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Can Meditation be Dangerous?

This is a story of Zen master, professor, poet, and essayist, Louis Nordstrom. stripes

Over 35 years ago Louis renounced his tenure as a professor in philosophy and robed up to begin his life as a monk. In an NY Times interview with Chip Brown, Nordstrom conveyed some insights into the connection between his trauma and abandonment as a child that revealed a hidden motive in his work with meditation.

He said:

“The Zen experience of forgetting the self was very natural to me,” he told me last fall. “I had already been engaged in forgetting and abandoning the self in my childhood, which was filled with the fear of how unreal things seemed.”

For Nordstrom, meditation felt like a natural fit as there was a familiarity and calmness that came from detaching from thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It was attractive. However, his own depression and challenges continually arose throughout his life. He decided to go back to therapy.

In therapy he came to understand a subtle, yet subversive motive he had to engage in meditation. In one way he was using meditation to cover up the pain he felt from the past, and by detaching from his thoughts, feelings, and emotions, so there was no self, he was saving himself from the possibility of his “self” ever getting abandoned again as he had by his mother in childhood. In other words, by using meditation to abandon himself, he saved himself from feeling the overwhelming pain of being abandoned by another in relationship. In doing this, he remained walled off and alone even in his relationships, which can be an instigator for depression.

This is a very subtle nuance of meditation. You can feel emotional pain and just use the breath or another object of focus to dial that pain down. This can be skillful when pain is overwhelming, but if used always, can miss the insight and growth that occurs when we learn to understand and care for our pain. The gift of self-acceptance that comes from facing and being with our vulnerabilities.

In returning to therapy he recognized something vital to his healing:

“One of the most important insights I got from therapy with Jeffrey [the therapist] is that subconsciously I want the depth of my suffering to be witnessed by someone.”

So many of us, deep down, just want to be seen and acknowledged. Therapy and authentic friendships (which can be hard to come by since so many of us are unaware of our emotional triggers), can be a great source of having our pain understood, validated, and accepted.

Practicing mindfulness meditation is not about detaching and forgetting ourselves. It is about “being with” whatever is arising in the moment. We are attempting to pay attention to ourselves, on purpose, and when judgments arise (e.g., this is good/bad, right/wrong, fair/unfair), seeing if we can notice those, let them be and just bring ourselves back to the experience of connecting with ourselves, not disconnecting. Practicing mindfulness meditation in service of connection can be a wonderful source of healing.

From a mindfulness and psychotherapy perspective we are not trying disconnect from ourselves, but instead, become aware of all the history and experience that influences us today, remembering our life so we can cultivate insight into how it affects us intrapersonally and interpersonally in our relationships. We can learn to hold our past wounds in a nonjudgmental way, cultivating compassion and love for ourselves.

In the end, Louis Nordstrom was able to integrate the insights from therapy with his Zen practice. His journey of insight through his practice and therapy can be a great teacher to us all as we continue on our own paths through mindfulness and mental health.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Can Meditation be Dangerous?

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is creator of the six month online program A Course in Mindful Living, author of the book Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion, The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Mindfulness Meditations for the Anxious Traveler: Quick Exercises to Calm Your Mind, the premier eCourse Basics of Mindfulness Meditation: A 28 Day Program, the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations. Join The Now Effect Community for free Daily Now Moments and a Weekly Newsletter. Dr. Goldstein is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles.

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APA Reference
Goldstein, E. (2014). Can Meditation be Dangerous?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 31 Oct 2014
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