‘Lost in Thought: The psychological risks of meditation’ – Until I read the April 2021 Harper’s article, I thought that heavy-duty meditation was by and large pretty harmless

An April 2021 Harper’s article is entitled: “Lost in Thought: The psychological risks of meditation.”

Until I read this article, I had believed that heavy-duty meditation was a good way to explore consciousness and pretty much harmless.

An excerpt from the print version of the April 2021 Harper’s article reads:

Until the sleep study, Britton had been, in her own words, an evangelist for meditation. “I just sat on the data,” she told me. “I really didn’t want to see it, because it was sort of the wrong an­swer.” Britton filed away the results and delayed publishing them. On a vipas­sana meditation retreat in 2006, she told one of her instructors about her research. “The teacher kind of chas­tised me, like, ‘Why are you therapists always trying to make meditation a relaxation technique? That’s not what it’s there for. Everyone knows that if you go and meditate, and you meditate enough … you stop sleeping.'” Brittan’s resistance to her own findings gradually gave way to curiosity. In 2010, she finally published the results of her sleep study.

A second excerpt reads:

Britton and her team began visit­ing retreats, talking to the people who ran them, and asking about the difficulties they’d seen. “Every medi­ tation center we went to had at least a dozen horror stories,” she said. Psy­chotic breaks and cognitive impair­ments were common; they were often temporary but sometimes lasted years.”

A third excerpt reads:

Today, the luminaries of main­stream Buddhism widely pro­mote meditation to laypeople, and refuse to acknowledge that it car­ries any risks. In 2012, at a conference on mindfulness at the Mayo Clinic, Britton presented her early findings on the potential adverse effects of medita­tion to the Dalai Lama. “The science of meditation has pretty much exclu­sively focused on the positive effects of meditation,” Britton said. “But if we want to understand the entire trajec­tory of the contemplative path and everything that that entails, we need to be more evenhanded and more balanced in our investigations, and begin to investigate the full range of experi­ences, including the ones that would be considered negative, difficult, chal­lenging, or maybe even problematic.”

In a recording of the proceedings, the Dalai Lama can be seen nodding gravely, smiling genially, and, on sev­eral occasions, interjecting to crack a joke, such as suggesting that he him­self might one day end up with such impairments. At one point, he said, “These people, I think they just hear things and then develop some sort of excitement.” He said that these medi­tators needed to read more books, an­alyze what they’d read, develop firm convictions, and only then try to meditate. If they followed this course, he didn’t think there was any danger. The Dalai Lama cheerfully concluded that “these negative sides are their own mistake – the positive things, that’s the real truth.” He encouraged Britton to do more research.

The above-noted text is from my recent comments at a page at my website devoted to the topic of mindfulness mediation – a pursuit that I’ve found highly beneficial, in my own anecdotal experience.

Mindfulness meditation is a pursuit that, in my experience, can readily be practised as a valuable technique, independently of any particular belief system.

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