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:

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): 

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:

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:

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.