After my husband ended our marriage over the telephone, I signed up for a 10-day silent meditation retreat. I’d been told that practicing this type of meditation, called vipassana, would result in limitless love, compassion, and goodwill. I wanted those things so desperately, I was willing to lie to get in.
Ten days of meditating for nine hours a day without distraction is an objectively grueling journey. But I’d tried therapy, yoga, and sex already, and my heart was still broken. So I didn’t mention my past—and besides, I didn’t think my history applied.
Years before, I had abused alcohol and drugs, but by the time I signed up for the retreat, I hadn’t touched either in a decade. I had tried Paxil and therapy in the years since, but I hadn’t experienced anything like what I went through when I was using. Nonetheless, I vowed to be vigilant: If I stopped sleeping well or experienced racing thoughts, I’d leave. It never occurred to me that the practice itself might cause problems.
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Vipassana meditation focuses on observing bodily sensations without commenting on them. The idea is that when we remove the inner monologue, we can see how our perception of reality, at its most basic level, is a crafted story. But the process of dissolving the personal narrative can be destabilizing and has been known to hurt people as well as help them.
Meditation has a history of problems.
Last year, researchers at Brown University released a study showing that meditators often report feelings of fear, anxiety, panic, and paranoia. This isn’t news to experienced meditation teachers, who will readily acknowledge that meditation students often experience bad effects, and say that they are to be expected.
Brown isn’t the first to publish research that delves into the potentially problematic nature of meditation. The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? cites an older study, which suggests that 63 percent of participants in meditation retreats have suffered at least one negative consequence, such as anxiety, confusion, and disorientation.
Of course, there are challenges associated with these kinds of studies, including the self-reported nature of the results, the relatively small number of studies themselves, and external factors, such as the fact that people drawn to contemplative practice are often already in crisis.
But the fact remains that for some, the consequences of intensive meditation can be dire. In June 2017, some 10 weeks after attending a 10-day silent meditation retreat, 25-year-old Megan Vogt killed herself by jumping from a bridge in Pennsylvania near her Maryland home. In the note she left behind, Vogt wrote, “I remember what I did at the retreat. I finally got that memory. I can’t live with me.”
While the kind of meditation-induced psychosis that Vogt experienced is rare, her story felt familiar. I also had managed to complete my 10-day retreat. And like Megan, the real trouble cropped up afterward as I experienced regular thoughts of suicide, from the more idle what-if-I-just-dropped-into-the-train-tracks to more plan-based thoughts, like where-would-I-find-pills-that-would-really-do-the-job type.
I didn’t tell anyone, believing that if I kept meditating, I’d eventually figure out what was wrong with me. Meanwhile, my practice kept me so morbidly fixated on my flaws that I kept finding more.
But there are some very enticing upsides too.
As the Brown study reveals, after fear and panic, “positive affect” is the next most commonly reported sensation meditators experience. And this was true for me too: After the retreat, I had more energy and often felt that I was better able to cope with stressful situations. But my life still wasn’t where I wanted it to be; I needed to do something different and remained convinced that I could figure out what was blocking my ability to live life to the fullest through this same form of meditation.
So two years after my initial retreat, I went back for another, hoping that a second meditation retreat would simply amplify the positive outcomes I’d experienced. Instead, I just ended up flipping through the same reels of intel about the end of my marriage. Finally, by the end of my second session, I wrote, “I don’t hate myself enough to do this to myself.”
The world of meditation needs to be better prepared to handle mental health challenges.
Megan Vogt’s application for the meditation retreat included the fact that she suffered from anxiety and was on medication, and she even got a doctor’s approval to participate. But the organizers of her retreat were aware that Vogt’s condition was deteriorating and still didn’t send her home.
While devastating, this isn’t necessarily surprising news to those who have done retreats. The centers aren’t run by trained clinicians but by volunteers who rarely have medical backgrounds. And they’ve been known to make other horrific mistakes. For instance, Annie Gurton, HG.Dip.P., says she was once barred outright from leaving a vipassana retreat. She calls the organizers “dictatorial” and says that while she was mentally stable at the time, “someone frailer or who had serious mental issues might have found it repressive and abusive. If they were paranoid, it would have fed into those thoughts.”
Pain is part of the process.
Despite the prevailing narrative, the truth is that comfort is not the objective of meditation.
“It’s natural for meditation, especially mindfulness practice, to arouse anxiety in some people, and this can be a valuable part of a healing process,” says Tara Brach, a clinical psychologist and author of Radical Acceptance.
In other words, transformation can be messy. Unlike a trip to the hairdresser, where you take your seat and—with zero effort on your part—are made new, shedding one’s metaphorical skin is hard work, a kind of work that isn’t always appropriate for people who are handling mental health concerns—at least not the way it’s often presented.
“This doesn’t only happen to people who are doing intensive retreats,” says Willoughby Britton, one of the researchers from Brown. But she doesn’t blame the meditators, especially those with a history of trauma. “This is fueling a kind of discrimination that could prevent certain groups from having access to these practices. ‘They did it wrong’ is just another way of victim-blaming.”
We need to stop hyping meditation as a cure-all.
As the juggernaut of wellness rolls forward, the emphasis on the feel-good benefits of meditation has reached ludicrous proportions. Meditation has become so mainstream that Oprah and Deepak Chopra offer a 21-day class, and it’s touted as a cure for everything from sleep deprivation to heart disease. I’ve seen numerous classes advertising that you can “create the life you want through meditation.”
The idea that meditation can be consumed for your health like a bowl of steamed kale isn’t just objectionable, it’s damaging. In my experience, not only do different people need different styles of contemplative practice, individual needs vary and can change over time.
More forms of meditation should be offered as positive alternatives.
“Just like finding the right exercise for someone who is physically challenged, it’s possible to find a style of meditation practice that serves someone with symptoms of trauma,” Brach says.
For years, I’d labored under the assumption that if meditation wasn’t making me more successful in life, love, and work, then obviously there was something wrong with me. It was sheer luck that I stumbled onto alternative practices that softened my experience.
One method I’ve found useful: taking short moments, which is exactly what it sounds like—you just close your eyes for a moment or two to plug into your internal reality. I’ve found this to be not only freeing, but effective, and it’s similar to other types of meditation practice, including visualization (where you draw something in your mind’s eye) and chanting (where you repeat a phrase).
I began incorporating these techniques and more. These days, I’ve learned the value in changing up my practice rather than feeling miserable. If the main thing I feel when I sit down to meditate is anxiety, I’ll go in a different direction. I’ll focus on breathing exercises, I might take a mindful walk, or I might listen to a guided meditation (Tara Brach’s website offers several).
There is no style of meditation that’s guaranteed to resolve specific trauma, so if you’re experiencing difficulty, it’s important to find a teacher you trust to guide you—even if it means moving onto another form of practice.
The most important thing to realize is that meditation-related anxiety is real and can have devastating consequences. The challenges don’t mean there’s something wrong with you or that you need to “push through.” The concept that life is suffering is unrelated to self-induced misery—especially if you want to get to the joy that can come with regular practice.
Lisa L. Kirchner is the author of Hello American Lady Creature: What I Learned as a Woman in Qatar. She is currently at work on The Joyseeker: Chasing Salvation in India, the story of the decade she spent looking for answers to the wrong question. More at lisalkirchner.com or on social @lisakirchner.