Meditation and mindfulness are heavily promoted by mental health professionals these days, with an endless stream of studies produced to support it. However, unlike a comprehensive drug trial, there has been a scandalous lack of research into the risks involved in meditation and equally less investment in defining the parameters of techniques and teaching, or advising at-risk patients on the side-effects.
The terms can also be pretty woolly as to what is meant by “meditation” or “mindfulness” and which techniques are actually beneficial versus the problematic varieties.
Meditation isn’t just a practice for the mind, it has deeply spiritual roots which are also not acknowledged by the Psychology profession. Treating a spiritual practice as though it is purely mechanistic both undermines the religious source it comes from as well as ignores the spiritual activity which is likely to occur. It’s a purely atheistic mindset and it has real-world repercussions.
People can be highly offended by any cautionary advice when dealing with spiritual activity, to the extent that they’ll become enraged at my saying that meditation is risky. It’s interesting that people are so willing to play with their spiritual wellbeing in reckless ways, and only want spiritual teachers who will affirm the notion of experiential validity, because in reality we would never behave that way in any other facet of life. If we went to a financial adviser and they told us not to worry about our finances, but to just spend in ways that make us feel good, we could be pretty confident that they’re not a good financial adviser, right? So why do we do that spiritually? That makes zero sense.
And yet, that is the meditation advice in a nutshell: don’t worry about what the source of spiritual connection is, just accept it into your soul and psyche without question… if something looks shiny or makes lots of pretty promises, it must be good!
A lot of psychologists recommend meditation but the type of meditation being pushed is from eastern religious practices, and even they acknowledge in their historical texts that it has huge dangers associated. In an article published by the Atlantic in 2014 they interviewed a psychology doctor running research into the negative effects of meditation and also running a recovery centre for people who have suffered psychotic breaks during meditation practices. The article contains some revealing insights about the eastern traditions of meditation being practiced by uninitiated people in the west today.
The types of meditation being recommended are literally the sort designed to bring about an existential crisis: anicca (impermanence); dukkha (dissatisfaction); and anatta (no-self). It’s no wonder that some of the monks attempting to plunge into this nihilistic void go insane and kill themselves.
According to another article by Medical News Today, they quote a research paper published by Plos One which found that 25% of regular meditation practitioners have experienced at least one psychological disturbance directly related to the practice.
A quarter of people who meditate.
One in four.
Those are insane numbers. And that’s actually a conservative estimate, because a study conducted in 1992 cited in a Guardian article recorded a number as high as 63% reporting adverse effects. This article from the Guardian goes on to suggest that a lot of the adverse effects are being deliberately ignored or even suppressed by shaming anyone who reports them for two very distinct reasons, both of which revolve entirely around greed and not around wellbeing.
For one thing, it’s a big industry now worth billions of dollars, and secondly it absolves employers of the responsibility to take care of the health of their workers by placing the onus on the worker to manage their stress instead of the employer reducing the stress.
The known risk factors discovered by the scant studies we have are:
- Being Male
- NOT having a religious belief
- Going to a meditation retreat
The retreats are the most risky, reporting hospitalisation of their attendees, some of whom do not recover their sanity.
Some of the stories from people who have suffered psychosis are absolutely horrific. Both the Guardian and Atlantic articles detail case studies of real-life victims which involve hallucinations, panic attacks, passing out, suicidal thoughts, hospitalisation, relationship breakdowns, inability to work, and strange sexual urges.
As usual, whenever anyone has these negative experiences, instead of reassessing the practice, whoever is running the program blames the victim and abandons them to a living hell.
But, you know… love and light.
One of the arguments in favour of eastern meditation is that it changes brainwave frequencies from the daytime alert state of beta waves into the little understood frequency of alpha waves associated with falling asleep, listening to music and prayer. However, this is an argument based purely on correlational evidence, not causational, and also implies that the pure mechanistic presence of something means that it must be GOOD.
If that sort of logic was applied to other areas of life, then people could hypothesise that there’s zero difference between consenting sex and rape, but somehow we differentiate between the two… why? Because we know that one causes harm and the other does not.
Just because a mechanism is present or works in a similar way, such as the presence of alpha waves for both prayer and eastern meditation, this is not proof that they have equal outcomes.
