Meditation Not All Sweetness and Light

Megan Brooks

May 25, 2017

Individuals who practice meditation may have unexpected, challenging, distressing, and even functionally impairing experiences, new research shows.

The challenging aspects of Buddhist-derived meditation practices are well described in Buddhist tradition but are less so in Western scientific literature, the researchers note.

"Certainly, we are not trying to detract from the fact that there are a lot of benefits of meditation, and that's been pretty well documented, but just because something is beneficial doesn't mean that we should remain unaware of the full range of possibilities," Jared Lindahl, PhD, visiting assistant professor, Brown University Cogut Center for the Humanities, in Providence, Rhode Island, told Medscape Medical News.

"We specifically chose people who could talk about unexpected, challenging, difficult, distressing, or functionally impairing experiences. We wanted to increase understanding around that. We feel that is really important for meditation research, as this field is growing," Lindahl explained.

The study was published online May 24 in PLOS ONE.

Unexpected Experiences

To better understand the range of experiences encountered among Western Buddhists who practice meditation, the researchers interviewed nearly 100 meditators and meditation teachers from each of three main traditions: Theravāda, Zen, and Tibetan.

The researchers analyzed the interviews using qualitative research methods and employed standardized causality assessment methods to ensure that meditation likely played a causal role in the documented experiences.

On the basis of these interviews, the researchers developed a taxonomy of 59 experiences organized into seven domains: cognitive, perceptual, affective (emotions and moods), somatic (relating to the body), conative (motivation or will), sense of self, and social.

All meditators reported multiple unexpected experiences across the seven domains of experience. For example, a commonly reported challenging experience in the perceptual domain was hypersensitivity to light or sound. Somatic changes, such as insomnia or involuntary body movements, were also reported.

Challenging emotional experiences included fear, anxiety, panic, or a loss of emotions altogether, the researchers note.

The duration of the effects people described in their interviews varied widely, ranging from a few days to months to more than a decade, the investigators report.

Some experiences were ostensibly desirable, such as feelings of unity or oneness with others, but some meditators reported their feelings went too far or lasted too long, or they felt violated, exposed, or disoriented.

Some individuals who had meditation experiences that felt positive during retreats reported that the persistence of these experiences interfered with their ability to function or work when they left the retreat and returned to normal life.

The researchers also identified categories of "influencing factors" or conditions that may affect the intensity, duration, or associated distress or impairment. "There is a range of influencing factors that are all part of the story and why certain phenomena may show up as distressing or negative for one person but not another," said Dr Lindahl.

Many meditation teachers cited the meditator's practice intensity, psychiatric history, or trauma history, and noted that the quality of supervision is important. However, these factors appeared to play a role only for some meditators.

"The results also challenge other common causal attributions, such as the assumption that meditation-related difficulties only happen to individuals with a preexisting condition (psychiatric or trauma history), who are on long or intensive retreats, who are poorly supervised, who are practicing incorrectly, or who have inadequate preparation," they note in their article.

Meditation Shopping

Study coauthor Willoughby Britton, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University, described the influencing factors they identified as "testable hypotheses" of what might affect a meditator's trajectory.

For example, future research could investigate whether certain types of practice are associated with different kinds of challenging experiences, or whether the degree of perceived social support influences the duration of distress and impairment.

"People have very different reasons for meditating, and they have different constitutions, and they might need a different kind of approach," Dr Britton told Medscape Medical News.

"The good news is that there are many different programs out there and different practices available, and with a little bit of homework and informed shopping, someone could find a really good match for what they are after," she said. "But I think often people just sign up for whatever is the most convenient or the best marketed, and it's not always a good match for their constitution or their goals."

"Our long-term hope is that this research, and the research that follows, can be used by the meditation community to create support systems for the full range of meditation-related experiences," Dr Britton said in a news release. "Really, the first step is acknowledging the diversity of experiences that different people can have."

PLoS One. Published online May 24, 2017. Full text

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