras of various kinds (I even spent time with the Hare Krishnas in Vrindaban where I used a 108-beaded mala to chant “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare .” throughout the day)–I also attended five ten-day Buddhist Vipassana retreats. The teacher was S. N. Goenka. His organization now leads retreats worldwide and they are by far the most popular meditation courses offered. They involve sitting for up to fourteen hours a day, watching the breath and sensations in the body and trying to become detached. The aim (apart from enlightenment) is equanimity. Blissful feelings have to be disregarded, along with feelings of physical discomfort–even excruciating agony–that may arise from prolonged sitting. Meditators are not allowed to talk, write, or read. There is no evening meal, just a cup of herbal tea.

When I finally gave up on seeking enlightenment in the late 1970s and returned to worldly life, I also gave up meditating–except for the occasional sitting still for a few minutes here and there, watching my breath in the Vipassana way. However, over the years I would beat myself up about my laziness: “You should meditate,” my inner critic would harp. “Every day, for at least half an hour.” But why? I now ask. Did it really do me any good? I manage my life perfectly well without it. If I want peace and relaxation, I have a massage, or soak in a hot bath or swim twenty laps at the local pool. Or I go for a long leisurely walk. Or I just sit in a chair and do nothing. Is meditation really as beneficial as its proponents claim?

Arthur Chappell, a former devotee of Guru Maharaj (also known as Prem Rawat), points out that meditation starves the mind of stimulus (sensory deprivation) and he wonders whether desensitizing the mind to stimuli may actually “affect one’s ability to react properly with the level of fear, love, and other emotions required in any given social situation.” Chappell says minds can atrophy–just like limbs do–if they aren’t used for a wide range of purposes:

      Many meditation practitioners have complained of difficulty doing simple arithmetic and remembering names of close friends after prolonged meditation. The effect is rather like that of Newspeak’s obliteration of the English language in George Orwell’s

1984

    .

In recent years neuroscientists have been examining the effects of meditation on the brain. Professor Richard Davidson of Wisconsin, a long-term Buddhist meditator himself, claims that meditation can “change neural states in circuits that may be important for compassionate behavior and attentional and emotional regulation.” However, other scientists argue that Davidson’s claims are unsubstantiated and that his studies have serious flaws ranging from experimental design to conclusions. Dr. Nancy Hayes, a neurobiologist at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, says that Davidson and his supporters promote research before it has been replicated. And what is really interesting, but never highlighted, is that Davidson himself points out that, for psychologists using meditation to treat their patients, “Meditation is not going to be good for all patients with emotional disorders and it may even be bad for certain types of patients.”

Dr. Solomon Snyder, head of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, warns that during meditation the brain releases serotonin. This may help those with mild depression but too much serotonin can cause, in some, a paradoxical relaxation-induced anxiety. Instead of relaxing during meditation, these people become distressed and may even have panic attacks. Snyder says that in some cases of schizophrenia, meditation can launch a person straight into psychosis.

And what about all those good feelings one can experience in meditation? Is there another explanation, for example, for that transcendental feeling of being one with the universe?

Dr. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania scanned the brains of long-term practitioners of Buddhism while they were meditating and compared them with images taken when they were not. Newberg saw that blood flow to the posterior superior parietal lobe decreased during meditation. This area of the brain determines the boundaries of one’s body in relation to the environment and allows us to navigate a complex three-dimensional world without bumping into things. “We know that the posterior superior parietal lobe plays that particular role because there are patients with damage in this same region who literally cannot move around without falling,” Newberg reports. “They’ll miss the chair they intended to sit on, and generally have a fuzzy understanding of where their body ends and the rest of the universe begins.” He says that when people have spiritual experiences and feel they become one with the universe and lose their sense of self, it may be because of what is happening in that area of the brain. “If you block that area, you lose that boundary between the self and the rest of the world.” Were the Buddhist meditators merely experiencing an odd side effect of submitting their brains to unusual conditions?

Dr. Michael Persinger, a professor of neuroscience at the Laurentian University in Canada, studied 1,018 meditators in 1993 and found that meditation can bring on symptoms of complex partial epilepsy such as visual abnormalities, hearing voices, feeling vibrations, or experiencing automatic behaviors such as narcolepsy. Note that epileptic patients who suffer from seizures in the temporal lobes have auditory or visual hallucinations, which they often interpret as mystical experiences. Some are convinced that they conversed with God.

