What?? It's dangerous to meditate? Herewith some brief excerpts from a recent article in Harper's, which presents the details of a case report of a young woman who had a frank psychotic break after attending a workshop involving prolonged daily meditation. The material is absolutely convincing; the only question is whether such episodes occur only in persons "predisposed" to mental illness (depression, neurosis, psychosis), or whether these afflictions can be induced in an otherwise normal healthy mind as a result of intensive meditation.
Some clinicians believe that meditation can cause psychological problems in people without underlying conditions, and that even forty minutes of meditation per day can pose risks...As in other studies, her twelve subjects said they had been sleeping better since taking up meditation five days a week. And the data seemed to support that for the group that was meditating less than thirty minutes per day. But any more than a half hour and the trend started moving in the other direction. Compared with an eight-person control group, the subjects who meditated for more than thirty minutes per day experienced shallower sleep and woke up more often during the night. The more participants reported meditating, the worse their sleep became...On a vipassana meditation retreat in 2006, she told one of her instructors about her research. “The teacher kind of chastised me, like, ‘Why are you therapists always trying to make meditation a relaxation technique? That’s not what it’s there for. Everyone knows that if you go and meditate, and you meditate enough . . . you stop sleeping.’..The Buddhist ascetics who took up meditation in the fifth century bc did not view it as a form of stress relief. “These contemplative practices were invented for monastics who had renounced possessions, social position, wealth, family, comfort, and work”... Monks and nuns sought to transcend the world and its cycles of rebirth and awaken in nirvana, an unfathomable state of equanimity beyond space and time... In other words, mindfulness was not invoked to savor the beauty of nature or to be a more present, thoughtful spouse. According to the Pali suttas, the point of meditation was to cultivate disgust and disenchantment with the everyday world and one’s attachments to people and things... If meditation conferred any practical benefit, it was in helping ascetics “accept the discomfort of a hard bed and a growling stomach or in preventing them from being beguiled by physical beauty.”..There are reliable ways to induce psychosis and other disturbances in a healthy subject—via drugs, sleep deprivation, and prolonged confinement or isolation. “If you deprive the brain of normal inputs—through sensory or social deprivation—that can produce psychosis,” he said. “And you can think of prolonged meditation as a form of deprivation.” The brain is accustomed to a certain amount of activity...Britton’s research was bolstered last August when the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica published a systematic review of adverse events in meditation practices and meditation-based therapies. Sixty-five percent of the studies included in the review found adverse effects, the most common of which were anxiety, depression, and cognitive impairment. “We found that the occurrence of adverse effects during or after meditation is not uncommon,” the authors concluded, “and may occur in individuals with no previous history of mental health problems.”
A fascinating and counterintuitive article. Those interested in this topic should read the full article, Lost in Thought.