02 April 2024

The potential downsides of meditation

Excerpts from "Lost in Thought." by David Kortava in the April 2021 issue of Harper's.
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 part of her PhD research at the University of Arizona, Britton conducted a study to determine the effects of regular meditation on sleep quality. The consensus at the time was that meditation helped people sleep better, but most of the existing studies relied on self-reports. Britton was one of the first researchers in her subfield to bring subjects into the laboratory overnight, measuring their brain waves, eye movements, and muscle tension. Britton collected two hundred nights of data. 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.

Britton’s sample size was small, but other researchers have also documented this apparent paradox—positive self-reports combined with negative outcomes...  Britton filed away the results and delayed publishing them. 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,” writes David McMahan, a professor of religious studies at Franklin and Marshall College...

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.”..

I put the same question to Matcheri Keshavan, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. He thought it was possible. 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. When you’re sitting motionless with your eyes closed for ten or more hours a day, he said, neurons can start firing on their own, unprompted by external stimulation, “and this might lead to unusual phenomena, which we call psychosis.”

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.”
I would encourage anyone seriously interested in this topic to read the entire article in Harper's (available online or in your library), and not rely on my selected excerpts. 


  1. I wonder if the interference with sleep is anything like the problems that can arise with taking naps during the day?

  2. In the interview for teaching in an alternative school in 1985, the woman who ran the place asked me, "Do you meditate?" I said, "I fell asleep in the bathtub before I came here today." She said, "Good enough."

  3. I shared this with a meditation practitioner a while back. She rejected the negative aspects of meditation immediately. Meanwhile, this person drives me crazy with her approach to many aspects of her life, love, and relationship entanglements. It must be proof that this article is spot on. 🤪

  4. what ever, Jeremy of 05 April. if I am stressed or mentally foggy I sometimes meditate to clear out crowded thoughts. 20 minutes is plenty. more than that your thoughts are usually along the line of "enough is enough....get moving on your tasks of the day with your cleansed out noggin". also you can't meditate if you are tired because you will snooze sitting there with your eyes closed...which tells me that I was more tired than I thought. per the article 10 hours is extraordinarily extreme. not a normal thing to do to the mind.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...