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The dark underbelly of meditation

Posted in the following categories: Life Lessons, Personal Development

“I love you, I love you, I love you,” Megan told her mother on the phone. “I’ll talk to you in ten days.”

She then went off to her first silent meditation retreat. For Megan, the retreat would symbolize the turning of a new leaf. She had just gotten over a breakup, so she thought a ten-day meditation retreat would help restore her. The meditation center she picked touted meditation as a “universal remedy for universal ills” that provides “total liberation” from “all suffering.”

During the retreat, she’d have to give up her cell phone and maintain a mandatory “noble silence.” Every day, she’d meditate for a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes, sitting cross-legged on a rug and focusing on her breath.

On the seventh day of the retreat, things took a dark turn for Megan. During meditation, she began to feel heavy, and an “immense fear” gripped her. She began to lose hold of reality—and of herself. She kept thinking: Is it the end of the world? Am I dying? Is Jesus punishing me? 

When her mom and her younger sister went to pick her up from the meditation center, Megan resisted. “You’re not really here,” she told her sister. “I’m creating you. You’re just a projection.”

After she returned home, Megan’s troubles did not relent. A few months after the retreat, she took her own life.

When I first read Megan’s tragic story, I was tempted to treat it as an extreme outlier. I’ve been meditating regularly for nearly 10 years. I’ve been an evangelist of its benefits.

But the research is clear. In many people, meditation calms the monkey mind and restores well-being. In others, it does the opposite.

A study in PLOS One, a prominent peer-reviewed journal, reported a whole host of “meditation-related difficulties.” The study sampled meditators who had adverse meditation experiences. 82% of them reported suffering from “fear, anxiety, panic or paranoia” as a result of their meditation practice.

Another study conducted a systematic review of 83 research studies on meditation that included a total of 6,703 participants. 65% of the studies reported at least one type of adverse effect resulting from meditation. “We found that the occurrence of [adverse effects] during or after meditation practices is not uncommon,” the researchers concluded, “and may occur in individuals with no previous history of mental health problems.”

(If you find yourself instinctively dismissing this research with “That can’t possibly be true,” it’s time to pause and reflect. Most likely, your confirmation bias is getting in the way).

As children, we’re taught to put things into two buckets: good and bad. Brushing your teeth and washing your hands are good. Strangers offering us rides in a sketchy white van are bad. As T. C. Chamberlin writes, “From the good the child expects nothing but good; from the bad, nothing but bad. To expect a good act from the bad, or a bad act from the good, is radically at variance with childhood’s mental methods.” We believe that, as Isaac Asimov describes, “everything that isn’t perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.”

This oversimplification helps us make sense of the world as children. But as we mature, we fail to outgrow this misleading theory.

The modern belief in meditation as a universal remedy is a good example of this misleading theory at work. Ariana Huffington captured the prevailing sentiment in an interview: “The list of all the conditions that [meditation] impact[s] for the better—depression, anxiety, heart disease, memory, aging, creativity—sounds like a label on snake oil from the 19th century! Except this cure-all is real, and there are no toxic side effects.”

But reality, as is often the case with reality, is far more nuanced. If something sounds like snake oil, it probably is.

Popular doesn’t mean correct. Meditation is an example of survivorship bias: You’re only seeing the stories of people who benefit from it. The stories of people who don’t benefit from meditation—or worse, who are adversely affected by it—rarely make the news.

If meditation benefits you, by all means, keep doing it (as I will). But remember that the dose often makes the poison. A 20-minute meditation might calm you, but a 10-day meditation retreat might push you over the edge.

And if meditation doesn’t work for you—or worse, if it makes you experience prolonged adverse effects—then don’t do it. Just because every modern influencer seems to partially ascribe their success to a morning meditation routine doesn’t mean it’s the right path for you.

Above all, be skeptical of anything that’s presented as a universal remedy.

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