You’ve all heard or read someone preach the many benefits of meditation before. I won’t waste your time by repeating the same information.
Instead, I’m going to reverse the pitch – be careful.
- Meditation is not for everyone. Just like a potentially life saving medicine, some people can have an adverse or allergic reaction.
- Meditation can be dangerous. There are many ways to go wrong.
Meditation is not for everyone.
Until recently I never would have thought so – after all, headline after headline in mainstream news publication can’t be wrong. Well, it turns out they sort of are.
First, the quality of most scientific studies is lower than the aura of authority surrounding the process would suggest. This is true for a variety of reasons, and is why it takes dozens if not hundreds of high quality studies on the same subject before confidence in the results is established.
Second, the situation in the field of meditation research is much much worse. Just 4% of meditation research, as of 2007, was in the form of a randomized controlled study.1 Randomized controlled studies are considered the gold standard of science for many reasons, but what is relevant to us is that they compare meditation against other relaxation modalities, rather than doing-nothing control groups.
According to a meta-analysis of 813 studies, the results are depressing. Compared to treatments like biofeedback and progressive muscle relaxation, meditation (as it is commonly practiced in the west) does only marginally better at reducing stress.1 (That’s not to say that meditation is only marginally better at boosting mental performance and emotional intelligence. I’m hopeful on those counts, at least).
Most importantly, the vast majority of the studies were not designed to capture 1) individual differences between participants, and 2) a negative response.
That is to say, we know almost nothing about what person is most likely to benefit from meditation, and we know very little about who is likely to suffer.1 That only a few studies exist showing meditation to have a negative impact on certain subgroups2 does not indicate that their studies were poorly designed – 96% of all meditation studies are poorly designed.
So here I say it – if meditation gives you anxiety, increases tension, or reduces your interest in life, there may be golden fields of mental bliss awaiting if you push through, but you may find that same mental bliss through listening to music, taking a nap, or progressive-muscle relaxation, all which are conclusively safer.1
Meditation can be dangerous. There are many ways to go wrong.
When I was younger and feeling very upset, I turned to meditation to help modulate my emotions. I took at face value the Buddha’s suggestion that we should detach ourselves from ordinary life. The results were disastrous - I disconnected from the part of my mind which keeps tabs on my levels of stress.
The result was years of IBS, muscle pain, poor sleep, and headaches. Puberty is a mysterious time, so it’s unfair to ascribe all the blame to meditation. But some portion of the blame? I believe that’s fair.
But don’t take the above admission to mean I have an agenda against meditation. I don’t. In the past three weeks I’ve escalated my meditation practice from a few minutes here and there to at least 30 minutes a day. What the admission does mean is that there are many ways to go wrong. I personally experienced one of them.
If you practice meditation, I highly highly recommend reading 17 Ways Mindfulness Meditation Can Cause You Emotional Harm.
When starting an exercise program we learn about its potential risks: you can injure yourself, you should warm up, you shouldn’t ignore pain symptoms, and so on.
Meditation has a lot to offer, but is given a mystic quality which wards off a normal, healthy concern of risks and injury potential. That’s a mistake.