Meditation Sickness: Everyone is Talking About How Nobody is Talking About The Risks of Meditation

There are some visible signs that particular Buddhist communities in the United States are beginning to see a greater need to respond to what are often today called “challenging” or “adverse” meditation experiences. For a few decades now, meditation practices have received extremely good press in English-language media and beyond. Meditation is frequently presented as helpful, as therapeutic, for nearly every segment of society, from health care to professional sports, from the classroom to the courtroom. 

From my dual location as both a religious studies scholar and practicing psychotherapist, I research the way that psychotherapists have approached Buddhist traditions. I was struck when, in a 2018 journal article, a cohort of leading psychologists and scientific researchers who study meditation practices actually expressed concern about the “hype” surrounding mindfulness practices in particular. 

They suggested that the risk of unwanted effects to meditation —from sleep disturbance to depression to hallucinations—could be obscured or ignored by those who might overenthusiastically promote their therapeutic benefits. In interviews for my new book project examining how psychotherapists have responded to so-called “meditation sickness,” some psychologists told me they worry that the financial stakes involved in the hype about meditation could even incentivize teachers to minimize the danger of unwanted meditation effects.

However, relatively extensive treatments of adverse meditation experiences actually appeared very recently, published within just two months of each other in a pair of the nation’s most popular Buddhist magazines, Tricycle and Lion’s Roar (formerly Shambhala Sun). This could demonstrate an increased interest in the subject within the communities that produce these periodicals, communities that are made up of primarily white practitioners in distinction to Asian-American Buddhists or Buddhist populations in Asian-majority countries. Further, Ann Gleig, a leading scholar of Buddhist traditions in the US, has designated them “meditation-based convert communities,” to signal how heavily centered they are around meditation in contrast to more traditional Buddhist practices like merit-making and propitiation of deities.

Gleig describes these communities as ambivalent about the influence of the psychological and the psychotherapeutic on Buddhist doctrine. Nonetheless, some Buddhist leaders are well aware that many find their way to the group meditation sessions and multi-day retreats they sponsor primarily in search of therapeutic benefits, decreased stress or anxiety, an increased sense of peace, and so on. One might anticipate members of these particular communities would be attuned, then, to when new students are instead surprised that meditation can be highly challenging—and even distressing. 

Indeed, in both cases the recent articles in Buddhist popular magazines were written because their authors perceived a shift in the media’s treatment of meditation practices. According to the Lion’s Roar piece, reportage on “risks” or “dangers,” have become “increasingly common in recent years.” Wendy Biddlecombe Agsar, the author of the Tricycle piece, told me that this inspired her to cover the topic as well when, knowing of my research in this area, she contacted me for comment. (And, full disclosure, I was subsequently quoted in the article.) 

In a forthcoming analysis I recently conducted of popular writing on this subject, I found that there has, in fact, been a notable increase in coverage in recent years. Outlets like the Washington Post and Vice have published articles with titles such as, respectively, “Meditation and Mindfulness Aren’t As Good For You As You Think: There Are Negative Side Effects That No One Ever Talks About,” and “The Side Effects of Meditation No One Talks About.” But this growth has been proportional to the continuing boom in media coverage of therapeutic meditation in general that remains overwhelmingly positive. 

Meanwhile, some meditation teachers respond to efforts to raise awareness about the existence of unpleasant meditation experiences by describing it as, essentially, “old news.” They explain that centuries-old Buddhist writings tell stories of initiates undergoing difficult, unpleasant, and even terrifying experiences. (The phrase “meditation sickness” is itself a translation of the quite-old Buddhist concepts of zenbyō (Japanese) or chanbing (Chinese).) Some meditation teachers stress that, among themselves, the existence of difficult meditative experiences is thus actually well known. And they assure critics that, equipped with this knowledge, properly trained instructors are proficient in guiding meditators safely through such challenges. 

The meditation teachers quoted in Lion’s Roar, for example, state that most uncomfortable meditation effects are mild and, referencing historical accounts, suggest that they’re often an essential part of the contemplative process. For example, many such teachers believe that modern people have a tendency to keep themselves distracted from emotional pain during their everyday lives. Inhibited emotions may, then, surface when meditators become still and quiet which can create significant discomfort. But, they believe, it also allows people to actually work through those emotional difficulties and, consequently, become liberated from them.

But psychologists like Willoughby Britton have told me they worry that not all meditation teachers are taking the risks of unwanted meditation effects seriously enough. Her lab’s qualitative research has included extensive study of meditation teachers and the protocols they do (or do not) utilize to respond to students who do encounter struggles. She’s been troubled by teachers who suggest that such meditators must have a pre-existing psychiatric condition, even as the evidence shows that many do not. Arguing that, if someone falls into depression it’s because they already had a propensity for it, sounds to Britton, as she told me, very much like “victim blaming”—an effort to defend meditation practices as purely positive, if powerful, transformative elements. 

However, as demonstrated by the recent articles in the English-language US Buddhist press, the number of meditation teachers who vocally and stridently adopt such a posture may be rapidly decreasing. Meditation centers continue to rework their screening processes in the hopes of ensuring that their visitors are fully prepared to handle the intensity of offerings like 10-day silent retreats. And many are moving away from that format as overly emotionally strenuous; one can increasingly find offerings that, for example, have decreased lengths of stay and that allow for greater interaction with instructors and socialization between attendees. 

A great deal of focus has also been placed on the proper training of meditation teachers. Well-known meditation teachers like Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield have long promoted the certification processes they’ve designed like the “Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program” in the hope that such programming will educate trainers about both the benefits and risks of meditation. Notably, Kornfield holds a PhD in clinical psychology and  included reportage of meditators who had challenging and uncomfortable experiences in his dissertation.

There are some meditation teachers who might view Kornfield’s educational background in psychology as equipping him with greater sensitivity to these issues. For example, the ground-breaking feminist Buddhist teacher Grace Schireson has been portrayed as centering psychotherapeutic knowledge as essential. The Lion’s Roar piece states that “Schireson ultimately believes that safety comes down to teachers getting more training in counseling.” 

Franz Metcalf, a seminal “Buddhism and psychology” scholar, has observed the recent prominence of what he calls “psychologist-as-dharma-teachers” within the Baby Boomer generation of predominantly-White meditation-based Buddhist communities. Perhaps such practitioners are uniquely suited to respond to meditation difficulties. “After all,” the Lion’s Roar piece continues, “a meditation teacher should be able to recognize the difference between letting go of attachments, which doesn’t require therapy, and chronic depression, which does.” 

And, in the end, this may be where many of these conversations lead: to deliberations about what my fellow psychotherapists would call “differential diagnosis.” Are meditators having a religious experience or suffering from mental illness? Many of my religious studies scholar colleagues would counter that what this actually represents is a “culture clash” between Buddhist and biomedical psychotherapeutic worldviews. Some Buddhists may very well believe that meditation practice, when performed properly, always yields goals far higher than symptom reduction, including enlightenment itself—even if part of the path is difficult and ungrounding. To assess whether or not those difficulties qualify as “chronic depression,” for example, might itself seem like “psychologization,” the subsuming of the religious to the biomedical.   

Regardless, for those who seek out meditation purely for stress relief, such a back and forth probably just sounds like more of a headache.