Study: Trendy Meditation Retreats May Be Bad for Your Mental Health

Research by the University College London (UCL) has found that more than a quarter of people who regularly attend residential meditation programs such as Vipassana or Koan experience “unpleasant” episodes including feelings of fear and anxiety.

According to The Telegraph, the study found that, overall, more than a quarter of people who regularly meditate experience such feelings. Of the 1,232 people who participated in the survey, 25.6 percent said they had previously encountered “particularly unpleasant” meditation-related experiences.

Interestingly, men were more likely to suffer these experiences than women, The Telegraph reports, “as were people who did not have a religious belief compared to people who were religious.”

Researchers also found that those who engage in the fashionable “deconstructive” forms of Buddhist meditation such as Vipassana and Koan are more likely to be affected. These forms of meditation “encourage insight through questioning permanence of the self and the reality of sensations,” The Telegraph explains.

For those who are unfamiliar with these practices, Vipassana is described as “an observation-based, self-exploratory journey that focuses on deep interconnection between the mind and body, which is realized through disciplined attention to the physical sensations.”

Koan meditation is based on the use of a koan, which is a riddle or puzzle, that Zen Buddhists use during meditation “to help them unravel greater truths about the world and about themselves.”

“Insight meditation practices often encourage meditators to attune their attention to the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and impersonal nature of thoughts, feelings, and body sensations that arise within the space of awareness,” the study reads.

“Perceiving phenomena that might commonly be conceived of as inherently permanent and separate (e.g., the sense of self) as a vibrating field of fleeting and interpenetrating sensations could, for instance, give rise to a fear of annihilation.”

Particularly for those who are inexperienced in meditation, these techniques can result in feelings of vulnerability and fear.

Typically, the meditation retreats that offer these forms of meditation consist of long days of silent meditation, restricted access to the outside world and highly regulated sleep and diet regimes often take the form of days’ long silent retreats where participants’ access to the outside world is very restricted, and their sleep and diet regimes are highly regulated.

One of the most tragic cases of meditation gone wrong occurred two years ago in Pennsylvania when a perfectly healthy 25-year-old woman named Megan Vogt committed suicide after experiencing a psychotic episode during a vipassana retreat.

“Meditation has become quite trendy and an image has been constructed – perhaps explicitly by the mindfulness industry – that its a panacea, but it’s not,” said Marco Schlosser, lead researcher for the UCL. “It’s benefits may have been exaggerated.”

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