Risks of meditation
Katinka Hesselink 2006
NOTE 2015 (I became a licenced mindfulness trainer in 2015)
Since writing the below the 8-week MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) training course has become not merely popular in medical and psychological circles, the community is also starting to look at contra-indications for meditation.
In other words: the medical and psychological community has taken meditation on board but the honeymoon is over: it is no longer (as) naive about limitations and risks.
What has been researched:
- Mindfulness meditation can be as helpful as medication for people with recurring depression.
- Mindfulness meditation can trigger buried emotions from traumatic events. However, taken up calmly this does not need to be a problem: to work this stuff through, the emotions have to be felt. However, in such cases it is advised to take it slow. Compassion meditation can help stabilize.
However, I also know people with a difficult past for whom meditation is essential in dealing with their issues.
- There has been anecdotal evidence that daily meditation can trigger psychotic episodes in people diagnosed with schizophrenia. On the other side of the equation, mindfulness is being investigated to help them deal with their issues. On balance, people with such vulnerabilities should only take up meditation under the guidance of someone who is familiar with the territory.
What I wrote in 2006
Meditation is becoming quite popular. The hallmark of true spirituality (or Buddhism or yoga) has become: do you practice meditation? Yet traditionally meditation was practiced by the few. It wasn't even practiced by the majority of Buddhist monks. Meditation practice was not meant for the many, nor was it thought safe for the majority of people. This has clearly changed.
So why is meditation so popular?
The main reason meditation is so popular, seems to be that it counters one of the main problem of modern life: stress. Our lives are filled running from appointment to appointment. There is never a quiet moment, and most of those are filled listening to music or watching television. Our senses are never left alone, in other words. Under those circumstances it seems highly likely that a practice that forces people to sit still and not let themselves be distracted by anything works - for most of us anyhow. A walk in the park, just turning off the television, radio, i-pod and cellular phone might work just as well, if done regularly.
What is meditation?
There are many kinds of meditation, but the following general principles have been noted by The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM):
- A quiet location. Many meditators prefer a quiet place with as few distractions as possible. This can be particularly helpful for beginners. People who have been practicing meditation for a longer period of time sometimes develop the ability to meditate in public places, like waiting rooms or buses.
- A specific, comfortable posture. Depending on the type being practiced, meditation can be done while sitting, lying down, standing, walking, or in other positions.
- A focus of attention. Focusing one's attention is usually a part of meditation. For example, the meditator may focus on a mantra (a specially chosen word or set of words), an object, or the breath.
- An open attitude. Having an open attitude during meditation means letting distractions come and go naturally without stopping to think about them. When distracting or wandering thoughts occur, they are not suppressed; instead, the meditator gently brings attention back to the focus. In some types of meditation, the meditator learns to observe the rising and falling of thoughts and emotions as they spontaneously occur. [ source ]
Risks of meditation?
The vocal popularizers of Transcendental Meditation would like us to believe meditation is risk-free. Spiritual traditions of all kinds don't agree. Most traditions agree that it can be learned only with a trained teacher. NCCAM names the following safeguards:
- Meditation should never delay the time it takes you to see your health care provider about having a medical problem diagnosed or treated, and it should not be used as the only treatment without first consulting your provider.
- It is important to discuss any CAM therapies you are considering or using (including meditation) with your provider for a complete treatment plan and your safety.
- If you are interested in learning meditation, ask about the training and experience of the instructor.
- Find out whether there have been any research studies published on meditation for the health condition you are interested in.
They note that:
There have been a small number of reports that intensive meditation could cause or worsen symptoms in people who have certain psychiatric problems, but this question has not been fully researched. Individuals who are aware of an underlying psychiatric disorder and want to start meditation should speak with a mental health professional before doing so. [stress added]
The problem with this is, that if problems are caused by meditation, it is too late to wait for proof that this was the cause. In general if psychiatric problems are caused by stress, it is likely that meditation can help. On the other hand, if stress or depression is just a side-effect of an underlying psychological problem (say you were traumatized in childhood) it may not be the best thing for you, and close monitoring of any meditation practice is absolutely necessary.
Online the following risks were noted:
- Kundalini yoga can lead to a variety of neurological problems, when practiced without proper instruction. ( source )
- If practiced improperly or too intensely, meditation can lead to considerable psychological and physiological problems. Serious and credible teachers of meditation usually warn their students about the possible pitfalls of a contemplative path. ( source )
- Transcendental Meditation was sued for causing a murder on campus, because "transcendental meditation can magnify psychological problems, including the likelihood and severity of aggressive and violent behavior,’’ the lawsuits said.
( http://desmoinesregister.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060228/NEWS01/60228003/1001 , via wikipedia )
The following problems are generally thought to just be part of the process:
Physical pain is a common experience, especially when you are not yet used to the position.
Sensual desire, attachment
A common disturbance is being drawn to someone or something; it is often not easy to forget about your lover or a piece of chocolate once the thought has come up.
Distraction, restlessness, worry
The best way is not to give it attention, notice it and don't get involved.
Lethargy, drowsiness, sleepiness
If you are tired, take a rest and continue later.
(abstracted from omplace http://www.omplace.com/omsites/Buddhism/meditation.html where it has since disappeared (May 2013))
Since one of the express aims of meditation is enlightenment, any meditative practice that makes you drowsy is problematic. You are meant to become more awake, more conscious of yourself and/or your surroundings.