Tuesday, January 26, 2016

When Meditiation is BAD for You!

I actually started writing a blog post about this very subject a few months ago, but the recent Guardian article (below) reminded me of the need for this discussion.

A friend of mine was in a psychiatric program, and the therapist INSISTED she participate in group "Mindful" meditations. It's not uncommon that a person new to meditation experience a little weird discomfort the first few times as they release stored tension (some people describe it as a "hangover"). But my friend was having full blown abreactions (powerful negative states). She requested she be let out of the activity, but the therapist demanded she participate. Each session brought up her worst thoughts and feelings, as well as anxiety attacks, and while he refused to allow her out of the practice, she was finally allowed to sit quietly while the others participated. It was better, but still very uncomfortable for her. Now I don't know the specifics of my friend's issues were for joining the group, and I know nothing about the therapist or his insistence on forcing her participation, but I did see the results of it and they weren't pleasant--increased anxiety, worry, anger, self-destructiveness.. All the stuff that one practices meditation to get rid of.  

Are There Dangers to Meditation?
Generally, no. But every person is different and there are MANY different kinds of meditation for many different reasons. In extreme situations you may find things like these (or other problems): If a person is feeling immersed in their own issues, a type of meditation like Mindfulness might submerge them even deeper in their unhappiness. Meditations that disassociate a person from their physical awareness might create disorientation or "spaciness." Meditations that focus on a deity or ideotype, like a spirit, saint or personified god, can induce odd emotional states, or even delusions. "Energetic" meditations, of the sort found in certain Chi Gung exercises can manifest physical symptoms. (A Chinese Tai Chi teacher I knew had been teaching his students in China a "fire" meditation to use during the Winter, at the time he moved to America. Six months later discovered his Chinese students had continued to practice fire meditation through the Summer and were getting all kinds of heat related sicknesses. He had warned them not to do "fire" in the Summer, but without him there, they just kept doing what they did at the time he left). Most of the time these conditions are rare, occurring only when the practitioner really puts a lot of time and effort into their practice.  

What to Look Out For
Meditation should be there to improve the rest of your life. You should feel more in-control and comfortably integrated into your everyday life, maybe even more inspired. If you find yourself experiencing any of the following, or just don't feel right about what you're doing, STOP! At last take a break, and usually things will return to normal. If you really want to continue your practice, use your break time to research different kinds of meditation.  

SPACINESS-- Feelings of disorientation, "spaciness" or confusion, particularly if it's interfering with the rest of your day, is something you want to avoid.  
NEGATIVE EMOTIONS-- As I mentioned, the first one or two times you try meditation, you may experience a little discomfort as you release physical and emotional tensions. But if these things persist, or if they get worse, stop.  
EUPHORIA or DELUSIONS-- After a bit of practice, meditation should make you feel great! But it should not alter your relationship with reality. If you find yourself becoming aware of superpowers, if spirits or gods are talking to you and telling you to do things, or causing you to separate from the people and things you normally interact with, it's probably time to take a break and do some serious self-examination.

To reiterate: there are MANY different kinds of meditation, For different people, and for different purposes. Mindfulness is excellent for some people in some situations, but it's not the only approach. And EVERYTHING has potential risks, starting with getting out of bed in the morning. But if you're feeling really out of kilter, talk to an expert.

The biggest issue with Mindfulness is that it seems to be over-hyped and insufficiently understood, but in the right situation, it can be a powerful tool, and it works well for a lot of people. Here's an excellent article from The Guardian on some unfortunate experiences. In fairness, I think they exaggerate some of the negatives, but it's worth reading, especially for those who are coaching others. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jan/23/is-mindfulness-making-us-ill
Illustration: Nick Lowndes for the Guardian

One sticking point of both the proponents of Mindfulness and most traditional schools of meditation is that they put all their faith behind a single method. If you want an all-in-one introduction that lists over 20 different techniques with an explanation of their functions and effects, so you can chose the ones that are just right for you, check out my book: http://www.amazon.com/Everybodys-Meditation-Book-Jeff-Sauber/dp/0578033364/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1453852092&sr=8-1&keywords=everybody%27s+meditation+book+Sauber


  1. There is so much misunderstanding on the subject of mindfulness that it is almost criminal. Mindfulness, is the simple practice of filling the mind with observations of the activity of the body and subconscious mind. The key is observations. Not involvement. Allowing mental chatter to happen without adding further fuel like, judgements or non-acceptance is not easy, and people should be prepared for, the shake-up that it can most definitely initiate, but to say that it is bad?? I prefer the belief that meditation is a field that one enters into when you reach the required level or expertise. :-)

  2. Thanks! No doubt, the majority of people will not have any really bad reactions. Usually if a style of meditation doesn't suit them, they'll simply get bored of it, but it's good to be aware (particularly if you're a coach, therapist or teacher) that a small percentage may have real problems with it. I've used "mindful" approaches with myself and my clients and not had any bad reactions. But still, it's important to be aware that some people may have adverse reactions to anything. A little discomfort at the beginning is to be expected, but if a practice is causing consist pain or harm, it may be good to take a step back.