In recent years Persinger set out to investigate so-called “mystical” experiences under controlled laboratory conditions. He got volunteers to wear a helmet fitted with a set of magnets through which he ran a weak electromagnetic signal. Persinger found that the magnetically induced seizures in the temporal lobes generate the same sort of hallucinations and mystical experiences reported by epileptic patients. Four in five people, he says, report a “mystical experience, the feeling that there is a sentient being or entity standing behind or near” them. Some weep, some feel God has touched them, others become frightened and talk of demons and evil spirits. “That’s in the laboratory,” Persinger notes, referring to subjects’ knowledge of a controlled environment. “How much more intense might these experiences be if they happened late at night, or in a pew in a mosque or synagogue?”

Does this indicate that so-called mystical experiences may be caused by seizures, by a temporary malfunction of the brain circuitry triggered by abnormal conditions such as sensory deprivation or decreased blood flow to the parietal lobe? Is that what happened to me?

In addition to the neuroscientists’ findings, there is anecdotal evidence that shouldn’t be overlooked. Clearly there are potential dangers with long meditation retreats, particularly for beginners.

Christopher Titmuss, a former Buddhist monk who now lives in England, holds yearly Vipassana meditation retreats in Bodh Gaya, India. He reports that occasionally people go through very traumatic experiences and require round the clock support, the use of strong drugs, or even hospitalization. “Others may experience a short-lived terror of the mind utterly out of control, a temporary fear of going mad,” he notes. “Or an alienation from conventional reality that makes it difficult for consciousness to recover without active intervention.” But Titmuss claims it isn’t the meditation that causes such behavior: “The function of meditation, as the Buddha points out, is to act as a mirror to what is.”

On a Goenka Vipassana discussion board called tribe.net, a participant named Tristan writes:

      I wish I could say wonderful things about my experience but I can’t. I stayed the full ten days, many of them filled with incredible hallucinations, from being inside an egg, to being a bird-like animal with broken wings, to following tunnels through my brain, to feeling completely connected to the universe.

No problem

      , I told myself,

it’s just sensation. I’m perfectly safe.

    On the last day of the retreat, listening to the last lecture, I let out a huge scream and fell down.

Tristan says he became psychotic and ended up in a psychiatric hospital for several weeks.

With Goenka’s courses there have been a number of failed suicide attempts in India, including one that resulted in a broken spine and another in which the survivor suffered a ruptured lung and a fractured skull. Researchers at Goenka’s headquarters at Igatpuri looked at cases concerning nine persons who’d harmed themselves after a course, and they found all had either practiced other forms of meditation, used healing techniques, or used drugs prior to doing a course. They consequently attributed the serious mental disturbances following the retreat not as side effects of the meditation technique, but to the practice or use of these other things.

But a woman who recently contacted me said her son did a Vipassana course in January in New Zealand, found it to be a very positive experience that produced many good feelings of love and so forth, but that within a few days of his return he’d had a “psychotic episode.” He was committed to a mental hospital where he responded well to medication and is now on antidepressants. Her son had no history of mental instability, nor was there any such history in the family. He had never tried meditation before nor had he taken drugs.

Geoffrey Dawson, a Sydney-based Zen meditation teacher and psychotherapist, has come across twenty people who had mentally distressing experiences as a result of attending courses at the Goenka Vipassana Retreat Center in Blackheath (located in the Blue Mountains of Australia). Dawson says these meditators became fragmented rather than integrated and their experiences included panic attacks, depressive episodes, or both that in most cases persisted months after the retreat ended. There were also some manic episodes, one of which later became diagnosed and treated as a bipolar disorder. Dawson was also contacted by a woman whose daughter had been to a retreat. Her friends and family noticed she became withdrawn and obsessive afterwards. Her psychological condition deteriorated and some months later she became psychotic. Within eighteen months she was hospitalized and committed suicide.

Dawson maintains it is of utmost importance to give people a gradual introduction to meditation retreats, something that is lacking in Goenka’s [and others] approach. Dawson is highly selective about who can do his retreats. He starts people on regular daily meditation along with one group meditation per week, then introduces them to one or two day retreats and gradually introduces them to a longer retreat.

