Mindfulness is everywhere these days. With the number of books and apps and courses available you would think we had become a nation of bodhisattvas overnight. The positive effects of mindfulness are widely known and aggressively advertised, but the practice doesn’t work the same way for everyone, and it can actually make you feel worse. However, you wouldn’t know this looking at the literature and studies that have been done. If you start to meditate thinking that only good things will happen, you might be in for a shock.
In an earlier post we looked at how mindfulness has been simplified and trivialised. Many now assume meditation is a health hack for reducing stress, or an indulgent “all about me” affectation. It’s become just another lifestyle choice, but one that can transform your life when practised for only ten minutes a day. The idea of a quick fix is seductive because it’s easy to fit into our busy lives without having to really change. But mindfulness is actually a powerful technique for self-transformation and transcendence. And not knowing this could have dangerous consequences.
Some people have found that meditation makes them feel more anxious and so stop doing it, but others end up having full-blown meltdowns. David is one of many who have seen the dark side of meditation. He experienced a breakdown after attending a retreat: “I started having thoughts like, ‘Let me take over you,’ combined with confusion and tons of terror.…I had a vision of death with a scythe and a hood, and the thought ‘Kill yourself’ over and over again.”
No one expects their life to fall apart just because they’ve been relaxing and counting their breaths. They don’t expect bad things to happen to them because they believe the practice is all about stress relief and being happy. The positive benefits of meditation are clear, but the negative side effects haven’t been fully researched and the process itself isn’t really understood – at least, not in Western scientific terms.
The traditional systems within Hinduism and Buddhism know about the dangers and have ways to deal with them. For example, Dhammananda says:
“The practice of meditation has been abused by people. They want immediate and quick results, just as they expect quick returns for everything they do in daily life. … the mind must be brought under control in slow degrees and one should not try to reach for the higher states without proper training. We have heard of over-enthusiastic young men and women literally going out of their minds because they adopted the wrong attitudes towards meditation.”
And the Dalai Lama agrees that Eastern forms of meditation should be practised carefully:
“Westerners who proceed too quickly to deep meditation should learn more about Eastern traditions and get better training than they usually do. Otherwise, certain physical or mental difficulties appear.”
Add to this the fact that the original teachings were practised in monasteries and were designed for monks who had renounced the world, and you have a recipe not just for confusion and misunderstandings, but for real damage to occur.
Say Goodbye To Yourself
Most of us aren’t ready to renounce the world. We’re what are called householders – lay practitioners – and the Buddha provided guidance for the likes of us too. So it’s perfectly possible to practice meditation and even achieve liberation from suffering without being a monk (or nun), but what this means must be fully understood.
When meditation is practised properly it is profoundly transformative, but it also undermines the sense of self – which is what it’s supposed to do. The health benefits are just a nice bonus. What you’re really doing when you meditate is using the ultimate technology for achieving enlightenment. The trouble is: you probably don’t understand the implications of this.
Shinzen Young says there is “no informed consent for enlightenment” – you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into when you begin to meditate, even if you study the dharma and think you understand it. The first glimpse of reality in awakening can come as quite a shock to the ego, and that’s what causes the problem.
Many of us grow up with serious issues buried in our psyches and meditation on its own may not be enough to heal them. In fact, meditation is often contraindicated because it can make some problems worse. If you don’t have a healthy sense of self you don’t want to be digging out the foundations of your already shaky psychological structure.
Meditation can trigger confrontations with the shadow and areas of your inner life that you might not feel ready to deal with. You don’t know what’s down there until you start looking, so you never know what’s going to come up. Even so, there are ways to deal with these things. If the emotional challenge gets too difficult you can reduce the time spent practising or change the practice.
There are lots of types of meditation that are aimed at achieving different things and so it’s not too hard to balance the process out. Some practices are deconstructive and aim at ego transcendence, while others are more reconstructive or supportive, like loving kindness. Others have a calming or tranquilising effect and are good for gaining mastery of the emotions, like trance meditations, TM, and certain breath practices.
