A wise biker friend of mine once said that consciousness-expanding street drugs tend to shake free any loose screws you have in your head, so that if you’re not entirely healthy in mind you could end up quite a bit worse afterwards. I didn’t think much of it, at the time, except for agreeing as I’ve moved past that sort of thing long ago. Responsibility has a way of pulling you away from such life choices, or at least it should.
Over-Meditation: When Meditation is an Addiction
Turns out, though, that meditation harbors the same sort of risk. In The Book of Meditation, author Patricia Carrington writes:
If meditation is prolonged for a matter of hours this process of tension-release can be magnified many times. When a person spends this much time meditating, powerful emotions and ‘primary process’ (bizarre) thoughts may be released too rapidly to assimilate and the meditator may be forced into sudden confrontation with long-buried aspects of himself for which he is not prepared. If he has enough inner strength, or is doing the extra meditation under the supervision of an experienced teacher, he may weather such an upsurge of consciousness and emerge triumphant. If he has fewer inner resources or has a past history of emotional disturbance, he may be overwhelmed by it, fragile defenses may break down, and an episode of mental illness result.pages 246-247
That is presumably why so many disciplines prescribe specific limits on meditation time. For example, Eknath Easwaran counseled us to stick to a half hour at the beginning and ending of each day, and not to go further than that. Patricia Carrington noted that Transcendental Meditation is limited to no more than two 20-minute sessions a day, and that Clinical Standardized Meditation has similar limits. She terms going beyond these limits as “over-meditating”, saying that meditation is most dangerous for those who tend to over-meditate.
…those who consistently over-meditate, when studied psychiatrically, most often turn out either to have a previous history of addiction to drugs or to have other psychiatric problems of a serious nature… When a person comes to the point where she is meditating many hours a day, on her own and without supervision, that person usually has a disturbed emotional adjustment to begin with.page 247
To elaborate on this, Carrington describes a patient named “Kaye” who went to a Zen retreat for two years, meditating there for at least four hours each day and also observing a partial vow of silence that prohibited discussing her realizations from meditation. By the time Kaye left, she was not able to pursue a stable life because of uncontrollable racing thoughts, intense anxiety attacks, and emotional outbursts that caused her to tremble almost convulsively. Another example given is “Dudley”, who began compulsively and negatively experiencing things that superficially resemble the enlightenment of mystics: disappearance of time, his mind leaving his body, inability to perceive others as outside of his own consciousness. Carrington noted that while perhaps these symptoms were unconsciously borrowed from the reports of spiritually-minded people, they left Dudley alienated and with growing feelings of rage and shame.
Meditation: Mind Control and Pacification
The flip side of the coin is that some religious cults, according to Patricia Carrington, require that their members meditate for many hours a day. She writes:
The control of such super-cults over their followers raises a number of questions about possible exploitation of followers who have been confused and rendered highly suggestible by over-meditation.
While Carrington’s examples include the Unification Church, I want to emphasize that I have no idea which groups should properly be considered cults in the sense they attempt to possess strict control over their followers. That said, this is clearly a true concern.
And it’s not just cults, either. Businesses and movements the world over possibly promote meditation and mindfulness as a method for pacifying those they harness as beasts of the field. David Loy and Ron Purser wrote an excellent post on the Huffington Post Beyond McMindfulness that discusses the impacts of the mindfulness movement.
In many respects, corporate mindfulness training — with its promise that calmer, less stressed employees will be more productive — has a close family resemblance to now-discredited “human relations” and sensitivity-training movements that were popular in the 1950s and 1960s. These training programs were criticized for their manipulative use of counseling techniques, such as “active listening,” deployed as a means for pacifying employees by making them feel that their concerns were heard while existing conditions in the workplace remained unchanged.
Meditation: The Takeaway
The fundamental point of this post is that we, as people on a spiritual journey, need to beware of over-using any single approach. When we begin worsening from meditation, we need spiritual or psychiatric guidance. If we give control over our lives completely to others or begin placidly promoting the status quo, our hopes for enlightenment have been harnessed by others to their own ends. Ironically, it takes a bit of introspection such as we get from meditation to see these developments in ourselves.
I firmly believe, based on my own experiences, that meditation is an incredibly effective method for spiritual development – for me. And probably for most other people who are grounded and able to cope reasonably well before they get into meditating. And probably a simply terrible strategy for people who have mental health issues and aren’t under the supervision of a good spiritual teacher or psychiatrist. So, please do take a look at yourself before you start meditating and stop to check yourself now and again during meditation.
If at any point you become uncomfortable, simply stop for the day. If you’re becoming more negative or experiencing more difficulties, seek help and community before continuing the practice. There’s absolutely no reason to damage yourself in meditation – look as it as weight-training for the mind, where just enough each day will show benefits in the long run but overdoing it can incapacitate you temporarily or permanently.
And that’s the ticket right there. Of course most people should meditate, just as most people should lift weights to some degree. Just pay attention to what you’re doing and let go of the long-term goals; do the bit for the day that you find enjoyable and put it down. There’s many, many ways to spiritually grow besides meditation- such as helping people in need. In all things, diversify and balance your approaches to keep healthy… and sane.
You might also enjoy:
- Beyond McMindfulness – huffingtonpost.com
- Dangers of Meditation – lorinroche.com
- The dangers of meditation – 10 things to look out for – thoughtbrick.com
- Can Meditation Be Bad for You? – thehumanist.org
- 21 Mantras for Meditation – programminglife.net
- 8 Pointed Path of Eknath Easwaran – programminglife.net
- The Book of Meditation by Patricia Carrington on Amazon
Keep on keeping on,