Are you anxious all of the time? Are studies/work/personal matters keeping you awake at night? What are you doing to cure them? Medications, therapy, mindfulness, meditation? Is meditation spiking your anxiety? Yes, you read that right, many researchers have proven that the dark side of meditation can have devastating consequences—besides being a useful means to anxiety and stress.
A Brief Recounting on the Origins of Meditation
Meditation is a set of techniques designed to promote heightened awareness and focused attention. It is about reconnecting with all five senses of our body and the immediate experiences of life. Meditation is a consciousness-altering technique that has been shown to have numerous psychological benefits.
The word ‘meditation’ comes from the Latin root ‘meditatum,’ which means ‘to ponder.’ Meditation in the classical tradition has an acceptable application, which is the transformation of the person to realize oneself in a state of total transcendence and freedom from all the existential constraints.
Meditation is a technique for resting the mind leading to peace, happiness, bliss, and self-realization. Meditation techniques are found in most, if not all, of the world’s major religious traditions.
The Buddhist monks used to meditate to achieve physical, emotional, and mental peace but now it has become a part of mainstream society. As people tend to work in more stressful and anxious environments, meditation exercises have come to their rescue. But does meditation always help? The answer is no!
So, the important question is how can something that is so helpful for so many people have such damaging impacts on others?
The Less Positive Side of Meditation
The beneficial aspect of meditation can be seen via brain scans that show the enhancement in the insular cortex, a region that involves controlling emotions and perceptions. Hence, techniques like mindful breathing can help us become more in tune with our own feelings, which ultimately aids our ability to make good decisions. Other techniques, such as self-awareness through observation, helps us to pay keen attention to our own thoughts, without being judgmental in various worldly scenarios. Over a period of time, activities like these can increase one’s emotional capacity and help in overcoming extreme emotional reactions.
Ideally, these activities should help a person’s well-being but it can happen only if they occur in well-balanced and harmonious proportions. If one surpasses the optimal level, then these techniques can lead to harmful consequences.
A Portuguese study, published in PloS one, reports that around 14% of meditators have resulted in full-on panic attacks which can be the cause of heightened activity of the insular cortex.
Dr. Willoughby B. Britton says, “It’s like somebody turned up the volume knob, and the intensity of all your emotions is going to be louder.” The intensity of emotions increases so much that it overwhelms them and results in distress.
Life Hangs in the Balance
If you have been meditating every day, you would be aware of how sometimes you feel exhausted. That feeling, in turn, can be terrifying. I used to meditate, and it did help me cope with the various types of stress that you face on a daily basis.
But, I also felt as if I was drifting away from the good parts of my life. Things that used to entice me were now lifeless. It’s similar to how you feel standing inside a warm room with a fireplace and watching the snow fall through a windowpane. You are at ease, but there is no excitement. You’re warm, but you’re missing out on the excitement of playing in the snow.
There is a lot of content that sells mindfulness as a magic pill—the miracle cure that will change your life—and it could change your life for the better or for the worse. You might learn how to make decisions without allowing emotions to cloud your judgment.
But do you want to live a life where you don’t feel anything? A life in which, instead of separating the wheat from the chaff, you separate the wheat with the chaff and discard what makes you human, your emotions?
No Gain Without Pain
Like any journey or venture, there are ups and downs, and so is the case with leading a mindful life. In the journey of being relieved and leading a stress-free life, people tend to meditate, exercise, and practice mindful activities that spike one’s anxiety and apprehension. “It’s natural for meditation, to arouse anxiety in some people, and this can be a valuable part of a healing process,” says Tara Brach, a clinical psychologist and author of Radical Acceptance. Or, we can simply put it as transformation can be painful, getting out of your comfort zone and doing something that creates radical changes in your soul can be hard to deal with, especially for people that are mentally challenged.
The Brown University published a study, titled, “Defining and Measuring Meditation-Related Adverse Effects in Mindfulness-Based Programs”, in Clinical Psychological Science in May 2021, which closely examined individuals who had experienced fear, anxiety, paranoia, and panic whilst meditating.
Dr. Willoughby B. Britton suggests that the spiking anxiety due to the dark side of meditation is an issue that is not only reported by people who are doing intensive retreats but has also been listed by people with routines trying to be mindful. Therefore, a history of trauma cannot be made a cause of the pain gained in being mindful.
Famous Persons Who Were Affected by the Dark Side
A number of Western Buddhists are aware that meditation is not without difficulties; they have even named the emotional difficulties that arise from their meditative practice the “dark night.”
The dark side of meditation has not only affected ordinary people—even some of the more well-known personalities have been touched by the psycho-spiritual depression.
Saint Paul of the Cross
Saint Paul of the Cross (1694–1775), founder of the Passionists (a Roman Catholic religious order), is regarded as one of the greatest Catholic mystics of the eighteenth century, but his life was not without spiritual turmoil, as he endured—and overcame—a 50-year dark night:
“I cannot remember, for fifty years, to have had a day free of suffering“
His prolonged spiritual agony had a negative impact on his physical health, making him ill for extended periods of time. Saint Paul frequently spoke of his “naked suffering,” which he defined as suffering without any form of comfort, the source of which was his violent relationship with God: like experiencing a “laceration of the conscience that at times would like to be expressed with blasphemy.”
Jesus was the most well-known victim of the dark night, experiencing God’s abandonment, “Why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34), Jesus said. He went into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights to fast and meditate.
7 Reasons Meditation Isn’t Helping
According to research, the following are some of the reasons meditation can affect you negatively:
- Overdoing meditation
- Choosing unguided meditation technique
- Loss of interest in meditation
- Unable to recover from a traumatic experience
- When there is too much negativity around
- Relationship issues within family or spouse
- Improper sleep patterns
Stop Hyping Meditation As a Cure-All
Meditation is a great technique for attention enhancement and to create a locus of control. It can help one to be calmer and more focused in life.
Meditation, from Buddhist monks to becoming part of the mainstream culture, has come a long way that now celebrities such as Oprah and Deepak Chopra offer a 21-day class with an ad that promotes meditation as the cure to all problems from sleep deprivation to heart diseases.
The significant thing people need to comprehend is that meditation-related anxiety is real and it can have detrimental consequences.
As one size doesn’t fit all, similarly there is no one magic formula, trick, or technique of meditation that can lead to a healthy life. Hands-on experience says that different people require different methods of contemplative practice.
“Just like finding the right exercise for someone who is physically challenged, it’s possible to find a style of meditation practice that serves someone with symptoms of trauma,” says Dr. Tara Brach, an American psychologist.
“We’ve had an overwhelming number of people contacting the lab and saying, “I can’t feel anything, I don’t feel any love for my family. What do I do?”
Dr. Britton says that many people experience a sense of numbness, that is they can no longer feel extreme joy and have encapsulated dissociation from life.
These experiences explain why we should abstain from selling meditation as a cure for all, or as an anxiety-reliever.
However, this doesn’t mean we should stop meditation, instead, we should opt for guided sessions that can lead to only effective results. It’s like coffee, if we drink the right amount then we’ll have our zealous day, but if we overdo it then we will start feeling anxious.
Don’t expect meditation to solve all of your problems. Instead, think of it as a part of your self-care routine that contributes to you feeling better and less stressed.