About five days ago the Atlantic posted an article entitled “Dark Knight of the Soul” which was intended to warn readers about the potential harms from meditation. I’ve provided the link below so you can take a look at the original text.
The article documents the so-called “negative” experiences some may have following meditation. Some beginning meditators report experiencing anxiety, sadness, “terror,” confusion, and more. For over two decades now, a whole slew of trans-diagnostic research on the effects of meditation across various health disciplines has arrived on the scene and has made big news.
This research has helped to guide the field of mental health into developing new psychotherapies. But the research has shown that meditation is by and large successful in assisting as either a complementary or first line treatment in literally every field of health science. That being said, in the field of psychology, we have known for a long time the limited benefits and drawbacks of meditation for individuals who are in the pro-dromal state of psychosis or who have an active form of psychosis. Meditation practices were never intended to control such issues, and stepping onto any spiritual path that teaches how to “uncork” the emotional issues of your past is bound to cause individuals to brush against their long-repressed emotional content. That may, in fact, include anxiety, sadness, “terror,” and confusion.
It isn’t to say that meditation causes this–but rather, the material is brought forward from the individual through the meditative process. For most people, these emotional experiences are transient–and they may not have any direct impact on anyone’s “effectiveness” in everyday life.
It isn’t to say that meditation causes this–but rather, the material is brought forward from the individual through the meditative process.
The article seemingly makes a “direct link” between meditation and the strikingly dramatic, unsettling experiences of the individuals who appear in the article. However, we know nothing of these individuals’ back stories. We know nothing of their mental health or illness, their traumas, emotional repression, drug or alcohol use. There are many factors that can contribute to long-lasting, destabilizing experiences that have nothing to do with meditation itself. In fact, it may have been just as likely that there would be some other “triggering” experience that these individuals would encounter along their lifetime. If they had just eaten a Twinkie, would we be seeing articles about the dangers of eating Twinkies? Okay, bad example.
It is important to understand that meditation is not necessarily meant to “soothe the soul” either. Any spiritual path worth its salt will shake you up. It will cause you to look deeply into the causes of your suffering, disempowerment, and the patterns of your life that have contributed to or compounded your difficulties. In the popular western mind, meditation is all about “blanking the mind” or “feeling groovy.” So it may come as a bit of a shock that meditation, as a practice, takes you down some rough emotional road here and there–especially at the beginning of your practice. That can be difficult to swallow given our western intolerance for any kind of discomfort. And yet, feeling our feelings is really the only way out of the tangled mess we create by suppression. Medication, drugs, alcohol and “pushing your feelings waaaay down,” only compound any suffering or disquiet you may feel already. The only way out is through.
Any spiritual path worth its salt will shake you up.
Is meditation harmful? I think the bigger question is–are the alternatives (e.g. suppression or drugging) any better for you? The answer on both accounts is a resounding no.
If you have an evolving or active serious mental health diagnosis, it is important to seek treatment. Meditation may not be right for you now. But there are many other spiritual practices that can complement any treatment you receive.