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The Dark Night of Mindfulness

I’ve received many benefits from my meditation practice.  Yet I’m skeptical about the vast positive claims the proponents of mindfulness meditation make.  It truly can’t be this good for everyone who undertakes it.

Today many teachers with little depth of understanding of the challenges meditators can face are leading students into practices that, while often very positive and relaxing, can lead a troubled mind into very dangerous places.

Just as a poorly trained yoga teacher can lead a student to physical injury,  an insensitive meditation teacher can introduce practices that add dangerous rumination to the challenges one may face.  This can be especially damaging to people with serious mental illness.

Even expert, world famous teachers have students who have come apart, some requiring hospitalization.  Meditation’s failures are rarely admitted by the mindfulness industry.  But an article in The Atlantic by Tomas Rocha details such failures.

Recent research published in PLOS One indicates that 25% of people who have meditated for at least two months have reported a particularly unpleasant psychological experience, such as anxiety, fear, distorted emotions or thoughts, or an altered sense of self or the world, while meditating.  Meditators who have practiced for years, or long periods of time during each sitting, had an even higher occurrence of challenging experiences.

Those most at risk include those who suffer from high levels of repetitive negative thinking, as do many with serious mental illness.

This is not to say that meditation cannot benefit those with a serious mental illness.  It saved my life from the ruin of bipolar disorder.  It just needs to be entered into carefully, and with support.

The negative research is limited in that all of the data is observational by the subject only and comes from self-report of the subjects, but difficulty while meditating should really come as no surprise.  Christian meditators have been writing about it for centuries as the dark night of the soul, and the Buddha spoke of his struggles with Mara, representative of all the negativity the mind can present the meditator.  Most faith traditions recogonize that suffering is universal, so of course people will suffer during meditation.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Meditation, as detailed in these faith traditions, affords the meditator the opportunity to successfully approach difficult emotions and thoughts.

However, many meditation teachers are ignorant of this history and see only the positive in the practice.  The positive is surely there, but for a person with a serious mental illness the path to positive results may be fraught with the deep horrors of the mind.

We must be careful of promoting therapies as having blanket, unquestioned benefit for everyone.  I fear we over-promote mindfulness meditation as too easy, and people who have bad experiences are left only to blame themselves for being “bad meditators,” getting little follow-up support even from some nationally recognized programs.  Those who enter into meditation through apps or on-line guidance get no support at all.

Anything people sell you as a cure-all should be met with skepticism.  Yes, meditation can yield very positive results to most who undertake it – including most people with mental illness.  But a measure of caution is always warranted.

Just as a personal trainer who works his client so hard that they can’t walk the next day is doing a disservice, so is the meditation teacher not prepared to admit that this is not for everyone.

If it all sounds too easy, it likely doesn’t work.  If when undertaken it seems too difficult, maybe one should stop.

Find a good teacher and trust yourself if you choose to practice.  Mindfulness, noticing your experiences and your environment, is a very positive thing.  Any practice in focused attention can help you:  Exercise, practicing a musical instrument, writing poetry, building model ships, or formal meditation practice.

There are many paths to the benefits of mindfulness.  Don’t take one that hurts.

The Dark Night of Mindfulness

George Hofmann

George is the author of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis, from Changemakers Books. Visit George's site or join the Facebook group Practicing Mental Illness

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APA Reference
Hofmann, G. (2019). The Dark Night of Mindfulness. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 24, 2020, from


Last updated: 4 Jun 2019
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