Mental Health Spirituality

Avoiding the Pitfalls of Meditation

Do you have any problems? Then meditation may not be the right thing for you. That might seem to be the message that’s emerging from some sources that are pushing back against the increasing popularity of meditation over the last decade or more, especially under the banner of “mindfulness,” which has become a buzzword in spiritual and therapeutic circles. Read More

Do you have any problems? Then meditation may not be the right thing for you.

That might seem to be the message that’s emerging from some sources that are pushing back against the increasing popularity of meditation over the last decade or more, especially under the banner of “mindfulness,” which has become a buzzword in spiritual and therapeutic circles. As Chelsea Greenwood of insider.com writes:

“For years, we’ve all been hearing about the amazing mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical benefits of meditation. This ancient mindfulness technique is touted to make you feel calmer, more present, and more balanced. And for the most part, these claims are well-founded, and more and more clinical research is backing up the efficacy of the practice….Science has found that practicing mindfulness can help us gain perspective, reduce stress, improve memory, and make us physically healthier.”

Despite this, a number of researchers are sounding an alarm. 

Avoiding the Pitfalls of Meditation

If it were framed like the ads that pop up on TV every week for the latest wonder drug to come down the pike, with names that sound like planets in Star Wars, the part at the end where the voiceover announcer quickly runs through the downside of taking the medication might go something like this:

“Side-effects of meditation can include negative thinking, changes in sensory perception, loss of motivation, flashbacks of negative memories and emotions, physical side effects, damage to your sense of self, and antisocial feelings and behavior. Don’t use meditation if you’re allergic to it. Ask your spiritual teacher or therapist if meditation is right for you.”

As someone who has experienced both great benefits and great harm from a lifetime of spiritual exploration, I’ve always been careful to advise anyone when I teach meditation, or when I write about it, that there can be risks involved, and that it’s important to go into it with eyes open. This is particularly true in recommending meditation, or any form of spiritual practice, to someone in recovery. The minds and bodies of those recovering from addiction can be especially fragile, both from the effects of the substances or processes involved, and from the emotional traumas that may have preceded or brought on the addiction. So I feel a responsibility to comment on the kinds of warnings about meditation that are outlined above.

First of all, I have a very mixed reaction to them. I find them significant enough to pay attention to; warnings about possible side effects, whether to a medication or a meditation, are usually worth considering. But I also find some of it off-target, rooted more in the general lack of depth of our society and the prevailing ignorance about the spiritual traditions and their practices. Let me try to unpack both of these responses a little.

Part of what seems worth noting in the warnings stems from our general lack of familiarity with ourselves. This is something that any real meditation tradition or teacher will present to beginners upfront: you don’t really know yourselves. You just think you do. Meditation is an ongoing process of getting to find out who you really are, what makes you tick, and to become acquainted with aspects of yourself that were previously unknown, including some that are potentially tremendously valuable.

Because we tend in our fast-paced, breathless society to live on the surface of things, with our attention scattered and bouncing rapidly from one object of attention to another, “multi-tasking” as if that’s necessarily a good thing, when we engage some form of meditation and begin to slow down, take deep breaths, and go inside, the initial experience is not always going to be a quiet mind and the enjoyment of inner serenity. When you take the cork out on what you’ve been bottling up, sometimes for years or even decades, stuff can come up. That’s when the kinds of internal events that are mentioned above, such as negative thinking or flashbacks to previously suppressed emotional material, can occur. 

But here’s what those well-meaning critics of meditation are missing: that’s what’s supposed to happen. It’s one of the purposes of meditation, to bring to the surface unconscious material so that we can get it out of our system. This is something that I think people in recovery may well get better than others, because we know that cleaning out from inside is no picnic, no joy ride. It’s hard and often dirty work, and it takes time. It’s only when meditation is taught superficially, as an immediate ticket to bliss with no downside, as something to enhance your false sense of self, or ego in the negative sense, which is already an attempt to compensate for unprocessed pain, that these sorts of experiences throw one for a loop.

In any serious, quality presentation of meditation, there has always been a period of gradual preparation for going deep within. You don’t receive the more challenging teachings in some weekend workshop. You’re started off with a simple concentration or attention practice, to begin to develop the inner skills and “muscles” needed. And you are guided carefully throughout the process. If you bring a report back to your teacher of some form of disturbing experience, a qualified teacher will know how to handle it. They might change your practice, or give you instruction on what to do if the experience happens again. 

Avoiding the Pitfalls of Meditation

This is why I recommend to anyone interested in learning to meditate that they first ask themselves why they want to do this, and what specifically they hope to gain from it.

 I don’t take the position that it’s somehow “wrong” to want to learn just a little about meditation, without wanting to get the equivalent of a Ph.D. in it, as the traditions sometimes seem to think. It’s okay to want to learn a five-minute technique that helps you get calmer before a job interview or a date, or how to concentrate to improve your work, art, or creativity. But I do tell such people to then stick with a basic practice of watching and/or counting the breath, basic grounding in the body, and awareness of emotion.

Don’t be a misguided spiritual “warrior” and make yourself sit for an hour or more facing a blank wall, as some legendary Zen masters did. Don’t attempt to “raise the kundalini” without an experienced yogi to guide you. If troubling experiences do occur, such as bizarre dreams, loss of sleep, or sudden flashes of painful emotions or unexpected imagery, stop the meditation immediately and seek help.

Be aware, too, that in deeper and more sustained meditation, spiritual practice, or any transformational work, it’s expected that your perspectives on yourself, life, and the world will change. It’s one of the reasons people engage such work. But it’s absolutely true that you may well start to see things differently, and that this can sometimes put you at odds with family and friends, or coworkers. 

But this is equally true of the recovery process, isn’t it? The people you used to get high with are bummed out that you don’t want to use with them anymore. Activities that you used to experience as fun don’t seem as great now. And things that you used to have no time for might suddenly look more interesting.

Life is change, and meditation can facilitate that change, if it’s used wisely. But it’s not a cure-all or a quick fix. 

I should also point out that “mindfulness” is, itself, only one of many aspects of meditation, one tool. It’s not meant to be a fetish or a fad. Some fault may lie with those who have promoted mindfulness in a shallow, slick, or inadequate way, overpromising to capture people’s attention on Instagram and make a quick buck. None of that is a fault that lies within meditation itself.

The possible pitfalls of meditation are real. We all need to be aware of them, to educate ourselves about them, if we’re going to go into these waters. This is why it has always been recommended traditionally that one not meditate only by oneself, but with a qualified, reliable, seasoned teacher, and with others. Group meditation is one experience, private meditation another. They are as different as sleeping alone and sleeping with someone else. Both are valuable, and they can nourish each other if handled properly, with love and attention.

It’s a good idea to always share your experience of meditation with someone you trust: your teacher, fellow meditators, a therapist, clergy or other spiritual teachers, a friend, your sponsor. It’s just as important to reality-check your experience in meditation as any other aspect of your recovery. Doing so will help you keep on the right track and avoid many mistakes along the way. Just remember than some mistakes are inevitable, and are a vital part of the learning process. So stay awake and move forward with care. Doing so with respect and love for yourself and others will protect you from many problems, and help you solve others.