The Dark Side of Med­i­ta­tion

Yoga Journal - - Contents - By Jes­sica Downey

Con­tem­pla­tive prac­tices can un­earth painful mem­o­ries and un­ease. Here’s what you need to know to avoid be­ing blind­sided.

Med­i­ta­tion is of­ten por­trayed as a cure-all for men­tal, emo­tional, and phys­i­cal well-be­ing. But it is also ca­pable of un­earthing painful mem­o­ries and gen­eral un­ease, which can be fright­en­ing or un­nerv­ing, es­pe­cially if you’re caught off guard. What do you need to know to avoid be­ing blind­sided by med­i­ta­tion′s po­ten­tial neg­a­tive ef­fects? Start here.

For many months af­ter the or­deal ended in 2014, Jane Miller * was haunted by her stalker, a man she had ini­tially be­friended, but who then tor­mented her and threat­ened her life. The night­mare was tu­mul­tuous for Miller and her hus­band, and the cloud of sad­ness, shame, fear, and anx­i­ety had a dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect on her life. She fought the urge to stay in bed all day. Blinds closed and cur­tains drawn, she kept even the tini­est sliver of sun­light from pen­e­trat­ing her fortress. She only left her house for ne­ces­si­ties.

Miller’s psy­chi­a­trist di­ag­nosed her with post-trau­matic stress and de­pres­sive dis­or­ders. Her ther­a­pist rec­om­mended that along­side reg­u­lar ther­apy ses­sions she take a 12-week mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion class to help her re­claim her life. Know­ing she needed to do some­thing to find peace of mind, she signed up and started the class full of hope.

Yet when she sat on her mat for the first time as the teacher be­gan the class, her anx­i­ety rose to the sur­face. She started sweat­ing. Her heart be­gan to race, and she was gripped by de­bil­i­tat­ing fear. “When class started that first day, a lot of neg­a­tive self­talk flooded in. I closed my eyes, and silent tears started stream­ing down my face—and they wouldn’t stop. I felt so afraid; I didn’t want to open my eyes,” Miller re­calls. “I was hav­ing a mi­cro-flash­back. It would tug at me, say­ing, ‘Re­mem­ber this hap­pened,’ or, ‘Re­mem­ber, you did this.’ I didn’t have the nec­es­sary tools to work through trau­matic flash­backs at that point.”

De­spite the fright­en­ing episode, Miller re­turned to the class the fol­low­ing week hop­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence the kind of heal­ing and sense of calm she thought

med­i­tat­ing would pro­vide. The en­vi­ron­ment and the feel­ing of anonymity mostly felt safe. Yet each time she closed her eyes and lis­tened to her mind and body, she’d quickly be­come en­sconced in a trau­matic episode, bur­rowed in a co­coon of shame. “I wasn’t ready to al­low my­self to heal,” she says. “I felt like I didn’t de­serve to. I’d start to feel vul­ner­a­ble, like the class knew my story, even though they didn’t. It was very hard to even make eye con­tact with peo­ple af­ter the class had ended,” she says. “I would roll up my mat quickly, make my­self as small as pos­si­ble, and leave.”

Class af­ter class for 12 weeks, Miller fought her way through each med­i­ta­tion. Des­per­ate for an out­let that would help her heal, she stuck with it and even tried other classes on of­fer, such as restorative yoga. To her sur­prise, she was never ap­proached by her med­i­ta­tion teacher, and the po­ten­tial for th­ese kinds of emo­tional re­sponses dur­ing med­i­ta­tion was never ad­dressed in any way. “In yoga class, we were of­fered mod­i­fi­ca­tions for phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions or if some­thing didn’t feel good. But in med­i­ta­tion class, there was no recog­ni­tion of po­ten­tial men­tal lim­i­ta­tion or in­jury,” she says.

Ul­ti­mately, Miller was glad she fin­ished the class, be­cause it led to her find­ing the mantra she’d even­tu­ally use on a reg­u­lar ba­sis: May I find ease; May I be well; May I be healthy; May I be happy; May I live in lov­ingkind­ness. Yet Miller wishes she had been fore­warned that trauma sur­vivors can ex­pe­ri­ence flash­backs, dis­so­ci­a­tion, and even re­trauma­ti­za­tion dur­ing and af­ter med­i­ta­tion—an aware­ness that may have helped her feel less afraid dur­ing those ini­tial med­i­ta­tion ses­sions. “An anony­mous ques­tion­naire at the start of class ask­ing, ‘What are you here for?’ may have been help­ful,” she says.