Dawson suggests that “if a gradual approach to meditation retreats is adopted, supportive processes are put in place during retreats, and follow-up care is provided,” while it’s not guaranteed participants won’t have adverse experiences, “it can certainly help prevent and minimize the development of mental disorders.”

Colorado-based clinical psychologist Dr. Lois Vanderkooi, who has written on meditation-related psychosis, points out that screening is important when intensive meditation is involved and suggests that it can be done easily with a questionnaire that asks about psychiatric history.

Questionnaires are now used for Goenka’s retreats. He says retreats aren’t recommended for people with serious psychiatric disorders as it is unrealistic to expect that Vipassana will cure or alleviate mental problems. Application forms have questions such as, “Do you have, or have you ever had, any mental health problems such as significant depression or anxiety, panic attacks, manic depression, schizophrenia?” There is also a question, “Have you had any previous experience with meditation techniques, therapies, or healing practices?” This particular question allows Goenka to screen out people who practice a spiritual therapy called Reiki. He says there were many cases around the world where mixing Reiki and Vipassana meditation harmed Reiki practitioners to the extent that some of them became mentally imbalanced. Goenka argues that such practices “attempt to alter reality by means of calling on some external force or autosuggestion (such as self-hypnosis). This prevents the practitioner from observing the truth as it is.”

But are questionnaires enough? They can hardly screen those people who have undiagnosed psychiatric disorders. They also rely on people telling the truth. People may feel reluctant to fill them out honestly in case they are barred from participating in a retreat. The Icarus Project, a web community supporting those with mental illnesses, regards questionnaires as “arbitrary, intrusive, and discriminatory” and claims that retreat applicants “simply hide their psychiatric history on the application to avoid stigmatization.” They also write that people with schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, or bipolar disorder have not only completed meditation retreats, but discovered that meditation is a valuable recovery tool.

Richard, a former meditator who gave only his first name, offers the following observations:

      Those who play the “mental illness” defense card seem to have a vested interest in Eastern philosophy. Meditation appears to create mental imbalance by messing with the brain’s chemistry. For all we know, the mentally ill might be better equipped to deal with such alterations since they’re used to them. In other words, the mental illness defense doesn’t appear to be based on fact, but as a knee-jerk excuse for why we see negative occurrences related to meditation–“he or she was crazy to begin with, it wasn’t the meditation, it was

their problem

    .”

If one isn’t after enlightenment or spiritual experiences, then I can’t help thinking that exercise may be better for physical and mental well being than meditation. I just love my morning swims in the local pool.

After my Indian odyssey and my return to worldly life in 1979, I’ve found being back in the world not such a bad thing after all. I no longer regard the world as a place from which to escape or detach myself. My mind is no longer something to conquer or to cleanse of impurities. In fact, my life is immeasurably richer without meditation, as wasthat of India’s great poet Rabindranath Tagore, exemplified in his poem “Against Meditative Knowledge”:

      Those who wish to sit, shut their eyes,

and meditate to know if the world’s true or lies,

may do so. It’s their choice. But I meanwhile

with hungry eyes that can’t be satisfied

shall take a look at the world in broad daylight. (1896)

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  • Steve Kane

    Really excellent article, I am a veteran of Vipassana, having attended S.N.Goenka’s first course in the West in 1979, and then been a strict follower for seven years. It kept me enslaved in an abusive relationship, cutting off my self preservation instincts, unbalanced me to the point of severely aggravating my eventual PTSD symptoms and comorbid bipoar mania and psychosis. Sure I saw a lot of stuff, but actually the wisdom I have returned to is not so far as the insight I had as a young man who encountered it and the person who insisted I had to do it.
    Reexamining and then rejecting meditation was a major step on my recovery.
    Others I know practicing more “self hypnotic” techniques seem even more damaged, numbed to empathy and merely going through the motions of compassion and conspicuous charity for ends other than the common good.

    • realist

      I have been traveling to Southeast Asia namely, Singapore, and I have come across a lot of highly stressed people who are using meditation as a form of relaxing. Most of these people have behavioral problems and on one occasion I came across a lady who screamed in her sleep. I believe extreme forms of meditation for long periods of time can do more harm than good. Also, I find the people who meditate are introverted and display mood swings. Actually, these people are depressed and meditation has not helped them but instead made them dependent on it as a form of protecting themselves by isolation.

      • Steve Kane

        Indeed, thanks for your reply, which the system did not inform me of.

