Were you to ask me—I know you haven’t—about the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation I would say that it appears to have helped large numbers of people.
I have no experience with it. I do not practice it. I have known a very small number of people who do, and they have attested that it has benefited them.
Without further evidence I am inclined to believe that mindfulness meditation, at the least, can do no harm. I have no reason to dissuade someone from trying an exercise that might bring inner peace.
Mystical journeys into the depths of one’s soul have been around for a long time. Many religions allow, if not promote them. Even a noted atheist like Sam Harris touts spiritual self-actualization.
Dr. Miguel Farias, of Coventry University in England, saw the issue in roughly the same way. And then something happened that caused him to begin to question the value of meditation.
He recounts it in The Independent:
Aaron Alexis was looking for something. He started attending a Buddhist temple in Washington and learned to meditate; he hoped it would bring him wisdom and peace. "I want to be a Buddhist monk," he once told a friend from the temple. His friend advised him to keep studying, and Alexis did. He learned Thai and kept going to the temple – chanting, meditating. But other things got in the way.
On 16 September 2013, Alexis drove into Washington's Navy Yard. It was 8am. He'd been working there not long before, and security let him in. Minutes later, the security cameras caught him holding a shotgun, and by 9am, 12 people were dead. Alexis killed randomly, first using his shotgun and, after running out of ammunition, the handgun belonging to a guard he'd just killed. He died after an exchange of gunfire with the police.
It took only 24 hours for a journalist to notice Alexis had been a Buddhist, prompting her to ask: "Can there be a less positive side to meditation?" Western Buddhists immediately reacted: "This man represented the Dharma teachings no more than 9/11 terrorists represented the teachings of Islam," wrote one. Others explained that Alexis had a history of mental illness. However, some noted that meditation, for all its de-stressing and self-development potential, can take you deeper into the recesses of your mind than you may have wished for.
One notes with Farias that mindfulness meditation did not offer anything resembling a treatment for Alexis’s troubled mind.
Nevertheless, this all feels a bit anecdotal. Is there any real evidence that would cause us to question the therapeutic value of mindfulness meditation?
Farias went looking for research in the question. Among other things, he found this:
In 1992, David Shapiro, a professor at UCLA Irvine, published an article about the effects of meditation retreats. After examining 27 people with different levels of meditation experience, he found 63 per cent of them had suffered at least one negative effect and seven per cent profoundly adverse effects.
The negative effects included anxiety, panic, depression, pain, confusion and disorientation. But perhaps only the least experienced felt them – and might several days of meditation not overwhelm those who were relatively new to the practice? The answer was no. When Shapiro divided the larger group into those with lesser and greater experience, there were no differences: all had an equal number of adverse experiences. And an earlier study had arrived at a similar, but even more surprising conclusion: those with more experience also had considerably more adverse effects than the beginners.
He also found some older observations by Arnold Lazarus and Albert Ellis, two of the founders of cognitive-behavioral treatment noted this:
Amid the small pile of articles on the topic, I found two by Arnold Lazarus and Albert Ellis, co-founders of CBT. In 1976, Lazarus reported that a few of his own patients had had serious disturbances after meditating, and strongly criticised the idea that "meditation is for everyone". And Ellis shared his misgivings. He believed it could be used as a therapeutic tool, but not with everyone – and overall, that it could be used only in moderation as a "thought-distracting" or "relaxing" technique. "Like tranquilisers," he wrote, "it may have both good and bad effects – especially, the harmful result of encouraging people to look away from some of their central problems, and to refrain from actually disputing and surrendering their disturbance-creating beliefs."
And he came upon the work of neuroscientist Willoughby Britton:
Willoughby Britton, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Brown University, is now trying to map what she calls "the dark side of Dharma", an interest that arose from witnessing two people being hospitalised after intense meditation practice, together with her own experience after a retreat in which she felt an unimaginable terror. And reading through the classical Buddhist literature, she realised that such experiences are often mentioned as common stages of meditation.
"I was woefully uninformed," she now admits. Meditation retreats easily lead people to sense the world differently: the hearing gets sharper; time moves more slowly. But the most radical change that can occur is in what Britton calls "the narrative of the self". Try this out: focus on the present moment, nothing else than the present moment. You may be able to do it easily for a very short time. However, if you try extending this "presentness" for one or two hours, and keep trying for some days, your usual sense of self – that which has one foot in the past and the other in the future – collapses. The practice may feel great for some, but for others it is like being tossed around a roller coaster.
Other unpleasant things can happen, too, as Britton discovered through interviews with numerous individuals: arms flap, people twitch and have convulsions; others go through euphoria or depression, or report not feeling anything at all as their physical senses go numb. Still, unpleasant though they are, if these symptoms were confined to a retreat, there wouldn't be much to worry about – but they're not. Sometimes they linger, affecting work, child care and relationships. They can become a clinical health problem, which, on average, lasts for more than three years. What's more, meditation teachers know about it – Britton says – but researchers are usually sceptical; they ask about the psychiatric history of meditators who develop mental illness, as if meditation itself had little or nothing to do with it.
Is mindfulness meditation risky or dangerous? If its adepts rationalize it by saying that it merely brings out underlying problems, at the least they are saying that it does not treat or cure.
It's important to make the distinction that Britton makes. It’s one thing to take a break from the day in order to relax, clear your mind and focus on your breathing. But, once you make such meditation a way of life you might end up not knowing who you are. Your sense of self, she says, collapses.
Most of those who try to explain why mindfulness meditation might produce negative psychological effects focus on the mind. They suggest that when people get too deeply into their minds and that they discover things that they would rather not have seen or known. The truth does not set you free; it risks destroying you.
But, there might be other ways to see the risks and dangers of mindfulness meditation.
Following Britton’s idea, when meditation disconnects you from your world, from your reality and from your network of social contacts, it is not merely giving you access to your mind.
It causes you, as I would put it, to lose face. As I have often opined, the reason you know who you are and continue to have a coherent sense of self is that other people are constantly affirming it. It might even be the case that surrounding yourself with familiar objects, feeling like you are at home, also affirms your identity and your sense of self.
You do not, in other words, descend into your mind to find your Self. In that David Hume was certainly correct.
You find your Self, you know who you are, when other people recognize you and interact with you. If meditation causes you to disconnect so completely from the world, it risks crushing you… unless, of course, the practice provides you with a new identity as a member of a new community of believers, a new religion.