We never intended to be the Richard Dawkins of mindfulness — but, because of our book, we seem to have started a public debate about its downsides nonetheless.
Our approach was to go through almost half a century of scientific evidence and tease out fact from fiction when it comes to beliefs about various meditative practices. As it happens, most of the media hype about mindfulness as a cure-all is not grounded in scientific evidence. But it was a chapter on the dark side of meditation that caused a stir, where we described the unexpected or exacerbated mental health problems that have been experienced and the potential misuse of meditative techniques (such as by the military). Our conclusion was that meditation might benefit some individuals, but not all — and it might be unhelpful for others.
We don’t yet know the reasons for these individual differences. There is very little research on why meditation doesn’t work in the same way for everyone and how it might cause emotional difficulties. One hypothesis is that meditation amplifies emotional problems that are lying hidden under the surface. Think of an individual who went through a traumatic experience in early life but forgot about it, only to find themselves reliving it as an adult trying out mindfulness meditation. Since the book came out we have listened to this and other stories, often via email or our book’s Facebook page, at other times from callers during live radio interviews. One of the most poignant accounts came from a journalist who interviewed us. She had been on a weekend meditation retreat with a friend who had a history of suffering from depression. Coming out of the retreat, they walked together to the railway station and, unexpectedly, this friend jumped on to the rail tracks as a train was speeding by.
Researchers like the amplification hypothesis because meditation comes out clean. The problem was already there and meditation only brought it out into the open. But there is a competing explanation, which we call the rattling hypothesis. We received a number of letters from long-term meditators supporting this explanation. According to them, the aim of sitting down and going within is to rattle the ego, to shake our sense of who we think we are, in order to move beyond self-centred concerns.
When techniques like mindfulness were adapted into a psychological, secular model, this rattling function was brushed under the carpet. But this was bound to resurface, as adverse effects can happen to anyone. In our book, we report the account of a psychiatrist who had to fight to keep his mental sanity after a meditation experience in which he felt the boundaries of his ego dissolve. This mystical experience led to a serious rattling of the self, which he was able to process in part because of his mental health training, but mainly because he had good social support, including a meditation teacher who explained that what he was going through was perfectly normal.
Unfortunately, mindfulness teachers (who are currently unregulated) are generally unaware of potential ego-rattling effects, nor possess the mental health training to deal with these situations. We have received emails and letters from individuals who were feeling anxious during mindfulness courses and this was dismissed by teachers as ‘built up stress’ that would go away.
But what happens when it doesn’t? This was the case of Gareth, who tried out a mindfulness course because he was having some trouble falling asleep. While doing the course he became aware of negative thoughts, which wouldn’t disappear no matter how much he accepted and tried to ‘let them go’. After eight weeks his anxiety levels had increased from something barely noticeable to an everyday problem which he found hard to manage. ‘Is it my fault?’ he wanted to know — and this is a common question for those who don’t feel the wellbeing, relaxation, happiness kick one might expect to get when meditating. Let’s not add stigmatisation to the list of adverse effects. It is no one’s fault when meditation goes wrong.
The problem is how we have come to think of mindfulness meditation as a practice that we should all engage in, because it will do us all good — and only good. This is a religious, not a scientific view (and to be fair, most religions actually tend to be cautious about the use of meditation).
There are many unanswered questions about the effects of meditation. Mindfulness, in particular, is portrayed as a universal ability to be ‘in the here and now’ — how can you not want that for yourself? Well, the bad news is that it doesn’t work for everyone.
But this isn’t necessarily bad. For one, there are many ways of ‘being present’ — meditation is just one of them. There are plenty of other activities that we can do for a sense of increased awareness and to feel ‘in the moment’ (and which may also help to reduce stress and improve mood), such as walking, swimming, talking to a friend, singing, dancing. The list is endless.
Another good thing is that it challenges simplistic notions of our minds as a more or less resilient muscle, which the mindfulness industry would encourage us to simply ‘exercise’ in order to achieve ‘mental fitness’. The variety of experiences (pleasant or difficult) stimulated by meditation portrays mental life rather as a combination of subtle and complex processes with various layers. Instead of dedicating more research to promoting a stereotypical image of meditation as a universal boon, we need to be mindful of how it affects people in different ways and try to understand why that is.
Dr Miguel Farias leads the Brain, Belief, and Behaviour research group at Coventry University. Dr Catherine Wikholm is a clinical psychologist in the NHS. They are the authors of The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?