  • Arvind

    This article is a clear example of throwing the baby out with the bath water. There is a saying in south India that translates roughly into “Even nectar, in excess, can become a poison.” People in the west (or who embody the “western” way of thinking) seem to have no ability to moderate their way of life. It is always ‘all or nothing.’

  • phil

    I did the introductory Transcendental Meditation course when TM offered a cheapie course for those on benefits many years ago in the 1980s. They *STRESSED* that no-one on medication, who did drugs or who was suffering from a psychiatric illness could do the course while these things were active. Some people did have mild depression or had been prescribed something like sleeping medication or who smoked the occasional joint did do the course anyway but shut up about it. They seemed to have no problems doing meditation. In fact, a friend of my mother’s was freed from a bad Valium habit of many years by doing TM. But for one thing, I think people with a serious psychiatric condition would have difficulty meditating properly because their concentration is shot to pieces. The horror stories in this article are almost certainly associated with pre-existing psychiatric conditions, possibly drug-induced, including the author’s hallucinations. These people also sound like they were taught badly and had insufficient guidance. The goal of meditation is _not_ to have “an experience” of any kind. That is entirely the wrong approach and attitude. It is not as ambitious as to “become Enlightened” for most of us, unless you are a nascent Buddha, but rather to live more at peace with one’s mind which will help you become a calmer and better person with a deeper intuitive grasp of yourself and others and perhaps of God’s will, a prerequisite for moving towards a higher spiritual state, if you believe in those. If something interesting happens, such as a subtle expansion of awareness (which happened to me on first meditation and has rarely happened since to that extent), you basically just let it go and not pay much attention to it, and this is very rare anyway. A bad or frightening experience should lead you to stop and seek advice. The goal is, itself, not to try hard. TM should be effortless after a bit of practice or you are doing it all wrong. Exotic Buddhist or Hindu practices and the like are very hard and are for monks or laypersons with years of study and training behind them. That is not TM or its closely-related cousin, Christian Meditation, which are very simple techniques. You do not have to believe in or accept any spiritual baggage or outrageous claims (eg flying) just to learn and benefit enormously from simple mantra meditation practice.

    DISCLAIMER: I am not a TM expert, but I have done both basic TM and Christian Meditation training.

    EDIT: I would add that there is an abundance of published research in refereed academic journals that establishes the benefits of TM (or similar) across a range of conditions. This article chooses to gloss over any proven benefits rather conveniently.

  • Layne

    So it’s not a spiritual experience afterall. I was always wondering about it and wanted to do it regularly but never had the chance.I guess I’m lucky? I did it a few times and thought it was my imagination that someone was behind me. I was afraid I was crazy but now I know it comes with it-the craziness that is along with the feeling of a presense.

    I once read online an article claiming it’s evil as it’s non Christian and I rejected it because I’m not religious and I don’t believe in the supernatural. It turned out the evil acusations are due to the ”demonic presense” and that the spiritual world is nothing but tangible neurons and chemical brain reactions.

    Anyway, the effects it has on the brain remind me of drugs in a natural way. It’s like opium for the nirvana-seekers. I feel such a fool for having believed in that.

    • Garrett

      I wouldn’t allow this article to be your only source for that. Look up both viewpoints.

  • zionita

    In regards to the son who did a Vipanassa course in New Zealamd, his mother claims he never did drugs. Let’s be real, most youth today do drugs, they just don’t tell their mothers.

    • Rose

      It is perhaps helpful to know that mental disorders such as schitzophrenia and bipolar are can be directly attributed to gluten sensitivity. Gluten is known to cause hallucinations and nightmares. It is that dangerous and a lethal combination I think if a sufferer also dabbled in meditation.

      • zionita

        No, gluten cannot cause hallucinations, maybe nightmares.

        • Steve Kane

          Largely paranoia instilled by the pseudoscience surrounding it 😉

  • Astral Weeks

    The major Indian teachings are insidious.At the personal level they promise perfection, variously called nirvana, liberation, enlightenment or bliss. This is very beguiling: perfect life with no worries. But when you look at it closer, they require the abolition of personality, the abolition of our human nature. This is supposed to allow higher powers to (magically) enter us. The reality is different. The serious meditators I know are very introverted and withdrawn from real living. As stated in the article, Indian practices are for monks and nuns, not lay people.