But sometimes that still isn’t enough. When confronted by the reality of non-being, some people have trouble adjusting and tip into a crisis, often called a dark night of the soul. This isn’t the same as having difficulty dealing with too much emotion or tricky shadow content. The dark night is a distinct process that can take years to go through. Some say it’s quite rare, but it may be getting more common.
The Dark Night Project
You don’t have to meditate to experience a dark night of the soul. My first encounter with the dark night came before I started meditating when my mind tipped into non-being of its own accord. I took up meditation and began to study the dharma in an effort to understand what had happened and find a healthy way through the confusion.
But there’s a growing number of people who find themselves in a dark night after meditating. Willoughby Britton’s Dark Night Project has catalogued dozens of cases where individuals have struggled with negative effects that lasted years. They’ve noticed that people with pre-existing mental health problems or personality issues may be more likely to have problems with meditation, but others appear perfectly healthy and their problems have come out of nowhere.
The list of possible side effects is quite alarming:
- Disturbing or obsessive thoughts
- Resurfacing of old traumas and wounds
- Post traumatic stress reactions
- Dissociation and depersonalisation
- Hypersensitivity to stimulus
- Temporal disintegration
- Loss of the sense of self leading to panic and terror
- Existential primal fear that comes out of nowhere
- Emotional extremes from elation to numbness
- Meaninglessness, nihilism, or suicidal thoughts
- Physical pain and weird sensations in the body
- Difficulty sleeping
There’s more on the symptoms of the dark night of the soul here.
It’s not clear whether everyone will experience the dark side of meditation. Some say it only happens to a small number, while advanced practitioners say the dark night of the soul is just part of the path so everybody will go through it at some point.
Willoughby Britton has noticed there’s a resistance to accepting the dark side of meditation and the problems it can trigger. The happy version of mindfulness is easy to sell and it gives people what they want. There’s money to be made and nobody wants their profit margins spoiled by scaremongering, but there are serious consequences to ignoring the downside.
“I understand the resistance. There are parts of me that just want meditation to be all good. I find myself in denial sometimes, where I just want to forget all that I’ve learned and go back to being happy about mindfulness and promoting it, but then I get another phone call and meet someone who’s in distress, and I see the devastation in their eyes, and I can’t deny that this is happening. As much as I want to investigate and promote contemplative practices and contribute to the well-being of humanity through that, I feel a deeper commitment to what’s actually true.” – Willoughby Britton
On the other hand, Shinzen Young says he rarely sees people fall into the dark side of the practice when they’re under the guidance of a competent teacher who has been through it and overcome it themselves. He calls it Depersonalisation Disorder and says he has successfully helped people to the other side by guiding them to deconstruct what’s happening.
Depersonalisation Disorder is when you identify with the void and think you don’t exist. If you have this reaction to seeing through the illusory nature of the self during awakening it means you haven’t completely let go. The ego is still there and still holding on, even if it’s holding on to the idea of being nothing. The self is still not empty of itself. In this video Shinzen Young explains the process of deconstructing that delusion:
“What I usually do is two things. If they’re freaking out because of the emptiness, then there’s something that’s not empty. What’s not empty is the freak out. So I have them see that their freak out reaction is itself empty. So that’s sort of negating the negative. And then the other thing is: systematically develop the positive.”
Aside: interestingly, Shinzen says he hasn’t tried this technique with people like me, who spontaneously develop DP/DR, and says it’s incurable. But I did overcome it – using meditation and dharma practice – so it is possible!
Despite the dangers, mindfulness is a skill worth learning. How much you change as a result of practising it depends on how much you do and the motivation behind it. Entry-level mindfulness will make you calmer and a bit more focused. Practice a little more and your health will improve, your stress levels will go down, you’ll be more productive and feel happier – like you on a really good day. But hardcore mindfulness can literally turn you inside out and change your life beyond recognition.
Shinzen Young: “Industrial strength doses of mindfulness will allow you to stride through life like a colossus – in touch with a Happiness that cannot be shaken by circumstances.”
You just might have to go through hell to get there.
Visit the Dark Night Resources page for tons of links: