Meditation seems to be a remedy for every problem right now. All its benefits are placarded everywhere. But, you may ask yourself: Are there negative aspects, too? There are. And why not talk about that for a change?
Meditation is – and I quote – “the best thing you can do to promote your physical and mental health”. Says Matthew Thorpe, PhD.
In his post on healthline.com – no affiliation – he published a list with 12 “Science-Based Benefits of Meditation”. I’ll give you a short version.
Reduces Stress, Controls Anxiety, Promotes Emotional Health, Enhances Self Awareness, Lenghtens the Attention Span, Reduces Age-Related Memory Loss, Generates Kindness, Helps Fighting Addictions, Improves Sleep, Helps to Control Pain, Decreases Blood Pressure and – my favourite – point number 12 of science-based benefits of meditation “You Can Meditate Everywhere”.
You can also squint everywhere or think of plaque everywhere – the last point on this bullet list may have not got the full attention of scientists yet. Rule of thumb: If your environment does not contain enough oxygen, your meditation may be a very short one.
But I know about the things we do for numerology. A list of eleven benefits would just be not enough. It’s like Isaac Newton, who was really embarrassed that the rainbow shows only six colours. So he invented indigo as a seventh colour. Because seven is a holy number. Generations of students thought they were visually impaired.
Back to the list. Many of the other points are discussable, too. As meditation may be helpful in controlling anxiety, it can lead to the opposite, too.
And nothing in the world “generates” kindness. Kindness is not something that can be “generated” at all.
If you think you should meditate to get a grip on your addiction, I would recommend to see a psychiatrist. For example: If your addiction is self medication against symptoms of PTSD, meditation can be a problem for you, as you will, sooner or later, have to face the trauma situation.
If meditation reduces age-related memory loss, then I don’t want to know what my life could possibly look like without it – I’m constantly forgetting the titles and the authors of the books I read. It may be a Kindle-related memory problem, but sometimes I feel like Mr. Magoo.
And, last but not least: I am dead certain that there are many better things to promote your physical health than meditation! Walking? Push ups? Not eating too much chocolate ice cream?
Right now meditation is so en vogue, that you will find countless lists of its benefits, one post copied from the other, no one talks about the negative aspects.
Meditation now is about mindfulness and compassion, just as it was about love and peace when I began.
But that’s simply not true. Like everything in life, meditation has negative aspects, too. This is especially true, if you integrate meditation into your life for longer periods – if it just a feel-good-exercise you do whenever you feel like it, you may not encounter anything I’ll talk about.
I have the feeling my list is far from complete. It is based on my own experiences or the experiences of other meditators. I found ten different things that you can experience, if you adapt meditation. So much about numerology.
Let’s have a look at the “dark side of the force”!
That one is annoying. And it is new on my list! When I told friends that I am meditating in the eighties or nineties the reactions were mostly negative. So I stopped talking about it, because I didn’t want to be a creep or a nerd or a monk. Nowadays it’s different. When your friends begin to meditate, they will boast with their experiences and tell you everything in any detail, even if you are not interested. This can be a strain on any relationship, because – let’s be honest – meditation IS creepy somehow!
Imagine getting up in the morning and the first thing you do after visiting the bathroom is to sit down for half an hour watching a wall. If you think, this is boring, you are right. Sometimes it is just plain old boring, even after many years of practice.
In my case, I am not meditating for the meditation experience itself. It’s more about how I feel throughout the day. So, when it happens, boredom for half an hour is a fair price.
Most of the people I met develop back pain at some point. Most are not used to sit straight for longer periods anymore. And especially not used to sit on the floor. Our chairs and sofas are too comfy. So you’ll have to build up some muscles, before that comes easy. Back pains occur and for most meditators they go away after some time.
Another problem are the knees. The lotus posture is even more unusual in a culture of chair sitting and it takes even more time to make this effortless. Be patient with your knees, take yourself enough time to learn the lotus. After my knee injury I was not patient and thought I had to be tough. Well, I got up and my left leg didn’t work at all for hours!
Disturbed Sleep Patterns
When you are meditation on a daily base your sleep routine will change. Some ore disturbed by this. I do not think that you need less sleep, but I can’t really say. I thought my sleep got somehow deeper, but the half awake part in the morning got more lucid. The opposite can happen, too. Meditation can be exhausting – it’s an exercise for the body, too.
I don’t think that’s a problem, but I heard people complain. If you are not too OCD with your sleeping, you can easily adapt. Sleep less or sleep more, but sleep enough.
Meditation does not generate kindness automatically. Sometimes people get so involved in their practice that they lose interest in normal social behaviour.
They found this new thing and it’s great and so deep and so important, that they just do not want to be around people who give a damn about their deep spiritual experiences, but just want to have fun with a good movie and chocolate ice cream. “That’s so shallow in comparison to being one with the universe! Movies! Pah! What a waste of time!”
I think that can happen to the best of us. Sooner or later meditation humbles this kind of fanatism. Be patient with boasters.
This can reach a whole new level if it happens in systems with elaborated spiritual ranking.
If fanatics get promoted and get an official confirmation of their spiritual progress, antisocial behaviour can become a problem. The antisocial teacher is not as uncommon as you may think. You need to be really mature to handle the energy other people can project on you. Some of the more popular teachers out there have developed the same psychological problems like Hollywood stars or pop stars.
If you meditate it’s possible to have experiences that change the way you think and feel. These experiences are not easily put in words. That’s the reason why they are often expressed without words.
In art, for example. In painting, music, calligraphy. Or in fencing and martial arts. There is even a way of expressing this in the way of cooking, which, for me, as an eater by passion, is the most plausible way.
This sounds unimportant, but it can be painful, if you can’t share your world with your beloved partner. And it is even more painful, if you can’t find words for yourself.
If you could ask me what I think “time” is, you will get the impression that I am a very confused person. So, please, don’t ask!
Hell, what am I talking about: I even have problems to make this podcast with my small English vocabulary – so don’t take my word for it!
That’s one thing I am guilty of! Wow! If you are meditating for some time and you have the first unusual experiences, you may think you are already enlightened. If you have a good teacher you are about to make some humbling experiences!
I heard myself utter sentences like: “I have seen creation as God planned it to be!” or, completely out of context: “Everything is right here! Your birth, your life, your death – it’s all here!”
My advice: Even if you feel this way, don’t tell your spouse. It does not only sound very creepy, it is creepy! Tell your teacher and if he is any good, he will reduce your ego to normal human size again.
Which is a good transition to the next chapter of experiences that are called “makyo” in Zen traditions. This word means something like “place of demons”, but that sounds more dramatic as it is. It’s not about the devil whispering promises in your ear to buy your soul.
It’s more about strange things that can happen when you use your busy brain in a new manner. When you give your mind the freedom to wander into places it never visited before.
In some traditions these are even called “peak experiences”, which is – in my opinion – not a very helpful thing to do. Generally the best thing you can do, if you experience makyo is to get back on earth. Watch your breath, watch your posture, don’t get excited. You are just another being. Even if these experiences fee positive – don’t get distracted.
Many people who start meditation believe that the have to achieve enlightenment experiences. That they are up to something that changes their whole viewpoint on existence in one instance.
It’s like the experiences people make that are using psychedelic drugs. They will tell you how their trip opened them up for a whole new dimension. About how we only perceive a small part of existence, but they ….
How mundane everyday life is compared to the things they have seen!
That’s all fake. All they did is playing with the chemistry of their brains. Their mundane lives are waiting for them. After their peak experiences they will have to earn money again somehow. They will have to brush their teeth again. And cut their toe nails. Nothing has changed.
Meditation is not about peak experiences. It’s about this life, as mundane as it may seem. It’s about brushing your teeth. It’s about the fact that every moment is a peak experience in itself. Everything that’s normal and boring is a miracle. Being alive is a miracle.
Don’t wait for peak experiences to show you the Divine Truth. There is no other world hidden from your senses that makes everything full of meaning suddenly.
Live is already full of meaning, regardless what you think about it.
Don’t care about enlightenment. It’s something that is happening, but it’s not very important. That’s part of the meaning of this famous quote: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
But let’s talk about these things that are called “makyo” now a little bit.
Let’s talk about what our brain can do, if it is underwhelmed by our non activity.
Loss of Your Body
That’s a terrifying start, isn’t it. “Sir, I lost my body at your retreat. Has anybody found it? Can I claim it – I really got used to having this body, you know?”
Especially if you concentrate on a physical thing like a candle or the sound of a bell or a mantra during meditation, it can happen that you loose your body feeling. Your body image – as psychologists call it – is somehow disturbed. You don’t feel like having a body.
I even found scientific evidence for this experience. FMRI scans show that certain parts of the brain, responsible for proprioception simply go to sleep when there is no new input to process. Sounds harmless and I am sure it is, but it feels spooky.
This sounds so cool! And it never happened to me. Never. Some meditators experience synethesia. It’s when perceptions you have are handled by the wrong part of your brain. Suddenly you can smell sound or see smells or hear a sight – things like that. I don’t know nothing about this.
But there is one thing that is very well documented and that may be similar to synesthesia or a disturbed body image:
If you read the old stories it almost never occurs that a young curious monk is enlightened during meditation. Enlightenment tends to happen in the least expected circumstances. The monk sweeps the yard, a stone hits the broom’s stick and when the monk hears that sound: Boom! Enlightenment.
Bliss and Joy
Yes, bliss and joy are on the list of negative aspects of meditation. Even if you are filled with a new sensation of love for all of creation – get back on earth! Watch your breath, watch your posture, don’t get excited.
Don’t get distracted from your meditation. You are not into meditation to experience bliss and joy, that’s not enlightenment at all. And, after these emotions are gone, they may leave you disappointed or even sad. There is a low for every high.
This sounds scaring, I know. Some people experience visual or sometimes acoustic hallucinations during meditation. They suddenly see geometrical patterns or distorted faces or even people standing in the room. In other cases people saw themselves meditating in front of them or a car driving through the dojo or even Tom chasing Jerry. Yes, the cartoon characters.
These experiences are spooky and it’s understandable that people thought, they may see ghosts in less scientifical times. But these phenomenons are not ghosts. They are not astral projections or messages from another dimension. They are not dangerous.
Most of the time they are not a message of your subconscious mind, like dreams can be. Nothing useful will be learned, if you try to analyse what it means to you, when you see a Rolls Royce driving through your dojo.
These hallucinations are known in psychology as a derivation of the “Charles-Bonnet-Syndrome” experience. Charles Bonnet was a naturalist and the first one to describe this. His grandfather had almost lost sight in both eyes and saw men, women and birds were there were none.
We have two eyes, but they are just meager photon receptors. We see things with the brain. That’s easily demonstrated by the fact, that you see one picture, but you have – normally – two photon receptors attached to your skull. And each of those has a blind spot in the middle which is compensated by the brain, too.
If you lose your sight, like Charles Bonnet’s grandfather, these parts of the brain are still working, even if they have no more input. So they make things up. Your pattern recognition machine runs wild and your brain tells you that you are seeing things.
The same thing can happen during meditation, especially at retreats. If you look at one spot on the wall or on the floor, the parts of your brain that are used to make images out of visual input are somehow underemployed and begin to hallucinate things.
That’s nothing to worry about. Normally these hallucinations are not frightening at all, just distracting. Get back to your breath, to your posture and simply don’t mind the fact that Tom and Jerry are here, too.
It’s not a sign of a psychological problem! Hallucinations that are happening if you have a psychotic breakdown are different. They tend to talk to you, they interact with you. So, don’t mind the car in the dojo, just meditate.
And – keep in mind – this is not a peak experience either!
So. That was makyo. Don’t worry about it too much. Not everyone experiences a loss of the body image, synasthesia, moments too blissful or Tom and Jerry.
But I think it’s important to point these possibilities out, even if they are not really negative aspects of meditation, but just normal things a brain can do, if you take away most of the sensory input it is used to.
There is one thing left to talk about. It’s about real …
As Matthew Thorpe, PhD pointed out 15 minutes ago, meditation can help against anxiety or depression or other psychological problems. Especially the effect on anxiety is quite well documented.
But the opposite can be true, too. If you have anxiety or panic attacks, it’s possible that meditation triggers one. If you are depressive, it’s possible that a new boost of depression starts through meditation.
It’s really important to consult a psychiatrist or a therapist, before you start meditation, if you have these kinds of problems. And still: Meditation may just be the right thing for you, but perhaps it may be not the right moment.
In any case tell your meditation teacher about it. Because it’s a good thing when you and your teacher can have a closer look at your meditation experiences together.
Just to repeat: I am not advocating, that you should not begin meditation if you have psychological problems. You just have to pay attention in a different manner.
I had psychological problems myself and meditation helped me. And I know that it is highly likely that I may run in the same problems or in a whole set of new ones again. But this will probably not change my habit of sitting down and staring at a wall every day.
Which is a comforting thought in itself somehow, isn’t it?