Blog Post

Experts Caution About Meditation Risks

Even though Eastern-style meditation techniques such as transcendental meditation and mindfulness are taking the country by storm, researchers at Brown University are sounding the alarm about the very real risks associated with these practices that are getting far too little publicity.

The Daily Mail is reporting on a study conducted at Brown University where Willoughby Britton, the director of the Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory decided to look into the prevailing belief that this type of meditation was risk-free. She found the exact opposite and is joining her voice to the growing chorus of researchers who are speaking up about the risks and cautioning both instructors and meditators to be aware of the very real dangers associated with this activity.

In Britton’s study, her team interviewed 100 people who were engaged in the three main types of meditation: Theravada, Zen and Tibetan. They determined how well or how poorly a person responded to meditation by analyzing how much or how little the practice affected their ability to complete the tasks associated with their daily lives.

'We ask people what percentage of their normal functioning is impaired," Britton said, explaining that some people had trouble with basic duties as a result of the stress meditation caused them.

“Sometimes experiences were ostensibly desirable, such as feelings of unity or oneness with others. But some meditators reported them going too far, lasting too long or feeling violated, exposed or disoriented,” said Britton. "Others who had meditation experiences that felt positive during retreats reported that the persistence of these experiences interfered with their ability to function or work when they left the retreat and returned to normal life.”

The study found that some meditators experience anxiety and panic during meditation sessions because it brings traumatic memories to the forefront of the mind.

Those who come from dysfunctional and/or abusive families were also at risk for responding negatively to meditation; however, even people without these risks factors also reported negative reactions from meditation.

She said that her study proves that "this is an issue that needs to be addressed" and said that many in the field are working to pinpoint how meditation instructors can make the experience safer for at-risk individuals.

This safety training also includes lessons on how to screen meditators. “You need to know if someone has a traumatic history,” Britton explained, adding that one of the main problems right now is that nobody asks meditators questions about their history.

“They haven't been adequately monitored,” she said.

The Brown study is not the only research which found negative responses to meditation. As my new book, A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness, points out, a study by David Shapiro, a professor at the University of California, Ivine, dating back to 1992 which found that 63 percent of the group he studied, who had varying degrees of experience in meditation, including mindfulness meditation, had suffered at least one negative effect from meditation retreats.

How sad that these warnings weren't passed along to 25-year-old Megan Vogt, a healthy and bright young woman who suffered a psychotic break during a vipassana retreat that was so severe she committed suicide.

More and more researchers are speaking out about the dangers of the kind of meditation that requires either the total emptying of the mind or other methods of extreme focus. It’s definitely not for everyone.