Oh joy. Just when you finally convinced yourself to begin a structured meditation routine so as to receive all the benefits promised by certified therapists and pop culture gurus alike comes the disturbing news that meditation may be thoroughly overhyped. At the very least, it has a dark side to it that could put you in a state of more stress than the one you are trying to escape from.
Two Brown University professors, visiting professor of religious studies Jared Lindahl and Willoughby Britton, psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry, just published their co-authored study of the negative phenomenology of meditation. Their goal was to seek patterns of unwanted reactions reported by meditation practitioners in order to attempt to answer questions like these:
- Which practitioners run into unexpected hurdles?
- Were a unique set of factors involved?
- How can meditation teachers assist students who are struggling with negative meditation experiences?
- To what do meditation practitioners attribute such unexpected negative results?
Both Lindahl and Britton say that definitive answers to these questions, if possible at all, will require further research. They therefore view this initial study as the first in a series.
Although you seldom if ever hear or see anything negative about meditation, practitioners have known for years that meditation holds the possibility of being more than just peace, love, and bliss. In fact, practitioners can encounter some very unpleasant emotions while meditating, not to mention physical and/or mental discomfort during the practice.
Zen Buddhism even has a word for this phenomenon: makyo. This Japanese word combines the words for both “devil” and “objective world.” The essence of makyo’s meaning is that you can experience some very warped perceptions when and while you meditate. The late American Zen master Philip Kapleau defined makyo as “a dredging and cleansing process that releases stressful experiences in deep layers of the mind.”
During this new study, Lindahl and Willoughby interviewed 60 practitioners of Western Buddhist meditation, all of whom subscribed to the Zen, Theradava, or Tibetan meditation tradition. Subjects ranged from mediation rookies to longtime practitioners and teachers, some of whom have accumulated over 10,000 hours of meditation over a long period of time.
All of the study participants had experienced “challenging issues” associated with their meditation practices. In fact, Lindahl and Willoughby ultimately catalogued 59 kinds of such experiences that they placed into the following seven categories:
- Cognitive—one’s thinking ability
- Perceptual—one’s ability to interpret or become aware of something through the senses
- Affective—one’s moods
- Somatic—one’s body
- Conative—one’s motivation
- Self—one’s sense of personal identity
- Social—one’s perception of others
Interestingly, in an effort to not program the study participants into thinking negatively about meditation, Lindahl and Willoughby chose to ask them about the “challenges” they encountered during their meditation sessions rather than about the “adverse effects” they may have experienced.
Some of the “challenges” reported by study participants included feelings of fear and anxiety, involuntary twitching of their muscles, insomnia, hypersensitivity to light or sound, time and/or space distortions, hallucinations, irritability, the reliving of past traumas, and a sense of total detachment from their emotions.
So, young Padawan, be aware that meditation may not always be a positive experience. In fact, you may experience a range of emotions during your sessions. While meditation can give you more control over your brainwaves known as alpha rhythms, possibly ease your physical pain, and also possibly reduce your level of stress if you suffer from anxiety, you also need to be prepared to occasionally slip over to the dark side. The result can be quite disturbing, and it may take you days to recover from it.