Russ Harris wrote in the “Happiness Trap”:
· “If you bring mindfulness to bear on negative feelings, they loose their impact. Just let them be there without struggling against them, and you’ll eventually feel less anxiety and depression.”
In The Observing Self, psychotherapist, Arthur Deikman, writes,
· “Mystical tradition asserts the equation: I (Real Self) = God. While ‘I am God’ is the fundamental realization of mysticism, it is blasphemous in many religions…the goal of mysticism—experiencing the Real Self—is said to cure human suffering because its very basis [the illusion of the false, individual self] is thereby removed.”
Deikman, along with a growing number of educated Westerners, believes that the “reality” of our senses is illusory. According to them, reality is one, and we’re all one Self, and that Self is God. And this makes us God! This raises a truck-load of questions:
- What evidence is there for this? By their very definition, there can’t be any. Instead, the evidence is just part of the illusion. The inevitable conclusion is that there is no evidence! Why should I trust illusory “evidence” that there is such a oneness-reality, against everything my senses tell me firsthand?
- When I achieve the experience of the “Real Self,” how do I know that this is the “Real Self” and not also a delusion? How do I know that it’s the oneness?
- Even if this exercise of experiencing the “Real Self” helps me to dissociate myself from pain, how do I know that this experience isn’t the mother of all delusions? Perhaps this is a doorway to mental illness, as many have claimed?
- Perhaps reality is a matter of me alone? If everything I perceive is part of the illusion, perhaps those others, the “we,” are also part of the illusion? Why then act morally towards phantom-people?
- What does it mean to be God? If I am God, shouldn’t I have some special powers—like controlling the weather or holding my breath for an hour?
- Isn’t this life-denying? Should I shut my eyes and heart to family, friends, vocation, and interests if they’re all illusion?
- If everything is illusion, is there anything to learn about an illusory world?
- If everything is illusion, isn’t loving others also part of the illusion, since there are no others to love? So too compassion, justice, and every other value that makes life worth living.
- If everyone is part of the illusion, why even bother to promote such an absurd notion to illusory others?
Surprisingly, Deikman concludes:
· “Mystical science [meditation] is for those who can obtain satisfaction of their worldly needs from appropriate sources and do not seek them, in disguise, in the spiritual domain. Worldly needs [including psychological struggles] must be satisfied elsewhere so that their pursuit does not interfere with the [spiritual] learning process. Similarly, psychopathology must be dealt with first.”
Well isn’t mindfulness supposed to reduce the impact of negative feelings, as Harris claims? Evidently, Deilman thinks otherwise. However, he doesn’t explain why, but others do.
One former meditator and humanist, writer Mary Garden, confessed:
- Back in 1979, when I was living in Pune, India, as a starry-eyed devotee of the infamous guru Bhagwan Rajneesh, something happened that has disturbed me to this day. A man who had just come down from Kathmandu after completing a thirty-day Tibetan Buddhist meditation course killed himself. I had met him the night before, and we'd had coffee together. I don't remember what we spoke about, but he was friendly and didn't appear distressed. But the next day he climbed to the top of the multi-storied Blue Diamond Hotel and leapt off. The Bhagwan, at his first lecture after the man's suicide, tried to reassure us by saying the man had already reincarnated as a more enlightened soul. But I was quite upset and remember thinking how strange it was that someone should kill himself after a meditation course. Isn't meditation something you do to get--at the very least--peace of mind? I wondered whether he might have had a mental illness and perhaps shouldn't have taken the course in the first place. Even if he had, shouldn't the meditation have helped? It didn't occur to me that the meditation itself might have caused a mental imbalance that tipped him over the edge--that meditation could be dangerous for some people. Has such a notion ever appeared in the mainstream media, let alone the myriad New Age magazines? http://www.thehumanist.org/humanist/MaryGarden.html
Are the dangers of meditation simply a product of having the wrong attitudes or expectations, as some claim, or are they endemic to meditation? Garden writes:
- On a Goenka Vipassana discussion board called tribe.net, a participant named Tristan writes: “I wish I could say wonderful things about my experience but I can't. I stayed the full ten days, many of them filled with incredible hallucinations, from being inside an egg, to being a bird-like animal with broken wings, to following tunnels through my brain, to feeling completely connected to the universe. No problem, I told myself, it's just sensation. I'm perfectly safe. On the last day of the retreat, listening to the last lecture, I let out a huge scream and fell down.” [This meditator] says he became psychotic and ended up in a psychiatric hospital for several weeks.
- With Goenka's courses there have been a number of failed suicide attempts in India, including one that resulted in a broken spine and another in which the survivor suffered a ruptured lung and a fractured skull. Researchers at Goenka's headquarters at Igatpuri looked at cases concerning nine persons who'd harmed themselves after a course, and they found all had either practiced other forms of meditation, used healing techniques, or used drugs prior to doing a course. They consequently attributed the serious mental disturbances following the retreat not as side effects of the meditation technique, but to the practice or use of these other things.