    At the social level, Indian teachings are very patriarchal and reactionary. They say our woes occur because human nature and life itself are fundamentally flawed. This is a dirty rotten trick by patriarchy to hide the fact that it is the patriarchy which makes us miserable. They say if people suffer it is their own fault, their karma. They entirely ignore the social conditions which repress people.

    It is of great benefit to learn to use the mind in a positive manner. One can do this without adopting the repressive, regressive and narcissistic Indian teachings.

    Some useful books:

    The Great Cosmic Mother by Monica Sjoo

    The Gurus Papers by Joel Kramer

    The Oceanic Feeling: the origins of religious sentiment in Ancient India by Jeffery Masson

  • Marquis

    There is a difference between meditation and superstition.

  • will

    Can these gurus be trusted to not spiritually attack someone or steal energy

  • Lisa Ross

    I personally witnessed a suicide directly
    related to meditation. As I sat in a Tibetan
    Buddhist meditation course in Kathmandu in 1997, a young man entered the room. He spoke briefly with the lama/guru, then
    promptly went up to the roof of the building and jumped off. I heard the horrible splat as he hit the
    ground and the commotion outside following the event. The guru merely continued with his
    instructional session as if nothing had happened. Even that experience was not enough to bring
    me to my senses. I continued to practice
    meditation for many years afterward, neglecting my adult son who needed my
    help, staying in a mentally and financially devastating relationship, and
    letting my mind go farther astray into isolation, depression, and obsessive
    tendencies. In 2012, my only son died from a gunshot
    wound, never conclusively determined to be suicide or homicide. The shock of his premature, violent death and
    the horrible grief and guilt that followed have begun to bring me to my
    senses. From personal experience, I
    would strongly discourage anyone from becoming involved with gurus and
    meditation practices other than a few brief moments of quiet time alone after a
    long, frustrating work day. I agree that
    a short walk in a pleasant place (garden, park, beach, forest trail) is far
    better for mental health. I even find
    some computer games and a few educational movies more beneficial than mantras
    and sensory deprivation. Human brains as
    well as muscles require stimulation and exercise. Since stopping meditation practice, I rarely
    wake myself up screaming but still have trouble sleeping. I initially turned to meditation as a means
    of escape from a high-pressure job, a bad marriage that ended in divorce, and
    the rampant injustice, social inequality, and governmental interference in my
    native country. The only benefit in my
    life from meditation was that I stopped smoking for ten years, most of which
    were spent in India and Nepal (where cigarettes are horrible). I would give anything to be able to undo the
    damage to my life and my son’s life that resulted from my following gurus and practicing
    meditation. I had no prior history of
    drug or alcohol abuse or mental illness.
    Now, I am still struggling with the depression, lack of self-confidence,
    and proclivity for isolation acquired during many years of meditation. This article helped me understand what
    happened to my brain chemistry during those years. I now find facing reality through secular
    humanism and atheism to be far more beneficial.

    • Mario

      Thanks Lisa, for sharing your heartbreaking story.
      I’m only reading this discussion now and as a vipassanapractitioner (mahasi style) i find it very illuminating. I ve been taught beforehand that the experience of for example schizophrenia comes close to certain meditational experiences. Especially the experiency of nothingness can be very frightening, if interpreted wrong. You can interprete this experience as something meaningfull (as someone with wrong understanding might), and ‘believe’ it. Or you can see it for what it is: just another experience in this moment of time, which will pass and really is of no more or less significance then the next moment. And that it is your mind that does the interpreting.
      But even more fundamental: meditation is only a tool. Buddhism is about the ending of suffering. And meditation is only a small part of the eight fold path which leads to the end of suffering. In the west we tend to only focus on meditation. But basically it all starts with being a good person: think realisticly, give to yourself and others, dont lie, dont do stupid things, etc. And yes you can also try mental training, like meditation.
      In the end i think that good teaching is the key: be honest about what can and cannot be accomplished through meditation. Be open and always use compassion and mildness for yourself and others in teaching meditation and practicing it.
      It is only one tool.

  • Sharon Lovelock

    I am 54 yo with a traumatic past and suffer from pervasive, generalised anxiety and chronic insomnia.

    10 years ago I did my first Goenka vipassana course and I have done several more, as well as attempting to maintain a good practice at home.

