It has been a theme of discussion in my various groups and sessions, about how meditation isn’t for everyone. And when I spoke to Clayton, we went into the deeper details of the question, can meditation be BAD for you?
Clayton is an MLBC approved meditation teacher and brings a lot of educated answers to our discussion. I wanted to create a blog post for you to read through, extracted from our interview-style discussion. If you’d instead prefer to learn through the audio version of our discussion, you can also listen to that over on Clayton’s blog.
V: Could you share from the perspective of a student of science, and as a masterful meditation teacher, what are some of the common myths about meditation? In other words, what should meditation NOT be used for?
C: That’s a good question. I sometimes hear questions like, can I use meditation to manifest money? Or I want to use meditation to manifest this person and that. That is not what meditation is meant for.
Let’s start by going into the pedagogy of meditation and look into the major contemplative traditions like Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism.
When you drill down into the contemplative practices, the pedagogy is that “I know that the mind has the tendency to wander and engage with thinking. To be lost in attachment, to be plagued by craving, anger, anxiety and so on. To be lost in negative thinking.”
So, what meditation is for, is noticing the process of having thoughts, and that then when you have those thoughts, realizing you are getting stuck into thinking.
So, for example, “I have a thought of eating chocolate.”
But that’s just a thought. It’s just the nature of the mind to have thoughts. And even when you sit still for a while, you will notice thoughts arise. Actually in meditation, even the act of sitting and focusing on your breath is a thought.
Let’s put it another way. The nature of the eyes, what is it? To see. The nature of ears is to hear. So lets say one day you wake up and open your eyes. You cannot see. You would be worried because your eyes aren’t working.
And for our minds, as soon as we stop producing thoughts, it would lead us to death.
Going back to the example of a chocolate. I get that thought, and suddenly, other thoughts start populating my mind. If I engage with the thought, I will start thinking.
“I wish the chocolate that I had yesterday, lasted. I don’t have the time to get another chocolate today. Oh, now I’m sad I don’t have time to get the chocolate.”
When we set aside time to do nothing but meditate, we notice this pattern of thoughts and thinking. And unbecomingly, you will always notice these thoughts. And you get lost in thinking. But, you don’t need to judge or get frustrated about it.
You can think, “wonderful, I’m getting into thinking”. And then gently bring your mind back. Usually, we will use that as an anchor to bring us back to contemplation.
The most common anchor is focusing on the breath. But breath-meditation might not be suitable for everyone. So some people will chant a phrase, called a mantra, or focus on their body. At times, people can use a religious image. So, there are a variety of ways to anchor yourself, to keep your attention stable.
That’s putting meditation very simply. Cutting through all the hype, through all the beautiful women sitting on a mat (no offense), men with their peaceful faces that think they will start levitating. It’s cutting through all the cliches.
Another thing. Meditation is NOT about having no thoughts, or about having an altered state of consciousness. All these fuzzy things are not what meditation is about. It’s about familiarizing ourselves with the processes of the mind.
At a pragmatic level, it’s about knowing how the mind works. Nothing more, nothing less.
Another myth busted from a neuroscience perspective, is that meditation will not make your brain larger!
V: Beautifully shared! Can you now speak about the idea that meditation is not for everybody? That meditation can be bad for you in certain circumstances.
C: Sure. When you go on social media, you hear things like,
“I am clinically depressed.” – Meditate.
“I have a problem at work.” – Meditate.
“I’m dying.” – Meditate.
“I am going to crash into a wall with a car.” – Meditate. No! Handle the steering wheel.
There’s that impression that meditation is good for everything. No, it is not.
If we go into the basic traditions, meditation was not for everyone. It wasn’t even for all the monks. It was only for a select few.
And before you engaged in any practice, when you entered any monastery or Sangha, they wouldn’t tell you to suddenly start meditating. Sometimes, before you meditate, it would take you five or even ten years to prepare for contemplation.
The emphasis was always that the person must have a healthy mind first. And we must remember that these practices were all there to deconstruct our sense of self. TO actually achieve a state of “non-self”.
The non-self doesn’t mean you don’t exist, it means this self you are identified with is temporary. And that your permanence doesn’t depend on objects outside of you.
So the idea of the self is always changing and you cannot pinpoint it. Meditation was there to actually “shake oneself”.
Now, let’s go into the contemporary context. So let’s say that you are a person that suffers from clinical anxiety. There is research that shows meditation can help with anxiety. Does it help with anxiety in everyone? No.
When you have anxiety, your mind is all over the place and you have panic attacks. And as you sit still, you get a panic attack. The moment you sit to meditate, your mind will fire anxious thoughts and you will engage with them. And it will just make it worse.
