To me and many others meditation seems like a perfectly fine and beneficial practice. I do not meditate myself but I know people who have benefited from it.
After all, there are no chemicals involved. What could be wrong with a little self-exploration, or better, with a little added mindfulness?
Today, mindfulness meditation is one of the latest forms of psychotherapy. It tells you to slow down and smell the petunias, to focus on what you are doing, to live in the present and to relax.
What could be wrong with that?
Of course, there are many kinds of meditation.
Traditional psychoanalysis has always involved meditation. It does not include Buddhist chants but it encourages an introspective journey into your mind. (I discussed the point in The Last Psychoanalyst.) Psychoanalysis has never been a conversation between patient and analyst.
Now that psychoanalysis has faded from the scene, a more Eastern form of meditation has become more popular. And apparently more effective.
Yet, when something seems too good to be true, when it seems to provide an utterly risk-free path to enlightenment and mental health, we should ask questions.
Until I read Tomas Rocha’s Atlantic article, I had hesitated to ask such questions. I still do not know enough to do more than speculate, but the research performed by Brown University physician Willoughby Britton is certainly worth considering.
Rocha raises some important questions:
We have a lot of positive data [on meditation]," she[Britton] says, "but no one has been asking if there are any potential difficulties or adverse effects, and whether there are some practices that may be better or worse-suited [for] some people over others. Ironically," Britton adds, "the main delivery system for Buddhist meditation in America is actually medicine and science, not Buddhism."
As a result, many people think of meditation only from the perspective of reducing stress and enhancing executive skills such as emotion regulation, attention, and so on.
For Britton, this widespread assumption—that meditation exists only for stress reduction and labor productivity, "because that's what Americans value"—narrows the scope of the scientific lens. When the time comes to develop hypotheses around the effects of meditation, the only acceptable—and fundable—research questions are the ones that promise to deliver the answers we want to hear.
"Does it promote good relationships? Does it reduce cortisol? Does it help me work harder?" asks Britton, referencing these more lucrative questions. Because studies have shown that meditation does satisfy such interests, the results, she says, are vigorously reported to the public. "But," she cautions, "what about when meditation plays a role in creating an experience that then leads to a breakup, a psychotic break, or an inability to focus at work?"
Let us be mindful and slow down. Britton makes excellent points.
The first and most obvious is that mindfulness meditation should be led by a Buddhist monk. In today’s America it is often led by a physician. One imagines that this helps patients get their sessions reimbursed.
If you are practicing meditation with a Buddhist monk you will be aiming at something more than enlightenment. You will end up belonging to a new community.
If you are learning meditation from a physician, you would not have such a goal in mind.
One should consider the psychosocial difficulties that arise when your meditation cuts you off from your world and does not provide you with a new community.
Obviously, some people are so well grounded in their community--even their company-- that meditation might help them to function better within it. but, anyone who is detached and lost, who suffers from anomie, might be ill served by a meditation practice that detaches him further, that sends him into psychosocial exile.
Then again, even Buddhist meditation includes experiences that correspond to what St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.”
I would hypothesize that this occurs when someone who is transitioning out of his old community has not yet arrived at his new community.
Rocha offers this version, from a Buddhist meditation teacher:
Shinzen Young, a Buddhist meditation teacher popular with young scientists, has summarized his familiarity with dark night experiences. In a 2011 email exchange between himself and a student, which he then posted on his blog, Young presents an explanation of what he means by a "dark night" within the context of Buddhist experience:
Almost everyone who gets anywhere with meditation will pass through periods of negative emotion, confusion, [and] disorientation. …The same can happen in psychotherapy and other growth modalities. I would not refer to these types of experiences as 'dark night.' I would reserve the term for a somewhat rarer phenomenon. Within the Buddhist tradition, [this] is sometimes referred to as 'falling into the Pit of the Void.' It entails an authentic and irreversible insight into Emptiness and No Self. Instead of being empowering and fulfilling … it turns into the opposite. In a sense, it's Enlightenment's Evil Twin. This is serious but still manageable through intensive … guidance under a competent teacher. In some cases, it takes months or even years to fully metabolize, but in my experience the results are almost always highly positive.
Of course, you might not want an insight into emptiness and the void. It is not too encouraging to think that it might take years to “metabolize” the breakdown you experience when you get so completely into your mind that you are completely lost to other people.
For my part, I suspect that an individual who throws off his old community will lose his sense of identity. He will no longer know who he is or even if he is.
Philosophers and psychologists assume that your identity is a state of consciousness that tells you that you are who you are.
And yet, I suspect, again as I argued in The Last Psychoanalyst, that identity depends far more on how we look to others. If one day you wake up and go about your daily routines, but no one you know recognizes you, you will start wondering who you are. If people are all calling you by a name that is not yours, you will start feeling that you do not know who you are and that you do not exist as the person you were.
It is not an accident that some people, when they join holy orders change their names.