De­spite med­i­ta­tion’s ev­er­in­creas­ing pop­u­lar­ity, warn­ings about the prac­tice’s more dif­fi­cult mo­ments are rarely is­sued. Over the past decade, med­i­ta­tion has grown in pop­u­lar­ity in the West, first at a steady pace and then at a sprint. For a so­ci­ety that’s over­caf­feinated and over­stim­u­lated, mired in 60-hour work­weeks, and jug­gling too many prover­bial balls, med­i­ta­tion prac­tices are of­ten

talked about col­lec­tively as a panacea for so many of the things that ail us. It prom­ises to in­crease fo­cus, pro­duc­tiv­ity, and self-aware­ness while de­creas­ing stress and anx­i­ety. But that’s not the whole story.

Miller’s ex­pe­ri­ence is not an anom­aly, says Anna Kress, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist in Prince­ton, New Jersey, who teaches med­i­ta­tion tech­niques to her clients. She warns that we need to be more cog­nizant that there is a much broader range of re­sponses to med­i­ta­tion than most peo­ple are aware of.

Wil­loughby Brit­ton, PhD, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try and hu­man be­hav­ior at Brown Univer­sity agrees, not­ing that the po­ten­tial neg­a­tive ef­fects of med­i­ta­tion—in­clud­ing fear, panic, hal­lu­ci­na­tions, ma­nia, loss of mo­ti­va­tion and mem­ory, and de­per­son­al­iza­tion—can be dis­tress­ing at best and de­bil­i­tat­ing at worst. David A. Tre­leaven, PhD, author of the new book Trauma-Sen­si­tive Mind­ful­ness: Prac­tices for Safe and Trans­for­ma­tive Heal­ing, says this po­tency med­i­ta­tion holds can­not be un­der­stated or un­der­es­ti­mated by teach­ers or prac­ti­tion­ers. “Med­i­ta­tion is a prac­tice that can elicit chal­leng­ing or ad­verse re­sponses,” he says. “While many peo­ple ben­e­fit from med­i­ta­tion, some won’t.” When Brit­ton first en­coun­tered some of the neg­a­tive ef­fects of med­i­ta­tion, she re­al­ized that part of the prob­lem was lack of in­for­ma­tion and overem­pha­sis on ben­e­fits. “In 2006, when I was do­ing my res­i­dency, I worked at an in-pa­tient psy­chi­atric hospital, and there were two peo­ple who were hos­pi­tal­ized af­ter a 10-day re­treat at a med­i­ta­tion cen­ter nearby,” she says. “It re­minded me that med­i­ta­tion can be se­ri­ous, and that some­one should study [that side of it].”

The power of med­i­ta­tion

Stud­ies reg­u­larly pub­lished in sci­en­tific jour­nals tout med­i­ta­tion’s vast ca­pa­bil­i­ties— in­clud­ing its pos­i­tive ef­fects on con­di­tions such as ir­ri­ta­ble bowel syn­drome, fi­bromyal­gia, and PTSD—and its prom­ise to help us cope with all-time-high lev­els of stress, de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety, pho­bias, and other men­tal­health is­sues. As a re­sult, we’ve seen an in­crease in pop­u­lar­ity of mo­bile med­i­ta­tion apps like Headspace, Sim­ple Habit, and In­sight Timer, which of­fer guided prac­tices. There’s also been a surge in bou­tique and fran­chise med­i­ta­tion stu­dios,

“The cul­tural pres­sure to med­i­tate is very high right now, but not ev­ery med­i­ta­tive ex­pe­ri­ence is a pos­i­tive one.” ANNA KRESS, PSYD

“Even ex­pe­ri­enced med­i­ta­tors can have a neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ence and will need to find re­sources out­side of med­i­ta­tion to process what­ever arises in a healthy and heal­ing way.” ANNA KRESS, PSYD

like MNDFL on the East Coast and Unplug Med­i­ta­tion on the West Coast, and now med­i­ta­tion re­treats are com­monly ac­cepted as va­ca­tion op­tions or cor­po­rate get­aways. “The cul­tural pres­sure to med­i­tate is very high right now,” says Kress. “But not ev­ery med­i­ta­tive ex­pe­ri­ence is a pos­i­tive one.”

