Meditation’s Dark Side – 4 Things To Consider

Meditation can increase sadness, anxiety, anger and frustration, but there are four things you can do to minimise these risks.

The current global mindfulness phenomenon suggests that if we stop, sit, and focus on our breath, life will be better, calmer and even stress-free!  Something we all want – a place to stop and smell the roses!

While some of these claims may be true, there is also a darker side to mindfulness that isn’t often spoken about.

Keeping busy in our daily life means we often don’t have to deal with strong and uncomfortable emotions.  However when we sit in silence these emotions can become very loud and overwhelming.  This can be very difficult to manage.  Self-doubt sets in and we give up because it is all too hard.

New Meditation Research

Earlier this year researchers Jared Lindahl and Willoughby Britton published their recent research examining ‘The varieties of contemplative experiences: A mixed methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists”.

They found that meditation can have a dark side and can be very distressing at times. Even experienced meditators can face a range of meditation-related difficulties.  These may include out-of-body experiences, strong negative emotions, changes in perception and sense of self, even suicide ideation.

There is a complex set of factors involved in meditation processes that you need to be aware of.  Meditation can increase the role of our logical part of the brain and reduce the emotional response system. While this sounds great, it can lead to feeling disconnected and empty emotions rather than feeling calmer and less stressed.

1) Know Yourself and Choose Your Meditation Teacher Wisely

Do not to expect meditation to be the answer to all your mental health issues.  This study highlights the need for you to be very aware of your own mental health needs and past trauma when starting your practice.  It also suggests that you need to be aware of the level of expertise and the training of your meditation teacher.

The researchers recommend that you “be an informed consumer, choose wisely” when looking at taking up a meditation practice. The context of the type of training you choose is vital.

Ensure you have a trained practitioner to support you. While a meditation app or audio recording may be inexpensive and easy to access compared to a face-to-face structured program, carefully consider if this will give you suitable support.

2) Know Your Motivation – Why meditation?

Why do you want to meditate?  For most people in my classes they want to manage stress in their lives, feel a bit more in control and even be less angry at others.  Your own goals and motivations for taking on mindfulness or meditation are very important. Managing stress and emotions, or enhanced functioning in daily life may not necessarily happen just because you are meditating.

Sometimes we can want meditation to solve all our problems, which is highly unlikely.  Therefore you need to understand why you do certain meditations and if they are going to be the ‘right’ ones for you.

3) Accept That You Will Still Have Stressors In Your Life

Sitting still and focusing on the breath won’t change the demands in life.  There will still be deadlines, families, illness, financial stress etc to deal with.  Life doesn’t change just because you meditate.  Meditation allows you to change the way you respond to those stressors. This will take practice, time and exploration, patience and curiosity, and most of all acceptance and compassion.

During an ongoing course or program with a trained teacher you will have someone there to monitor and check-in with. This will ensure you have the style and process that matches your goals, intentions and emotional needs. You may recall in a recent blog I wrote about my concerns during my Vipassana retreat.  Not everyone is suited to all meditation styles.

4) The Importance of Social Support

Researchers Lindahl and Britton stress the importance of social support to help you to successfully cope with challenging experiences. Attending a regular group with a trained instructor can give you that support.

At my Monday Meditation group we regularly discuss our own experiences and challenges. We talk about physical agitations, avoidance strategies and emotional challenges. These discussions help to normalise these experiences. My group also know that, as a psychologist, I am able to also offer a trained response.  We may chat more after the class and see if this issue needs to be referred on or monitored.

Teaching Mindfulness in Schools

After reading Lindahl and Britton’s research on the dark side of meditation it is logical to question the ability of schools to implement mindfulness programs in classrooms.  If teachers don’t have formal training or a personal meditation practice themselves can they adequately teach mindfulness or meditation? After all, would you expect a teacher to teach swimming without ever having been in the water?  Without appropriate training and practice teachers may unintentionally increase anxiety, depression or trauma in students, rather than create the feel-good result they are hoping for.

I work with schools, community groups and workplaces to clarify their goals of introducing mindfulness and meditation.  My 6 week training program fosters a greater understanding of the science supporting meditation and grows personal practice.  With appropriate support and training they can achieve the reduced stress, peace and calm they aspire to, minimising the possibility of more trauma or difficulty.

If you would like to hear researchers Lindahl and Britton discussing this timely study, you might like to listen to podcast #79 with Dan Harris from 10% Happier. Dan is an experienced news anchor who experienced a panic attack on Good Morning America in front of 5,000,000 viewers! He has been on a quest to understand mindfulness and meditation. Now developing his own practice he often says “it isn’t all rainbows and unicorns”.

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