Also, now I’m going to share something controversial. There is research that shows people with bipolar disorder or that suffer from depersonalization disorders should NOT meditate. Meditation can be bad for them.
In meditation, we culture the space between the thought and the observer. This is called a third-person perspective. This activates the same parts of the mind, as is activated when a person has a psychotic episode, or when they have derealization.
Also, there are people who want to meditate, but simply cannot. And that’s okay, because it’s not for everyone. Vasundhra shares other spiritual practices here that they can try instead.
V: That’s true, thanks for touching on that. There is an eastern philosophy that speaks about the four paths of enlightenment, of which meditation is only one sub-part of the four ways.
But let’s say someone is just getting started and would like to genuinely try to meditate. What advice would you offer to them?
C: The best advice is to find a teacher. Now, any teacher? No.
Find someone that is informed about the practice. Someone that is either accredited to teach or that is actually practicing a contemplative practice, like priests, Buddhist monks. There are many universities that offer modalities like mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, compassion-based living courses, mindfulness self-compassion, and so on.
One thing is that yes, meditation has benefits, but sometimes it can also lead to harm. And that harm is due to ill-practices. Even in the example, where someone wants to become a marathon runner, if they just go train without proper support, you will injure yourself.
You need a teacher with experience AND the rationale between how to take things step by step, the effects on the mind and body.
So, for anyone that wants to teach meditation, you need to learn the pedagogy, and about how to teach meditation.
Right! For people out there who are beginning to teach meditation, myself included (laughs), it’s important to be informed of the impact. You can’t force meditation.
There are different ways to meditate, but you need to have that state of mind where you can observe thoughts and not identify with them.
So this isn’t to discourage people to not teach meditation, but to encourage them to be more educated.
C: Yes! Be informed. If you really want to teach a practice, you go and learn. The first thing you have to do is step on the teacher training pathway. Learn the benefits and consequences.
Because let’s say when you are teaching someone, they get panic-induced anxiety. How are you going to deal with it, if you don’t know this can happen? There are examples of involuntary body movements during meditation. How are you going to explain dissolution of the body to someone who experiences this?
Most importantly, meditation can be a trigger for a trauma.
Maybe a participant that comes to you was beaten in their life. And every time they were going to get beaten, they were told to close their eyes. If you tell them to close their eyes, they might relapse into the trauma from their past.
I have rejected participants in the past because they might first need to get their anxiety under control before they sit down and contemplate. Vasundhra also talks about other reasons why meditation can be frightening for some people.
V: I would definitely like to speak more to the trauma-bit. It’s important to know about our “window of tolerance” to be trauma-informed.
We should gauge how much stress we can take on. Beyond the window of tolerance, we could get overwhelmed or underwhelmed and experience more harm than benefit.
Whether you understand your mind through meditation or any other spiritual practice, knowing your endurance window is crucial. I will be speaking more to that in the upcoming time.
C: That’s definitely very important! In meditation, there is a practice of “being with”, like being with an uncomfortable feeling. Sometimes, I will tell people to drop the practice because it is not the right time for them to be with a certain feeling.
Don’t continue sitting on the cushion. You may need to work with your traumas first in such cases. Here, meditation can definitely be bad for you.
Sometimes, in meditation practice, we might touch the edge of our window of tolerance. If we don’t regulate it, the participant might move up and down the window. As a meditation teacher, we need to help them be continuous in their practice, not waiver so much.
It can help you to pause focus from the internal world, to move outwards and focus on something outside. Like the room or something outside their thoughts.
So as you can see, it’s not that straight forward. Even in the “healthy population”, there can be adverse effects, which are a part of the path!
For example, your thoughts might pass so fast that you might feel unsettled and lose your sense of self. Buddhism talks about this quite clearly in their teachings. An Christianity calls it the dark night of the soul.
There are situations when people have experienced the extreme. They went to a meditation retreat and felt so unsettled afterwards that they commited suicide!
So, I’m not in any way vilifying the benefits of the practice. But it is NOT an all-in-one solution. But as is with medicine, we need to know what works and what the side-effects, the same is for meditation. So we need to study the “boundary conditions” of meditation.
We don’t want to cause harm by omitting or neglecting something in the pursuit of meditation. We would be complacent then. Even if one person experiences an adverse effect, we cannot neglect that.
This was deeply rewarding, to have this conversation with Clayton! I’ve gathered a LOT of great wisdom myself, through this. I hope you enjoyed it as well. Remember that you can listen to our discussion here.
And, Clayton offers a beautiful library of meditation resources here, which you can also explore.
If you’d like to try out a guided walking meditation, you can also explore this free resource that I recently shared.
Thank you for reading! Drop a comment in the section below to let us know how this served you (or even otherwise). 🙂