The dark side of meditation


Here’s an interesting conversation between Brown University neuroscientist (and meditation teacher) Willoughby Britton and yoga and Buddhism teacher Michael Stone. Britton, as a good scientist, is interested in cataloguing the confusing, unpleasant, and sometimes harmful effects that meditators may experience, including cognitive and sensory aberrations, emotional difficulties or challenges, changes sense of self, and disturbing physiological manifestations.

My experience is that adverse effects to meditation are rare. Some manifestations in fact may not be at all harmful and may be signs of progress in meditation (e.g. changes in the perceived relative size of different parts of the body) but might be mistaken for “going crazy.” Other manifestations — such as some people who have contacted me to discuss a complete loss of emotional affect — are clearly very destructive and need to be investigated.

Britton makes the point that some approaches to meditation have ripped mindfulness from its traditional context, where it’s embedded in a framework of practice that includes intellectual understanding, ethical observance, devotion, and practices such as the brahmaviharas, and present it as a stand-alone practice. This may work for many people, but it may also lead to problems.

The fact that meditation is not enough something I’ve written about. I’ve also written about how some people, though an unbalanced approach to practice, can become disconnected from themselves.

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • Interesting. I wouldn’t necessarily call it ‘dark’, however if we’re going to, say, open up and access powerful inner minds that have either ‘been around a while’, ‘see life in a quite different way’, or had some ‘amazing experiences’ in the distant past, then we can probably expect our current ‘compact & tidy’ mind to be ‘Stretched’ a bit in the process! So some of this may be seen as unpleasant in the short term but possibly helpful or expanding in the longer term if handled well.

    Also, interesting view from HH Dalai Lama about making sure that ‘meditation’ is firmly grounded in theory!

  • I like the balance this research brings to the topic. If something (technique or object or chemical) is strong enough to have positive effects, then it’s also strong enough to have neutral and negative effects. We need to be aware of the possibility so we can protect ourselves by doing it correctly to begin with and by catching problems before they become big. That reassures me much more than “It’s perfectly safe.”

    Lorin Roche ( has a information on the dangers (a wide variety, including some that aren’t strictly from meditation but also from the associated lifestyle and some of the cults and leaders), and ways to deal with them. For loss of emotional affect, if I read correctly, he recommends physical service — which sounds to me like working in the retreat’s kitchen.

  • When we begin to see the mind in action, it appears we are growing worse for it… What is happening is an awakening to our habitual mental constructs and all their attendant emotional and cognitive hang-ups.
    Disillusionment is but the inverted square of enlightened mind, and so, this too shall pass.

  • patrick johnson
    August 18, 2013 5:03 pm

    the dark side of the day is called the night: it doesn’t have to be bad, but it is inseparable… thanks for this interesting discussion… peace *{*

  • All forms of meditation I’m familiar with, from TM to Zen to Eastern Orthodox prayer of the heart, teach that you WILL go through difficulties that emerge during meditation. This is seen a necessary part of making progress on the path, not as a ‘dark side.’


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