Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Perils of Meditation Retreats

I know you’re going to find this hard to believe, but meditation retreats are not all they’re knocked up to be. They do not always recalibrate your mind. In a not-insignificant number of cases they produce negative emotional experiences.

Given that we all want to keep up to date on the latest in the mental health field, I report the findings of a study conducted by the University College of London.

The London Telegraph reports:

An international survey of people who attended residential meditation programmes found three in ten suffered “unpleasant” episodes, including feelings of anxiety or fear.
The study by University College London (UCL) found that, overall, more than a quarter of people who regularly meditate experience such feelings.

However, those engaging in currently fashionable “deconstructive” forms such as Vipassana or Koan meditation, which encourage insight through questioning permanence of the self and the reality of sensations, were more likely to be affected.

These can take the form of days’ long silent retreats with highly regulated sleep and diet regimens and restricted access to the outside world.

In short, it gets worse when you withdraw from the world, stop talking to other human beings and undertake a restricted dietary regimen.

It became trendy when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tried it last year. Apparently, it helped him to identify which conservative commentators needed to be erased from Twitter:

Last year the Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey attended a highly-publicised 10-day Vipassana meditation in Burma, encouraging his four million online followers to try it for themselves.

The researcher discovered that when you uproot people from their social moorings they feel adrift and lost. At times they panic, as though no one could have predicted that:

But Marco Schlosser, who led the research at UCL, said that meditation which ultimately reduces familiar feelings and views into fleeting sensations can engender sudden feelings of danger, particularly among inexperienced meditators.

“Meditation has become quite trendy and an image has been constructed - perhaps explicitly by the mindfulness industry - that its a panacea, but it’s not,” he said.

“It’s benefits may have been exaggerated.

“However, we should be equally cautious not to exaggerate the harms.
“It’s an extremely young field of research.”

As it happens, people who hold to strong religious beliefs are less likely to suffer these negative experiences.

Of the 1,232 people who participated in the survey, 25.6 said they had previously encountered “particularly unpleasant” meditation-related experiences.

Men were more likely to suffer these experiences than women, as were people who did not have a religious belief compared to people who were religious.

More than 29.2 per cent who practised only deconstructive types of meditation reported an unpleasant experience, compared to 20.3 per cent who only engaged in other forms.

“Insight meditation practices often encourage meditators to attune their attention to the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and impersonal nature of thoughts, feelings, and body sensations that arise within the space of awareness,” the study reads.

“Perceiving phenomena that might commonly be conceived of as inherently permanent and separate (e.g., the sense of self) as a vibrating field of fleeting and interpenetrating sensations could, for instance, give rise to a fear of annihilation.”

So, more research needs to be done. When it comes to feeling better about yourself and overcoming depressive and anxious symptoms, a good place to start is exercise. For some people meditation has a notable positive effect. But that, apparently, refers to meditation that is practiced as a part of a daily routines. Extracting yourself from your social environment, from sustaining environmental cues, seems to entail a certain amount of risk. Without the environmental cues you risk not knowing who you are, where you are or where you are going.

[Addendum: The following story about Megan's Vogt's negative reaction to a ten day meditation retreat is worth our attention. My thanks to the commenter who sent me the linnk.)


Cheryl said...

Meditation is a spiritual practice. In the 8-fold path of yoga, it comes 7

It is sheer madness to think that meditation can heal your mental illness.

A day at the beach is one of the best cures for stress and worry.

What is worse these days they are making kids below 10 years sit in meditation. What kids need is fun and play to ward off stress.

trigger warning said...

Meditation centers and the quasi-religious gobbledygook that comes along with them serve one primary function: to separate an attendee from his/her money. Nothing wrong with meditation per se, and it may even be helpful, or so claims Herbert Benson, MD, Harvard Med School and MassGeneral. Benson has a lot of physiological data to support his claims. If one is inclined to try meditation, buy his book " The Relaxation Response" and skip the pricey meditation spas where there's a risk of running into a**holes like Jack Dorsey.

Sam L. said...

As a physics major, our mantra was "Ohm, Ohm, give me mho." No, I will NOT explain that to you. (I'm evil that way.)

UbuMaccabee said...

Made-to-order exotic spirituality for people who presume to be their own God but don't want to work very hard at anything or be put out by any rules of conduct. Eloi retreats with fancy candles.

Hey, how well is India doing? Last time I was there, the whole place stank of rot, the caste system was alive and well, and they still seem flummoxed by "fresh water in, shit water out." I was not impressed by the fruits of their dharma. Epic shithole country. The Mahabharata is great.

JPL17 said...

As Stuart suggests, it sounds like the danger comes as much from the cult-like way in which these retreats are conducted as from the meditation itself. Features of the meditation retreat such as isolation, enforced submission, exclusive use of jargon and robotic leaders appear to be common features of cults as well.

Indeed, I found one of the comments to the article linked in Stuart's addendum illuminating. The commenter relates how she signed up for a 10-day meditation retreat, but was so repulsed by the mere orientation session for it that she dropped out before the retreat even started. She writes:

"If the rather authoritive [sic] attitude of complete isolation and submission hit this hard in a simple orientation lesson, I can only imagine what it would have provoked during a ten day retreat."

Smart woman. The biggest mystery to me how come not everyone reacts so negatively to such experiences.

trigger warning said...

How times change. In the 60's, our undergrad mantra was "Resist!"

Linda Fox said...

The benefits of contemplation are most often accrued to those who focus, not on their individual selves, but on the spiritual dimension.

God, in other words.

Contemplatives in the Catholic Church have done this for years. However, 24/7 retreats are not helpful to rookies. In my church, many start with a single short time period, weekly or daily, and build up to a more prolonged retreat.

Again, in the Catholic Church, it might be a rosary, or 1 hour of meditation with the Blessed Sacrament. Short durations.

The weekend retreats would be AFTER that. Week-long retreats have to be structured carefully. Unstable people really shouldn't be participating in those.