I listened to a fascinating interview on meditation trauma recently with Willoughby Britton, a neuroscientist who has done research into the negative effects of meditation. Apparently, she has received a great deal of backlash for her findings.

While I don’t agree with everything she says, and certainly not with the way she says it, I do think the pure science of her work is not only helpful but important, especially as a meditation teacher. To dismiss it would be incredibly negligent. 

This controversy reminds me of a few years ago when in the yoga world, a lot of the talk was about the injuries yogis were experiencing from their practice. Suddenly, headlines in the field were warning of the physical dangers of yoga poses and the hip replacements that were necessary. Now, we go from the physical to the mental realm to discover that meditation can also be “dangerous”.

Maybe It’s Us

Here’s a thought. Maybe it isn’t the yoga or the meditation. Maybe it’s us and the way we adopt practices! Unfortunately, we live in an era in which yoga and meditation, originally spiritual practices, are adopted by secular fields such as sports in the case of yoga or  psychology or personal development as a panacea for stress in the case of meditation. But meditation is not “a treatment”. It is a humble spiritual practice.

Just as if people enter a yoga practice unaware of a structural configuration that would otherwise bar them from certain poses, if people enter meditation with unresolved trauma, and we all have unresolved psychological issues, those issues will remain unresolved for both students and gurus alike. The problem really isn’t the practice; its these unresolved psychological issues of the practitioner. I wrote a post about who shouldn’t meditate and it began to address this, though in hindsight, I could probably update it to include “the perfectionist” or spiritual striver who overenthusiastically wants to outdo everyone and breakthrough ordinary reality.

Symptoms of Meditation Sickness

Being human is risky, psychologically speaking, so there are risks to any activity a person may engage in…even meditation. Let’s take a look at some (you can find more here) of the more common symptoms that a meditation practice can bring to the surface in the form of a healing crisis:

  • Sleeplessness
  • Headache
  • Flashbacks
  • Dissociation
  • Feeling Out of Control
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Negative Rumination
  • Intensified Emotions
  • Diminished Emotions
  • Memory Loss
  • Paranoia

Meditation can also create new challenges such as a kundalini awakening, hallucinations, and even psychosis but I don’t really want to go into these type of issues that can arise out of spiritual practice because most people will never encounter them. These certainly aren’t the type of meditation students I attract.

What Do the Symptoms Tell Us?

Such symptoms are a sign that something is not being addressed. Either we’re ignoring some underlying issue (which could include addiction of some sort) or we’re trying too damn hard or doing too damn much thinking than is good for us. Or we’re not expressing the truth of our practice with someone who can reflect back to us.

There’s no point (aside from commercial greed) to ignore that these symptoms can and do arise. But there’s also no point in either fearing them or avoiding meditation altogether because of them.  We just have to be aware of them and aware of ourselves and when our practice might be bringing out some new psychological toxin. Then we can address the reality of our situation by pausing practice, seeking support, and doing the necessary inner work, even if this means we let go of our practice for a time.

Be What You Are

I have often questioned myself whether my own revered nondual gurus such as Ramana Maharshi or more recently, Robert Adams, weren’t, in fact, experiencing some form of mental illness to have dissolved any sense of a separate self. That may indeed be our true nature, and yet, here we are…living in a world of duality, be it maya or not. So how realistic is it for me to follow their lead and expect or even strive for the same results? I don’t have an answer. I don’t need one. I let life take care of life. I am in this body perceiving through these eyes.

But there are plenty of people in this world who aren’t comfortable holding questions. They either collective-evidence gather to confirm their biases or overdo everything and feel entitled to peak experiences and/or unearned achievements. If a five-minute mindfulness practice is good, then a month-long silent retreat with ayahuasca and daily power yoga all while fasting has to be better. It’s never helped anyone to storm the impenetrable Gates of Heaven. It’ll boomerang and you’ll end up fried.

So How Should We Practice?

The best and safest way to approach meditation is to have no preconception of or expectations from it. I think a contributing factor to meditation trauma is how it breaks up our belief system, so the looser we can hold what we think we know before we even start meditating, the better. Forget about all the tales of reward too. Assume there are none. There’s no goal to reach. There’s no breakthrough just around the corner. Meditation isn’t an act. It’s a being.

So why do we bother? It probably wouldn’t surprise you that here at Divine Me Time, the belief is that the practice absolutely must come not from a motivation of “self-improvement” or “self-help” but from the soul (sole) wish of opening up to Spirit, whatever form of higher power works for each individual. Without that, we’re either just relaxing (and there’s nothing wrong with that) or trying too hard which is often fed from a lack of self-acceptance.

There also has to be a level of self-compassion and self-awareness. No guru can really teach you to meditate because you have to be able to discover what works for you. You have to discover your own truths about it and trust in those truths. You have to communicate your experience when working with a teacher. Abdicating your reality to a guru who him or herself might have some unresolved trauma or blindspot is only going to bring confusion and second-guessing.

In the end, the greatest advice ever given is to know thyself. And isn’t that what meditation is really all about?