Dur­ing her res­i­dency, when Brit­ton be­gan en- coun­ter­ing anec­dotes of med­i­ta­tion’s neg­a­tive ef­fects, she looked for sci­en­tific re­search to ex­plain what she was hear­ing—and came up short. “I started in­for­mally ask­ing teach­ers about the kinds of is­sues and re­sponses they’d seen and en­coun­tered,” she says.

When she re­al­ized neg­a­tive re­ac­tions to med­i­ta­tion were preva­lent, Brit­ton de­cided to for­mally study it. “It was clear that a lot of peo­ple knew about th­ese po­ten­tial ef­fects and weren’t re­ally talk­ing about it.”

She be­lieves one of the rea­sons the darker side of med­i­ta­tion is be­ing, well, kept in the dark is fi­nan­cial. “Mind­ful­ness is a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar in­dus­try,” she says. “One of the teach­ers I in­ter­viewed for my re­search ac­tu­ally said, ‘This isn’t good ad­ver­tis­ing.’”

Plus, says Brit­ton, many peo­ple feel a lot of shame about neg­a­tive med­i­ta­tion ex­pe­ri­ences, which speaks to the over­hyped ad­ver­tis­ing that med­i­ta­tion is good for ev­ery­thing. It’s of­ten por­trayed that “if you have prob­lems med­i­tat­ing, then you’re a su­per loser be­cause it’s the best thing ever,” she says.

When dark­ness falls

Brit­ton set out to in­ves­ti­gate med­i­ta­tion-re­lated ex­pe­ri­ences, specif­i­cally those that were de­scribed as chal­leng­ing, dif­fi­cult, dis­tress­ing, func­tion­ally im­pair­ing, or re­quir­ing ad­di­tional sup­port. Her study, pub­lished in the Pub­lic Li­brary of

Sci­ence One jour­nal last spring, looked at nearly 100 in­ter­views with med­i­ta­tion teach­ers, ex­perts, and prac­ti­tion­ers of West­ern Bud­dhist prac­tices— in­clud­ing Ther­avada, Zen, and Ti­betan tra­di­tions—many of whom re­ported chal­leng­ing med­i­ta­tion ex­pe­ri­ences.

The ma­jor­ity (88 per­cent) of the med­i­ta­tors in the study re­ported that th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences had an im­pact on their lives beyond their med­i­ta­tion ses­sions. A whop­ping 73 per­cent in­di­cated mod­er­ate to se­vere im­pair­ment (med­i­tat­ing prompted a re­ac­tion or re­sult that kept them from liv­ing their nor­mal, daily lives), 17 per­cent re­ported feel­ing sui­ci­dal, and an­other 17 per­cent re­quired in­pa­tient hos­pi­tal­iza­tion for psy­chosis.

Though any­one can ex­pe­ri­ence a neg­a­tive ef­fect of med­i­ta­tion, trauma sur­vivors can be par­tic­u­larly sus­cep­ti­ble, says Kress. “The first rea­son is that trauma sur­vivors usu­ally avoid dis­tress­ing mem­o­ries or feel­ings as­so­ci­ated with the trauma—and med­i­ta­tion of­ten in­volves lean­ing to­ward our in­ter­nal ex­pe­ri­ences, which in­cludes dif­fi­cult thoughts and sen­sa­tions,” she says. The sec­ond rea­son is that trauma may prompt feel­ings of shame “that can make it dif­fi­cult to ac­cess self-com­pas­sion,” she says. “Some­times in med­i­ta­tion, it is the first time some­one is asked to di­rect lov­ing feel­ings to­ward them­selves. This can be a very dif­fi­cult thing to do, and it can re­sult in feel­ing emo­tion­ally over­whelmed.”

This kind of lean­ing in to­ward dif­fi­cult emo­tions can prompt tough stuff to come up for any­one, not just trauma sur­vivors, says Brit­ton. Adding to the com­plex­ity is that it’s dif­fi­cult to pre­dict who might ex­pe­ri­ence a neg­a­tive re­sponse. Brit­ton’s study iden­ti­fied more than 50 types of neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ences, which means the vast ar­ray and scope of what can come up can make it hard for teach­ers and prac­ti­tion­ers to know what’s nor­mal, as well as when some­one may need ad­di­tional sup­port dur­ing or af­ter med­i­tat­ing.

