Updated: Mar 11, 2020
When I began meditating as a teenager, I experienced the most wonderful states of being. Among the stresses of everyday life I found oases of peace. Among the sadness and anger that overcame me from time to time, I encountered moments of incredible rapture and bliss. And among feelings of isolation and being different that are so common in teenage life, I experienced oneness and unity that transcended the self.
Yet not everything on my journey with meditation was straightforward, over the years I encountered many different challenges and obstacles. For a long time, I didn’t know many people who shared these experiences. But when I started to speak more openly about them, I met more and more people who understood, as they had been on similar journeys.
Occasionally, I came across meditators who struggled quite a bit. It was difficult to say what had caused these difficulties. Did they have particularly difficult life situation, or was their mental health problematic? It didn’t occur to me for a very long time that the meditation practice itself could play an important role in these struggles.
A while ago I began to look more thoroughly at the research material that was available about the side effects, risks, and even adverse reactions that meditation could provoke. Scientific research into the benefits of meditation began around fifty years ago and now produces more than 1000 publications a year. Yet it was only a few years ago that unintended or adverse effects or meditation attracted some attention. There were stories about people being retraumatized after doing mindfulness meditation, about developing psychosis after a Vipassana retreat, and about becoming suicidal after meditating. Although people might have started out looking for peace, bliss, focus and wellbeing, they ended up in scary places. But except for a handful of articles or short warnings in some books, there is very little literature looking at this topic in more depth.
The scant literature that does exist is usually written as a warning and portrays meditation as dangerous. Yet can we really call a practice dangerous because a few individuals struggle with it? Was there any evidence that the difficulties were caused by meditation? Advising not to meditate seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Would we tell people not to do sports anymore because you can break a bone or have a heart attack? It seems to make more sense to find out how to prepare well to stay safe and well, if certain techniques might be more problematic for some people than others, and what steps to take should an accident occur.
It is understandable that those who think that meditation is wonderful will carry out research into its benefits, and those that have doubts will either ignore this field of research or, if they do study the negative effects, will feel that they need to speak up loudly against the big voice of praise for meditation. Hardly any existing Western research into meditation offers solutions to challenging experiences or sees these as important steps on the spiritual journey. There are not many researchers on meditation who study the dark side of meditation and who also believe in the positive power of meditation. What is also missing is the contextualization of current practices in a context of contemporary and traditional spiritual literature.
I gathered as many books and articles I could find. Many religious texts speak about negative experiences through meditation. Very famous examples are John of the Cross’s “The Dark Night of the Soul” in Christianity, Kundalini rising in Tantrism, the hindrances in Buddhist philosophy, Zen sickness and the pit of nothingness, and Chi deviations in Qigong. Some of these experiences are perceived as necessary steps to further spiritual development, and some are seen as problematic deviations from this path. Interestingly, there are many parallels and similarities between the experiences of meditators belonging to very different traditions. It will be an important task to compare and differentiate them. I will share more about what I have learned in my upcoming blog posts and the book I am currently writing.
I began the project “The Dark Side of Meditation” in 2017 with the goal to understand the risks and side effects of contemplative techniques from a variety of traditions, and to look at if and how they can be overcome. I spent most of last year reading, studying traditional and contemporary texts that offer insight into developments that are experienced as challenging, and also tried to find out which recommendations are offered in dealing with these experiences. Then I reached out to teachers and practitioners of meditation to learn about their experiences. Many of these interviews were intense and touching, and I am deeply grateful to those who shared their experiences with me.
If you would like to share your experiences and thoughts with me, please get in touch.
Before I end, I want to reiterate that I do not want to scare anybody away from meditation. Many people, including me, experience meditation as helpful and enriching. I also want to already give something away that I have already learned from my research, namely that amongst those who have experienced the dark side of meditation, many would still not want to relinquish their practice for all the positives they experience before and after their path took them through darkness. Just know that if you ever do find yourself struggling with meditation, you are not alone, and there may be help.