- But a woman who recently contacted me said her son did a Vipassana course in January in New Zealand, found it to be a very positive experience that produced many good feelings of love and so forth, but that within a few days of his return he'd had a "psychotic episode." He was committed to a mental hospital where he responded well to medication and is now on antidepressants. Her son had no history of mental instability, nor was there any such history in the family. He had never tried meditation before nor had he taken drugs.
- Geoffrey Dawson, a Sydney-based Zen meditation teacher and psychotherapist, has come across twenty people who had mentally distressing experiences as a result of attending courses at the Goenka Vipassana Retreat Center in Blackheath (located in the Blue Mountains of Australia). Dawson says these meditators became fragmented rather than integrated and their experiences included panic attacks, depressive episodes, or both that in most cases persisted months after the retreat ended. There were also some manic episodes, one of which later became diagnosed and treated as a bipolar disorder. Dawson was also contacted by a woman whose daughter had been to a retreat. Her friends and family noticed she became withdrawn and obsessive afterwards. Her psychological condition deteriorated and some months later she became psychotic. Within eighteen months she was hospitalized and committed suicide.
- Dawson suggests that "if a gradual approach to meditation retreats is adopted, supportive processes are put in place during retreats, and follow-up care is provided," while it's not guaranteed participants won't have adverse experiences, "it can certainly help prevent and minimize the development of mental disorders."
- Christopher Titmuss, a former Buddhist monk who now lives in England, holds yearly Vipassana meditation retreats in Bodh Gaya, India. He reports that occasionally people go through very traumatic experiences and require round the clock support, the use of strong drugs, or even hospitalization. "Others may experience a short-lived terror of the mind utterly out of control, a temporary fear of going mad," he notes. "Or an alienation from conventional reality that makes it difficult for consciousness to recover without active intervention." But Titmuss claims it isn't the meditation that causes such behavior: "The function of meditation, as the Buddha points out, is to act as a mirror to what is."
Is meditation just “a mirror,” or does it open the meditator to new dangers? Garden gravitates towards the latter option, citing another former meditator:
- Those who play the "mental illness" defense card seem to have a vested interest in Eastern philosophy. Meditation appears to create mental imbalance by messing with the brain's chemistry.
Garden also backs up her concerns with the relevant research, pointing to the fact that there are profound costs endemic to meditation:
- Professor Richard Davidson of Wisconsin, a long-term Buddhist meditator himself, claims that meditation can "change neural states in circuits that may be important for compassionate behavior and attentional and emotional regulation."
· "Meditation is not going to be good for all patients with emotional disorders and it may even be bad for certain types of patients."
- Dr. Solomon Snyder, head of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, warns that during meditation the brain releases serotonin. This may help those with mild depression but too much serotonin can cause, in some, a paradoxical relaxation-induced anxiety. Instead of relaxing during meditation, these people become distressed and may even have panic attacks. Snyder says that in some cases of schizophrenia, meditation can launch a person straight into psychosis.
- Dr. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania scanned the brains of long-term practitioners of Buddhism while they were meditating and compared them with images taken when they were not. Newberg saw that blood flow to the posterior superior parietal lobe decreased during meditation. This area of the brain determines the boundaries of one's body in relation to the environment and allows us to navigate a complex three-dimensional world without bumping into things. "We know that the posterior superior parietal lobe plays that particular role because there are patients with damage in this same region who literally cannot move around without falling," Newberg reports. "They'll miss the chair they intended to sit on, and generally have a fuzzy understanding of where their body ends and the rest of the universe begins." He says that when people have spiritual experiences and feel they become one with the universe and lose their sense of self, it may be because of what is happening in that area of the brain. "If you block that area, you lose that boundary between the self and the rest of the world."
- Dr. Michael Persinger, a professor of neuroscience at the Laurentian University in Canada, studied 1,018 meditators in 1993 and found that meditation can bring on symptoms of complex partial epilepsy such as visual abnormalities, hearing voices, feeling vibrations, or experiencing automatic behaviors such as narcolepsy. Note that epileptic patients who suffer from seizures in the temporal lobes have auditory or visual hallucinations, which they often interpret as mystical experiences. Some are convinced that they conversed with God.
- Persinger set out to investigate so-called "mystical" experiences under controlled laboratory conditions. He got volunteers to wear a helmet fitted with a set of magnets through which he ran a weak electromagnetic signal. Persinger found that the magnetically induced seizures in the temporal lobes generate the same sort of hallucinations and mystical experiences reported by epileptic patients. Four in five people, he says, report a "mystical experience, the feeling that there is a sentient being or entity standing behind or near" them. Some weep, some feel God has touched them, others become frightened and talk of demons and evil spirits. "That's in the laboratory," Persinger notes, referring to subjects' knowledge of a controlled environment. "How much more intense might these experiences be if they happened late at night, or in a pew in a mosque or synagogue?"
- After my Indian odyssey and my return to worldly life in 1979, I've found being back in the world not such a bad thing after all. I no longer regard the world as a place from which to escape or detach myself. My mind is no longer something to conquer or to cleanse of impurities. In fact, my life is immeasurably richer without meditation.
There are many other pro-meditation sources that admit to the inherent dangers. Here are just two of them: