Some Meditation Practices Can Be Scary
A non-judgmental survey of reactions to meditation found a surprising percentage of negative experiences afterward.
What is meditation? It can be very different things. It can be an attempt to empty the mind. Or, by contrast, it can be the purposeful attempt to focus the mind with certain kinds of thoughts, to the exclusion of other thoughts. The word meditation by itself needs modifiers to be meaningful. The intuitive picture people have of meditators is that they are sitting in some kind of lotus position, with eyes closed, doing something. But what? And what are the consequences of whatever they are doing in their inner selves?
At New Scientist, Donna Lu reports that “A quarter of people who meditate experience negative mental states.” That’s a surprisingly high percentage for an activity widely advertised to be beneficial.
Marco Schlosser at University College London and colleagues surveyed 1232 people who had meditated at least once a week for at least two months.
The volunteers were asked if they had ever felt any “particularly unpleasant experiences”, including anxiety, fear or disturbed emotions, that they attributed to their meditation practice. Just over 25 per cent reported that they had.
The 25% described emotions like fear and anxiety. What were they seeing? Unfortunately, the survey did not ask these participants about the severity of their negative experiences, or whether they occurred during or after the meditation session. The researchers did ask, though, about the kind of meditation they were doing.
People who had previously attended a meditation retreat and those who had higher levels of repetitive negative thinking were more likely to report unpleasant meditation-associated experiences, while women and religious respondents were less likely.
The participants were also asked about the types of meditation they practised. The survey found that those who only engaged in deconstructive types of meditation, such as Vipassanā and Zen Buddhist meditation, were more likely to report negative mental states than those who only practised other types, such as mindfulness.
Deconstructive types of meditation, Lu says, include “contemplating the nature of conscious experience and emotional patterns.” One Yoga teacher describes it as focusing on the self, trying to understand the nature of one’s own thoughts and emotions. Some Eastern forms of meditation involve emptying the mind of rational thought, and trying to meld into the void of nothingness. This is the opposite of mindfulness, which emphasizes awareness and focus.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Christian meditation is God-focused, becoming attentive about God’s attributes, such as His mercy, goodness, kindness, grace and love. That includes all the good things that flow from Him: truth, honor, justice, purity, loveliness, excellence, and praise. It’s hard to imagine that kind of meditation would generate negative emotions. The study, though, was quite harsh about Buddhist meditation: not only considering wide reports of bad experiences, but attempts by teachers to cover them up or explain them away.
Traditional Buddhist textual sources indeed contain vivid accounts of particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences and elaborate interpretative frameworks to help meditators understand them; yet these accounts vary widely, are couched in tradition-specific terms, and often revert to polemic and prescription. Consequently, no single authoritative Buddhist account of what constitutes particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences can be straightforwardly extracted from historical sources to be conveniently operationalised in contemporary empirical research. For example, whether particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences are framed as inherent stages of the contemplative path and even markers of progress towards liberation, or whether they are viewed as avoidable hindrances caused by, for instance, excessive striving, can differ between and within Buddhist traditions. These are just two examples amongst a myriad of traditional meaning-making narratives… Further complicating matters is the fact that an open and mutually enriching discussion between Buddhist, scientific, and clinical camps around particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences has not yet occurred.
Lu’s report quotes the lead author’s uncertainty about the cause of these bad reactions. “We should ask when and whether these unpleasant meditation-related experiences can be an important aspect of meditative training that can result in a positive transformation, [or if] these meditation experiences are non-essential and can lead to unnecessary suffering.” Is that a false dichotomy? Maybe something else is going on.
Secular scientists, by denying the spirit world of God and demons, cannot even ask the question if these people are seeing evil spirits in their meditation that are causing their bad experiences. The Bible strictly condemns opening up oneself to occult practices that tap into the spirit world. Notice that the Bible treats demon possession/oppression and mental illness as separate categories. Even though some demons can mimic physical effects of epilepsy, for instance, they are not treated the same in the Bible. However, demons are real, and capable of much harm. Their purpose is to deceive, cause suffering, and destroy. Jesus cast them out with a word, and they knew who He was. Some Eastern religions openly acknowledge demonic spirits and even worship them, adoring serpents and calling upon them. It is not surprising to Christian missionaries that symptoms of demon possession are very evident in those lands. Psychologists who refuse to consider the existence of evil spirits cannot begin to understand what is going on when they merely speak of “unpleasant experiences” by people who have opened themselves up to demonic powers, and are suffering the consequences. Imagine a secular scientist watching the man with the “Legion” of demons in Mark 5, then trying to write it up in a scientific paper in psychological terms! It would be completely baffling to him. It would see only dirty bath water, and not a baby. One can imagine what a psychologist would write about the swine, too!
Here are two good sources to understand the dangers of meditating on the occult:
Why is demon possession spoken of in the Bible, and why was it so prevalent in the time of Christ and the apostles? Henry M. Morris Jr wrote an article answering the question, “Does demon possession still occur today?” that has been republished on Facebook on the Henry M. Morris Jr. page. Morris addresses the apparent surge of demon possession in the time of Christ, differentiates between demonic activity and mental illness, and addresses demonic activity in modern times.
Gary Bates’s book Alien Intrusion, made into an outstanding documentary film, explores the UFO culture. With renowned UFOlogists, he shows that the ones who experience “alien abductions” and see UFOs are the ones who have, at some point in their lives, opened themselves up to the spirit world through occult practices, such as Ouija boards, spiritualism, or non-Christian forms of meditation. Several victims of UFO terror explain how they got into that trap, and how they were delivered by trusting in Christ.