As I mentioned before, the alpha state is a brainwave frequency seen most commonly in the hypnogogic and hypnopompic states of going to sleep and waking up. It’s an intermediary brain state between sleep and alert consciousness, so we still have some level of awareness, but also have a natural lowering of our defences. This transition state is when people experience sleep paralysis.
To a lot of scientists this is simply a glitch in our mechanisms where the body is off-line as it would be during sleep, but our conscious awareness has kicked in when normally we would simply be dreaming, except that REM, the dreaming brain state, is more akin to wakeful beta waves than it is to alpha waves, which means that it’s potentially not the same as dreaming.
The hypnagogic state and alpha waves are also associated with phenomena such as hallucinations and lucid dreams. A lot of New Age and pagan spiritual activity encourages lucid dreaming and astral travel, but somehow it’s also understood that sleep paralysis is plagued with negative entities, known in Christianity as demons, and the recounts are remarkably consistent over time and between cultures.
Experiences such as leaving your body and seeing it from above, hearing a familiar voice shout your name, sounds of electronic zapping or high-pitched tones, feeling another presence in the room, seeing shadow figures, being choked and crushed by an entity, being sexually molested, visions of demons hovering above your face… all of the experiences are fearful, unpleasant and against the person’s will as evidenced by the fact they can’t move or speak to fend off the attacker.
Hypnosis is another method of hacking the brain through altering the brainwaves. It is understood by practitioners that the alpha state allows access to the more subconscious theta state. Through this access point people can become subject to memory implants among other alterations to their psyche, such as reducing addictive desires. As a tool, it is a neutral mechanism, but it can be used for both beneficial outcomes and harmful ones.
So why are mental health professionals persistently oblivious to the pit-falls of meditation if it involves the same outcomes as sleep paralysis?
For one thing, they have heavily biased research informing their advice, which is deviating clients away from genuinely helpful methods such as CBT, but also the research is being conflated with research on prayer because they involve the same brain mechanisms outlined above.
As I said before, mechanics does not constitute equal outcomes, but people are so determined to avoid God at all costs that they’ll cling to a thoroughly defunct practice until it literally collapses underneath them.
So how is prayer different?
There’s a big difference between meditating on existential dread, or meditating on physical bodily functions, and actually praying or contemplating a higher power which fulfills our need for parental-esque guidance and comfort. NBC News published an article on Better Health which examined the power of prayer to fight addiction and assist with mastering tumultuous emotions.
The article also looked at the neurochemical science behind prayer which has been proven to supply the brain with the social-bonding hormone oxytocin. You literally form a personal bond with God similar to a secure family relationship. It might not make your problem disappear, but it helps you feel less alone while facing them. It also found that Alcoholics Anonymous participants could visibly overcome an addictive response through prayer evidenced on fMRI imaging.
Unfortunately, as usual, the article associated the prayer research with meditation, even though there was no connection evidenced in the studies.
Pope Benedict (when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger) wrote about Christian meditation and prayer using the teachings of St Augustine as a reference for navigating the digital age:
“The spiritual restlessness arising from a life subjected to the driving pace of a technologically advanced society … brings a certain number of Christians to seek in these methods of prayer a path to interior peace and psychic balance.”
“Without doubt, a Christian needs certain periods of retreat into solitude to be recollected and, in God’s presence, rediscover his path.”
“On this topic St. Augustine is an excellent teacher: if you want to find God, he says, abandon the exterior world and re-enter into yourself. However, he continues, do not remain in yourself, but go beyond yourself because you are not God: He is deeper and greater than you…. To remain in oneself: this is the real danger.”
Philippians 4:6-8 (NKJV) says;
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything in prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things.”
This is how the bible advises to meditate; specifically on the word of God, and on the good things that he has given to you. NOT on your own breathing and the existential heat-death of the universe. The aim of Christian meditation isn’t to run away or deny our problems, but to ask God for assistance and spend time reflecting on how we might solve our problems with the help of the Holy Spirit. God then grants us peace of mind.
Perhaps this is why the studies on negative effects from meditation found that religious faith was an inoculation against a psychotic break? Rather than becoming overwhelmed, they can turn to God instead to find what they need.