Find­ing the sup­port you may need

One of Tre­leaven’s ma­jor goals in writ­ing Trauma

Sen­si­tive Mind­ful­ness was to pro­vide teach­ers and prac­ti­tion­ers with some ba­sic scaf­fold­ing to un­der­stand what to look for so they are bet­ter equipped to of­fer mod­i­fi­ca­tions to a med­i­ta­tion prac­tice. Kress says that there are a hand­ful of im­por­tant signs for teach­ers to look for that in­di­cate a med­i­ta­tion stu­dent may be hav­ing a trau­matic re­ac­tion. The com­mon ones in­clude pro­longed cry­ing, which may be silent but un­con­trol­lable; short­ness of breath; trem­bling; clenched fists; skin turn­ing red or pale; and ex­ces­sive sweat­ing.

“Giv­ing peo­ple who have ex­pe­ri­enced trauma a sense of choice is very im­por­tant,” says Kress. “What that means is they get to choose when, how, and where they want to turn to­ward pain and when they want to get dis­tance from it. I let peo­ple know that if they want to leave their eyes open, that’s fine, or if they need to take a break, that’s fine, too.” Brit­ton adds that th­ese kinds of mod­i­fi­ca­tions are im­por­tant for teach­ers to know and of­fer—to help cover the dis­con­nect that ex­ists be­tween prac­ti­tion­ers who are be­ing told med­i­ta­tion can be uti­lized for men­tal-health rea­sons and the neg­a­tive re­sponses they may ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Peo­ple are ex­pect­ing med­i­ta­tion to be like a men­tal­health treat­ment, but the peo­ple who are op­er­at­ing most of the classes aren’t typ­i­cally trained in men­tal health. That’s some­thing that we, as a field, need to fig­ure out,” says Brit­ton, adding that most peo­ple don’t know what types of prac­tices will ben­e­fit which ail­ments or goals.

For ex­am­ple, some­one look­ing to use med­i­ta­tion to help al­le­vi­ate work-re­lated stress would likely want to pur­sue a very dif­fer­ent kind of prac­tice than some­one who is fac­ing resid­ual trauma from a sex­ual as­sault.

To that end, Brown Univer­sity re­cently opened a Mind­ful­ness Cen­ter, to help fig­ure out how the re­ported ef­fects of mind­ful­ness on health are ac­tu­ally work­ing. One big fo­cus of the cen­ter is con­sumer ad­vo­cacy and help­ing peo­ple who are in­ter­ested in med­i­ta­tion find the right kind of pro­gram.

But even though med­i­ta­tion may not al­ways feel good, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t med­i­tate, says Kress. “Even ex­pe­ri­enced med­i­ta­tors can have a neg­a­tive med­i­ta­tive ex­pe­ri­ence and will need to find re­sources out­side of med­i­ta­tion to process what­ever arises in a healthy and heal­ing way,” she says. For some peo­ple, a 10-minute guided med­i­ta­tion on an app is perfect; for oth­ers, learn­ing med­i­ta­tion and mind­ful­ness skills with a ther­a­pist is more ap­pro­pri­ate.

As more di­luted and tan­gen­tial ver­sions of med­i­ta­tion con­tinue to arise, it’s im­por­tant for prac­ti­tion­ers, es­pe­cially be­gin­ners, to re­mem­ber that the prac­tice has a long his­tory in which stu­dents learned from a teacher— a highly trained med­i­ta­tion mas­ter who pro­vided guid­ance. In its purest form, med­i­ta­tion was grounded in re­li­gious, spir­i­tual, and philo­soph­i­cal pur­poses, not solely as a means of find­ing re­lax­ation and in­ner peace.

“Th­ese days, we of­ten just want to feel bet­ter, but we don’t have a sense of what we’re try­ing to achieve,” says Brit­ton. “We also throw the term ‘mind­ful­ness’ at ev­ery­thing. Of­ten­times, peo­ple start med­i­tat­ing and they’re not nec­es­sar­ily clear whether the prac­tice they’ve cho­sen is re­ally the best match for the goal that they have.”

For Miller, that’s the kind of cau­tion­ary ad­vice that may have helped her avoid be­ing blind­sided by the resur­gence of her trauma and pain. It may not have spared her from the emo­tions that sur­faced, but she says she would have been more pre­pared.

Still, she’s grate­ful for the med­i­ta­tion class, de­spite the tough stuff it churned up. “It took a while for me to trust the process,” says Miller. “But when I did, it was a feel­ing of the sun com­ing up, where I found this calm­ness.”

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