When Meditating Leads to Dark Places

A few isolated cases of meditation-induced psychosis have cropped up in academic journals.

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Jul 6 2017, 4:00pm

Last spring, a Redditor by the name "flusterer" launched an AMA entitled "my experience with meditation-induced psychosis." He recounted how, a couple years back, he tried meditation, like so many young Western professionals today, as a means of reevaluating life. He advanced from the occasional session at a Buddhist temple to a three-month retreat in France that left him feeling comfort and ease, the type of clearness and direction many Westerners seek in the practice. But a little later, at a shorter albeit similarly intensive retreat, something snapped.

Flusterer started to feel a change in his thought processes. He felt a sense of imminent, broad threat and duty and power to prevent it. He spun theories, ranting in a way that he now describes as "delusional" and "embarrassing." Eventually, he found himself whirling down the street eating flowers, looking so erratic that someone called an ambulance. It took several months on a low dose of meds in a psych ward for flusterer to feel grounded again. It was a significant break, lasting in total about a year. But in retrospect he links the experience almost entirely to his deep dive into meditation.

For many readers, flusterer's story likely sounds like inconsequential internet malarkey. It grates against popular Western narratives of meditation as an uncomplicated panacea for modern life. Science, we often read, has proven that a little mindfulness practice can reduce stress, dull pain, or even help us overcome issues like chronic depression or trauma. Plus it just seems impossible that clearing your mind and sitting with your thoughts could send someone over the mental edge.

But apparently, it happens. Tales of meditation gone awry, leading to experiences from brief sensory discomfort to breaks even more severe and long lasting than flusterer's have long floated around forums and communities focusing on meditative experiences. A few isolated cases of meditation-induced psychosis have cropped up in academic journals. Some breaks have even allegedly precipitated suicides, as in the recent case of a 25-year-old Pennsylvanian who jumped off a bridge ten weeks after reportedly falling into psychosis at a ten-day meditation retreat in Delaware this past March, although the direct link between meditation, mental break, and suicide is less definite in this and other cases compared with flusterer's account.

Yet these stories have always been so sporadic in frequency and uneven in intensity and analyses that they have been easy to miss or ignore; they're a marginal edge of a large and largely positive social discourse on meditation. However a new study released this past spring by researchers at Brown University has started to bring these tales out of the shadows, cataloguing a host of challenging phenomena that can arise through meditation, and a cache of factors that can lead them to arise, as well as determine how deeply they might be experienced.

The researchers interviewed nearly 100 meditators of varied backgrounds and experience levels, all of whom practiced a Buddhist technique or tradition and who'd had at least one challenging experience. They then ran their stories through a causality assessment process to figure out what experiences stemmed directly from the subjects' meditative practices. They ultimately identified 59 distinct experiences one could have trouble with during a meditative session, which they divided into seven categories: changes in cognition, mood, motivation or willpower, physical perception, physical sensation, one's sense of self, or one's social relations. Some of the meditators had limited challenges, like hypersensitivity to light for a little bit after a long session. Some experienced radical shifts of consciousness that could impair them for years, even for life.

"There was really a huge range of effects," says Jared Lindahl, a researcher focused on the biology of religious experiences and one of the study's authors, and they were all "things that aren't typically associated with meditation," like the general sense of calm many think is its only effect. Lindahl stresses this study is "not trying to take away or undermine all the documented benefits of meditation, of which there have been plenty."

Instead they hope to address a gap in awareness between Western meditators and the masters and practitioners of older traditions. Buddhist scripture, they point out, acknowledges that meditation can take practitioners to dark places. Even meditation teachers and psychologists in the West regularly come across people who've encountered serious problems during meditation as well.


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But only the happy parts of Buddhist texts usually get translated and reprinted, and many teachers and academics perhaps personally noted but never systematically dissected these recurrent cases. So we've got a society increasingly taking up meditation, whether in therapeutic, monastic, or casual settings, aided by the proliferation of egregiously pro-meditation literature and easy DIY apps, without a robust knowledge or honest cultural conversation about how that can affect a person.

"I've had calls from more than 300 people [looking] for help" since their research started to gain notoriety a couple years ago, says Willoughby Britton, another of the study's authors who started examining negative meditative experiences after seeing two instances of meditation-induced psychosis come in from a retreat in western Massachusetts while training in clinical psychology in Rhode Island. "That tells me they're not getting the support they need from their teachers or whatever system taught them meditation." That may in part stem from the West's lack of cultural recognition and thus preparedness for meditative challenge.

This lack of conversation can actually exacerbate the raw issues meditation can unearth, Lindahl adds, because people might feel "that their experience doesn't match this idealized version of meditation that is often out there. Some observers who have pointed out the potential pitfalls of meditation have advanced normative prescriptions for Western meditators moving forward. Most commonly, you'll find someone arguing that people should only pursue meditation in traditional systems or contexts, not via apps or secular feel-good sessions, because these older practices have stronger frameworks to contextualize and manage hard experiences.

But the Brown team doesn't advance any vision for what meditation in America should look like. And they don't intend to. They're focusing on analyzing the effects of non-Buddhist meditation, developing systematic questionnaires to better gauge the commonality of meditative challenges, and diving deeper into each type of experience and its likely contextual or biological triggers.

Lindahl explains that the experiences they observed were too idiosyncratic to say anything too prescriptive now, or likely ever. Everything is so contextual that one person's traumatic meditative experience might be another person's vital step on the path to enlightenment, or just chillness. What you might recommend to mitigate risks in one monastery might be different from what you'd recommend at a secular therapist's office, and that might even differ from patient to patient, as we're all coming at meditation with different backgrounds and desires. This level of heterogeneity in Western meditation goes beyond anything most traditional systems likely learned to cope with.

Instead, says Lindahl, "we hope there can be a more open conversation between meditation providers and meditators… so that things can be worked out and people are more aware" of the variable experiences they could encounter. Ideally that will lead to a greater focus on developing support systems alongside meditative practices.

Seeing cultural conversations change and support systems develop is going to take a long time, and likely a lot of buy-in from many distinct spheres of the Western meditation ecosystem. Although Britton, Lindahl, and co.'s study is a landmark in scholarly focus on these issues, they've been getting much more play in the popular press over the past three or four years.

No matter how fast research on this issue moves, though, the research team behind this study is dedicated to plucking away at it and keeping it in the press as much as possible. "People are really desperate and devastated," Britton says. No matter how many sufferers there are, "that level of desperation and shame that people call us with reminds me on a daily basis how important this [work] is."

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