    I still have a lot of ‘faith’ in the practice in theory, even though I have progressed little over this time and struggled greatly pretty much right through, including having to go to hospital twice after retreats with distressing psychosomatic symptoms including rapid heart rate & chest pains. Medical staff at the hospital were a bit perplexed but not completely surprised as they said that a few other people had also been admitted over time under similar circumstances.

    As I believe my personality type has a lot to do with my unwellness, but is also the main reason why I try to meditate, I wanted to contribute my thoughts here. The thing is, I am a serial ‘trier’ and perfectionist. I put 150% into everything, and am very hard on myself, which creates masses of stress and anxiety. I have forgotten how to not try, in all virtually all aspects of my life and the resulting tension is so pervasive it feels like it is woven into my very DNA.

    When I sit to meditate, I sense this really vague but steady pressure building, I MUST do well, I MUST stay focused, etc. As a result, I often find myself trying to PUSH my mind to stay empty, and also find my breathing becomes unnatural, as I try to FORCE sensation and get results. It is this forcing, I believe, that creates mental imbalance, and needs to be researched in more depth. I come away often feeling really ungrounded and stressed.

    Success in Western society usually comes from stoicism and full on effort, which is seen as heroic and is why we worship many athletes. But sadly I feel this kind of tense ‘grit your teeth’ effort is out of place and even harmful when applied to meditation.

    The sad thing for me is that I wanted to practice not just to relieve the anxiety and insomnia, but for higher spiritual reasons and to work on myself as a person, however it appears the opportunties that I thought meditation can offer are not available to me, and perhaps others also, which is such a shame.

    • nashvillechick

      I feel your pain and am right there with you, but my perfectionism won’t allow me to give up 🙂

  • Garrett

    Not that I claim to know it all but I think this article is a bit cherry picked. Citing random often unverifiable anecdotes. The god helmet experiment for
    example. From what I’ve heard it cannot be reproduced enough to be considered reliable. Often I get the feeling that the author holds some form of residual prejudice against meditation having to deal with past experiences. This comes as no suprise due to an admitted history with the Hare Krishna cult, which has often been the center of some controversy. Also there seems to be an all pervading viewpoint that meditation is a relaxation tool only. I dont see it this way at all. In smaller doses maybe but.mainly I think of it as a contemplative tool. The idea of it being just a blanking out or pure awareness experience is similar to views Ive heard others involved with the Krishnas mention. I find this viewpoint doesn’t take into account other traditions of analytical or focused meditation. For this same reason Buddhist philosophy is often misconstrued as a form of nihilism. Ultimately I dont see any concrete evidence here that meditation is regularly harmful to individuals who aren’t already disturbed. I would have been swayed by more thorough sourcing however not having done extensive research into the phenomena I admit I may speak from ignorance. Also I do not mean this as an attack upon the author who is well met with a clear writing style.

    • Garrett

      As an added caveat I would like to point out that a majority of the negative experiences that I’ve heard and seen come from people using meditation as a tool for escapism. A way of bottling up their problems rather than exposing them to the unflinching light of day,

      • nashvillechick

        This response rings more true than the others that I’ve read. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’ve just completed an MBSR course, which I admittedly did to help cope with PTSD. I’ve done Vipassana Meditation in the past, but was unable to stay focused on the practice for more than a few months. I see MBSR teachings as a kinder and gentler approach to mindfulness — more western in some respects. The most valuable tool I’ve taken from it so far is an ability to identify and slow my tendency to catastrophise. Living too much in the past or fearing the future are habits that could clearly drive me to jump off a tall building — much better to focus on the moment and even the breath that is right here, right now. Given that life is often very difficult, learning to focus in on this very moment is bound to be less crazy making than living willy nilly…

  • Ghassan

    Christopher Titmuss, a former Buddhist monk who now lives in England, holds yearly Vipassana meditation retreats in Bodh Gaya, India. He reports that occasionally people go through very traumatic experiences and require round the clock support, the use of strong drugs, or even hospitalization. “Others may experience a short-lived terror of the mind utterly out of control, a temporary fear of going mad,”

    December 2009, I attended a 10 days Vipassana retreat in New Zealand. I had a basic notion about meditation and I wanted to become a “better person”. 10 long days felt like forever. I was very hard on myself and tried to erase my “ego”. I had my ups and downs during those ten days but I have to admit I felt like I was stepping into a whole new world and I was liking it. Plus I had few moments of peace, serenity and bliss. But I felt a weird headache sensation on the 7th day and it kept coming and going till the day I left. After I went home, I suffered major anxiety attacks and I believed I was going mad. After a day and a half of taking sleeping pills and anti-anxiety pills, I struggled to re-connect with the world again. It wasn’t easy and it took a long time.

    Looking back at this experience, I assume this happened to me due to the lack of preparation to a sudden 10 days full on meditation retreat, plus I could have taken it more lightly myself.

    Now I meditate poorly from time to time and it calms me down in times of distress. I think meditation is a personal experience that each one of us should have the decision and the option to encounter. Even though I had a bad experience, this doesn’t mean meditation doesn’t has it’s benefits, I hope.

    Nonetheless, gradual approach to meditation retreats is a must no matter no matter where you come from, east or west.

  • Tom

    Very interesting article. My understanding of layman’s meditation parctice is that it should be considered as a special form of nap, a deep rest for mind, just like sleeping but being awake in the same time. I believe that truth is very simple. Meditation should be a mental hygiene just like tooth brushing is essential for dental hygiene. A tooth brushing can be very beneficial, but if you overbrush you could hurt your teeth and ir will cause pain and distress (it actually happened to me when I was a kid). There was Buddha mentioned a couple of times among these comments, so let me remind you on importance of the middle way. It’s a technique just like eating with a spoon is a technique that has to be practiced in order to be perfomed well. If you use spoon wisely, you will be ok, but you can also make a lot of damage if you dont use it properly.
    I have over 22 years of TM parctice (with some pauses), although I practice alone and I dont go to group meditations. I never encountered a problem or distress, but I never took any prolonged retreats (maybe once when I was really much younger but it was great expirience). I also had expirience of “expanded consciousness” (more than once) and it was really really profound and deep experience (without any visual content). It’s hard to put in words, but it really helped me to understand existance in a way that I was never taught at school. I also read a lot, especially books on philosophy of mind (both western and eastern approaches).

  • anonymous

    Going out in nature is way more important than meditation, i’m not even sure if meditation does help or if it just gets you trapped in an illusion of your own making. Regardless, it is important not to worship or pray to any gods that don’t show themselves to you in first person before you pray to them and hey brainwash you. All gods are just men pretending to be gods so that you give your life force energy to their dream. You are your own god and you have no name

    • anonymous

      oh yeah, also, dream your own dream, everything in the system is an illusion and the system is destroying nature. Its important for us all to grow our own crops so that we can feed each other collectively and we can eventually stop paying taxes and stop being human “stock”

  • Muralidhar K C

    Dear participants and practitioners,I do research in Yogic sciences. It is indeed unfortunate to know that many of you suffered because of practising (!) meditation. Kindly note it has been stated in Yogic literatures crystal clear that meditation is not meant for everyone; the qualifications of any Yoga teacher and disciple (aspirant) too are predefined; beyond that, suffering will be inevitable for both.
    My interest presently is with the aspirants… Let me state few basic things that may be useful for many of you.
    1. Ask yourself first why you want to practice meditation; if the reason as an honest answer you get can be attributed to selfishness, just stay with Asanas (only if you like it) and do no more…meditation will present itself when it is due.
    2.Iff the motive is to realize your own nature go ahead but never otherwise; if you are ‘in’ already for different reasons, either revert to Yama-Niyama- Asanas without hesitation or get out promptly; start by willingly dropping off all that you acquired including benefits if any.
    3.If in search of a suitable Guru, watch without fail the behavioural activities of your ‘future’ Guru and his primary disciples for few months in order to understand whether he is doing what he has been preaching.
    4.Never hesitate to irritate or ask your probable ‘Guru’ your doubts openly and repeatedly(like asking him whether you can be allowed to hold back anything- payment/donation or ‘surrender’, until you are sure of your decision).
    5. Looking for magical powers?; they are greater hindrances in meditation and spiritual progress.
    6.Finally,be sure-footed (no assumptions) at every step- howsoever insignificant the steps may be…and never take a step backward once decided to move forward- regardless of consequences.
    Best wishes.

  • Davide Gentiletti

    Hi, I
    have jumped into this article and I am very concerned at moment.
    English is not my first language I’ll try to be clear as much as I can, apologies in
    advance.This ismy feedback:Let’s go
    back to August 2015, I was happy and excited about some changes and decision I
    did take for my life.At that
    time I was very active, yoga, pranayama and some meditation plus intense
    physical activity on a daily basis. I was strong healthy and positive about
    life.The second of September I join my first 10 days Silent Vipassana retreat wishing to
    improve my meditation technique.
    Now, the only thing I remember was that after few hours I started to feel paranoid, I
    had panic attack and suffered from anxiety.
    My positive attitude changed, I was scared I feared almost everything I felt weak,
    not physically but mentally….I changed, I become extremely confused (I don t want use word as bipolar for now)
    I was happy and calm and after 2 minute I could literally cry and feel terribly
    sad, the same thoughts, action or idea could have been good or bad, I did lost
    at that time the ability to judge, I couldn’t tell the difference between white
    or black, I mean something could be positive or negative in minutes distance.
    I was literally observing my mind fooling me, my mind started to spin so fast,
    endless number of thoughts, I was exhausted, my mind became my biggest enemy.
    This would last most of the day, but then at some point during the day suddenly I
    could find some beautiful peace in my mind, I detach from my mind and I could see how my
    mind was fooling me building those fears, building the anxiety and so on,
    everything was apparently so clear…such a relief, which will last just
    few minutes unfortunately.I talked
    with the master, he said I was doing a great job, removing all the impurity,
    the sankara, he said it’s like removing dust, the dust will spread everywhere
    in the room(?)…the breathing was helping me to “detox” my body.
    I was sad because I was losing my energy and my positive attitude (I felt that way when I
    was 27, at that time I was on drug alcohol and Jobless, I am 33 now and in the
    last 5 years I have changed a lot: physical activity healthy life, nice job,so
    I thought I would never go back to that stage of depression)
    I went back to the master explaining my concern, I said I felt very bad and he said is
    temporary, it could change any moment and will definitely not affect my life
    once out of here. I lived a 10 days nightmare

    When I came back home, I couldn’t sleep much, I would wake up with paranoia and
    anxiety, low on energy ….Its November now, I feel slightly better but I miss
    the way I felt before the retreat the energy and positive attitude, I feel
    depressed I lost the spark
    somehow…..Don t really know what to think, I never blamed on the retreat, I
    just thought was somehow a coincidence or something which I haven’t been
    dealing with properly in the past, some people said “you just hiding
    something but you never really moved on or let those feeling go away, doing
    meditation will eventually let you face your fear-anxiety-depression and
    eventually overcome it for real….I believed those people and last week I have booked my second Vipassana retreat ..
    All I can say right now, I was happier and stronger before
    my retreat…

  • John Cullen

    Wow, this is a really important thread and a wonderful article. Thank you.

    Just to share my background, im a 24 year old college grad. After graduation in 2014 I decided to pursue my interest in Buddhism and travel to India and Nepal to volunteer at Buddhist centers are participate in retreats. I stayed in abroad for 9 months and 2 of those months were spent in mahasi style retreat centers; all day meditation. I was well prepared for the retreats and took them very seriously.

    Now I’m back in the USA. If you are serious about your practice read mastering the core teachings of the Buddha by Daniel Ingram. It’s a free pdf online and the most relatable resource we have as westerners practicing the dharma… because it’s written by a lay westerner who “did it”.

    Any how it’s very true and very real. Most westerners walk into these retreats seeking peace and “transcendental” experience. Unfortunately these retreats are very powerful and knock uneducated practitioners of their rocker. These retreats are powerful enough to shake the earth which our false ego is founded upon… and that’s not what “we” signed up for. “We” wanted to be the experiencer of transcendence.

    It’s not the meditation that’s the problem, it’s the false expectations going in. As ingram gets into, we can find ourselves in the “dark night of the soul” which is essentially some midway point between who you were before retreat, and realization.

    I think the issue is that culture views meditation as something to calm the mind, which it does. But that’s not the point of meditation. The point of meditation is to see into the true nature of reality and that all things are changing, including our conception of “i”. People don’t realize the implications of what that means and think meditation is all fluffy. Then they wind up in the dark night of the soul trying to figure it out using conceptual thinking… which is like pouring oil on a fire to put it out.

    Better not to start. If you start, better to finish.

    Feel free to email me with any questions as this has been the study of my disorganized life for the past 2 years.